Putting All the (Timing) Chips On the Table

Posted by Filed Under: News and Opinion

timing chipsChip timed races are becoming increasingly more popular, but apparently not everyone knows how to use this technology best. Or, perhaps I just have different ideas about how to best utilize it.

It used to be that only the larger races used timing chips, but I recently ran a local 5K with 167 other participants that was chip timed. I assume that the cost of providing a chip timed event has decreased significantly over the last few years. Combine that with our society’s demand for quicker and more accurate information and you can see why chip timed races are making the finishing chute/tearing the barcode on your bib a thing of the past.

Like many new technologies, with the possible exception of Windows Vista, timing chips have made our lives easier. Unfortunately, as with many new technologies, they only make things easier if the technology is used correctly. The point of chip timing races is to provide an accurate time to all participants. This is particularly helpful to those of us middle-of-the-pack runners who sometimes take 40–50 seconds, or longer, to get through the starting gate. No one wants to give up 40–50 seconds because, let’s face it, those seconds are important. We work hard for those seconds, and a 40 second reduction in your 5K PR is usually the product of a lot of hard work. It could be argued that this technology also benefits the elite runners because without it I know I’m a lot more tempted to line up at the front and then bust out of the gate at a much slower pace than everyone behind me.

My wife recently ran a 5K that claimed to be chip timed and I was there to provide encouragement. Unfortunately, my wife was a little late in arriving at the starting area and ended up near the back of the pack. It took her a little over a minute after the gun fired to get across the starting line. Now you might be thinking, “well that sucks, but at least she still got a chip time,” but you’d be wrong. It just sucks. At this particular event, the race organizers had placed a timing mat at the finish only. It was therefore assumed, just like it was back in the olden days of the Nike Waffle, that the runners had all started when the gun went off. The lone timing mat was placed at the finish line where it was used to capture everyone’s gun time. For the ease of calculations, let’s assume that my wife took 62 seconds to cross the starting line. In a 5K, that represents a pace miscalculation of 20 seconds. It means that you could run a 5K at a 9:48 pace and end up with an official time that gives you a 10:08 pace.

In a sport where we work tirelessly to shave seconds, not only were the runners at this event cheated out of a valuable minute, but they also ran a longer race. Consider how far behind the starting line they were when the gun sounded, 50 meters, 100 meters? It may not seem like much, and truth be told they might not have been running during that span, but those people were timed over a further distance in their 5K than the elite runners who were toeing the line.

Initially, I didn’t think this was a big deal. But the more I think about it, the more it irks me. Making matters worse, it doesn’t appear to be a once off thing. I mentioned it on my blog thinking it was something that only happened once in a blue moon, but I received numerous responses indicating that many others had also encountered this. I want to bring this to the attention of the readers of CRN to find out if this has ever happened to any of you, and to get your thoughts on this practice. As a middle of the pack runner myself, it’s a practice I’d rather see go the way of the Nike Waffle, and I don’t mean that I hope it starts making a comeback 30 years down the road.

Editor’s Note: We’ve created a poll to go along with Ian’s post. Click here to participate.

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About Ian

Hello, my name is Ian and I'm a runner. After several years of promising to train for and run the Bolder Boulder 10K I finally signed up for it in 2005 with zero training under my belt. Shocked that I was slower than I thought I should be, I made it my goal to be faster the following year. I'm still not as fast as I should be, but I have been a runner ever since. I believe in quality miles over quantity of miles. I believe that you have to run faster in order to run faster, and I believe that I can. I believe in the Garmin. I believe in motion control and that I have an unhealthy addiction to running shoes. I believe in carb loading and tapering, even before a 5K. I believe I’ll never need to buy another t-shirt ever again. I live to run and I run for the post race spread, where the free food and drink flows like milk and honey, and sometimes even includes milk and honey.

  1. curly su on April 8th at 5:06 am

    You know, that’s happened to me a couple times in the past few months….once at a HUGE 5k that I actually ran really well, so it’s kind of annoying to have no idea what my actual pace was…and then recently at a 10m race, which was only about 20 seconds off…but still…we runners are definitely type A, and this kind of stuff just feels unfair and unacceptable…especially when we’re using chips. Why bother with them if you’re not going to do it right??

    curly su’s last blog post..Something is different.

  2. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on April 8th at 7:10 am

    I don’t see any problem whatsoever with only having a timing mat at the finish line.

    Yes, it is nice to have a timing mat at the start and to have a net time. Hell, it’s nice to have timing mats at regular intervals so that you can get accurate split times.

    The problem is that it costs a lot more money to have more than 1 timing mat, it complicates the process of getting the results put together, and it introduces a much larger margin for error.

    The races that use chips with a finishing mat only are still better off than ones that only physical bibs, and the timing is the same as it would have been if they didn’t have the mats. This way, though, the finish results are more accurate against the gun time and the finishing order, there is a lot less work, and the results are available a lot sooner.

    What is so wrong with that?

    If the race can afford it, and it certainly becomes easier (and more necessary) the larger the race is, then by all means I think that they should use both mats. But if the choice is between just a finish mat or not using chip timing, I’d rather see the chips get used.

  3. Candis on April 8th at 7:29 am

    If a race can only afford 1 mat and I’m only getting a ‘gun time’ they should advertise it at sign up. I want to know before, so that I can be on the front line. We use these races to qualify for other races. They should be absolutely accurate.

    Candis’s last blog post..Your Millionaire Bachelorette Party

  4. Mark Iocchelli on April 8th at 7:43 am

    One of the points of etiquette we runners are taught is that we should line up in a suitable location based on how fast/slow we are. That way, we don’t get in the way of the speedsters.

    The problem I see with not having two points of measurement is that it encourages us ALL to start as close as we can to the start line.

    You can’t blame people for wanting an accurate measurement of their time – no matter how slow they are in relation to the front of the pack.

  5. Robin on April 8th at 8:22 am

    First, Vista is a fine OS. Pull your media induced blinders up and you’ll find a good OS with nice new features. Granted, it won’t work on your five year old computer, but you shouldn’t expect it to.

    Second, I agree that if an event has chip times, it should be assumed that there is a mat at the beginning and end of the race. I recently ran a half-marathon, and didn’t have the mat at the beginning of our race, which cost only 20 seconds or so of my overall time. Short of having my name announced at the end I didn’t see a point of having the timing chip wrapped around my ankle.

  6. David M. Patt on April 8th at 8:36 am

    Only having one mat in a chip race serves no purpose. It merely allows the race organizers to avoid having to recruit a finish line crew. It’s not really a chip race.

    A chip race should have mats at the start and finish – and one at the farthest point on the course, to deter cheaters. If you can’t afford more than one mat then don’t use the chip.

  7. Should chip timing be done at the finish AND start of races? : Complete Running Network on April 8th at 10:54 am

    […] This poll accompanies this article. […]

  8. Duff on April 8th at 12:47 pm

    Lets do this by the numbers:
    1. Windows Vista is just another OS. We all said the same thing about XP, and 2000/ME. And don’t get me started about 98.
    B. It is rediculous to have a chip mat at just the finish line. Even with one mat it can be moved to the Finish line very easily. I have seen it done. Actually I didn’t see it. I was running where the mat was removed from the start and placed at the finish line. I believe it was even done at the Akron Marathon. That may have been because the course re-crosses up on the start line.
    III. I think we got a little spoiled about the chip timing thing. We used to be okay with just losing that 15 seconds. It was a part of not being a gazzelle (elite like). My father told me that when he ran the Marine Marathon in ’83 he just ate that 5-8 minutes before he crossed the start line. Admit it. Sometimes it is nice to have a race without them. It is kind of like roughing it.
    4. What is up with having to remove your “rented” chip right after a race. I did this once and almost fell on my face. It probably would have been an improvment. Aftert that I bought one. The $20 investment pays for itself in the lack of vertigo.
    E. You aren’t kidding about the distance from start point to start line. I walked nearlly a mile from the train at the Pentagon to my start point at the Marine Marathon. Then is was another quarter mile to get to the start line. Not only do the gazelles not have the extra distance but they only run for a couple of hours where the people around me ran for twice as long. 🙂
    Off my soap box now. TTFN

    Duff’s last blog post..Space’s Victory:Jog into Spring Race Report

  9. Jon (was) in Michigan on April 8th at 1:56 pm

    I have run in a finish-mat-only race. I agree that the only purpose is to eliminate finish line crews. Its a simple way to mark when you finish, and my bet is that it is a cheaper rate (from the timing company) than having two mats and running that particular software.

    To be honest, the races really only care about the times for the winners, not the rest of the pack. Think about it. Does it make sense to have staggered pace groups at the starting line of a 5K with only a finish mat? Only if you want the slower folks out of the way for the gazelles. Basically it says to the rest of the racers “Your time is inconsequential to this race. We are only interested in putting forth effort for those standing right on the line at the start.”

    The reason they don’t mention that it is a finish-mat-only race is because only gazelles would sign up. Can’t pay for a race that way.

    Sorry for the cynical comment, but for $35 I think two mats is reasonable, or don’t bother with it at all. I have no patience for the cheapskate races.

    Jon (was) in Michigan’s last blog post..long weekend

  10. Jon (was) in Michigan on April 8th at 2:12 pm


    Installing Windows Vista on your computer is like installing a garbage disposal in your fish tank. Sure it looks cool, but don’t ever turn it on.

    Jon (was) in Michigan’s last blog post..long weekend

  11. Andrew is getting fit on April 8th at 4:17 pm

    If the organisers can afford it then they should have both. The gun time is the offical time for results which is fair enough but I love knowing my stats so if the race is chipped then I want to know exactly how fast (slow) I’ve run.

    Andrew is getting fit’s last blog post..Run around the volcano

  12. Chad on April 8th at 8:14 pm

    I would gladly run in a finish line mat only race. At least you get a time and don’t have to worry about some volunteer who doesn’t care screwing it up (not to knock volunteers because without them there would be no races). If you are so concerned about getting a correct time, than get a watch. They are cheap and you have total control over recording your time, splits, heart rate and whatever else you care to measure to the nth degree.

    If you are running a qualifying race, than by all means go to the front and make people pass you. If you are fast enough to actually make the qualifying times, then you actually aren’t that much of a hindrance at the front anyway. Those of us who aren’t fast enough to qualify can just go by our watch time.

    Chad’s last blog post..Weekend

  13. Jeanne on April 9th at 2:40 pm

    you say vista, i say leopard.

    I’m so glad i talked you into writing this ian!

  14. Audrey on April 9th at 3:51 pm

    I did a chip timed race last Sunday and there was only a finishing mat. I was aiming to go under 54 minutes for the 10k, and had worked hard for it. Being a slower runner, I started mid pack so I didn’t hold up the racers. My “official” time was 55.25, disappointing apart from the fact I was wearing a Garmin and I know my 10k time was 53.48. Goal achieved. I’m not a great runner, I work hard for any little bit of improvement, and to get slugged because I don’t cross the start line at the time the gun goes off isn’t fair.


    Audrey’s last blog post..Off Leash Dog Parks

  15. Running With Dogs » More Rest Happening Here on April 9th at 4:11 pm

    […] the start line. There’s an interesting article on races where only the finish is chip timed here and I can’t help but agree with it. Speaking of, here’s a couple of photos of the day. […]

  16. Eric on April 10th at 5:52 am

    Chad… The only thing I would say to your post is this (and I wear a watch at all my races). The point of the race, for me, is to see how I improve over time (or decline). So, having an accurate measurement by the race is important to me, even if I have my own time on a watch. It’s pretty basic to what a race should provide.

    Eric’s last blog post..Early Morning Running…

  17. Runatthemouth on April 14th at 12:44 pm

    I hadn’t run into this practice until just yesterday. I ran a teeny 5K with less than 60 people in it. It’s pretty clear that using the chip has benefits to the race sponsor – you cut down the number of volunteers you need to recruit and manage and it makes it much less of a hassle to post the times. For the runners, having the times posted right after the race is a real benefit.

    I ultimately decided that I’d rather see the money from my race proceeds go to the non-profit organization who sponsored the race.

    Runatthemouth’s last blog post..Race report – Run for the wildlife

  18. Mom On The Run on April 29th at 7:32 pm

    “Like many new technologies, with the possible exception of Windows Vista, timing chips have made our lives easier”

    LOL – I am seriously laughing my arse off at that line (as I sit and type this on my Windows Vista powered laptop). So unbelievably true!

  19. RunColo on June 6th at 11:13 am

    Having one timing mat also gives the middle/back of the pack runners to try to move up to the front of the line, hindering the faster runners.

  20. IHateToast on July 2nd at 1:59 pm

    i think it’s not a “yes mat/no mat” question; it depends on too many things. larger races should have them (10 min for me to cross start at Lulu 06), but smaller, low-budget races should not be asked to front up the dollaridoos. some races need to get their reputation built up before they can afford the mat–more racers, more fees, mats more affordable.

    no race should rely on mats alone. there have been glitches. if you don’t have a crew at the end with the back up plan, you’ll be the next thread on a bitchy forum.

    eh. so in my own little nutshell (macadamia, they’re hardest to crack), i’d say that mats at the start should be at crowded races. if it takes too long to cross, then what is the point of computer timing at the end? if it’s smallish and if gun time/chip time wouldn’t be too different, why bother? save the money for the charity they’re supposedly sponsoring. if we worry about our times for our own training diaries, rely on your watch. we can’t cripple ourselves by relying on technology at every step.

    IHateToast’s last blog post..I’m not a great runner, but I have potential

  21. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on July 2nd at 7:35 pm

    if it takes too long to cross, then what is the point of computer timing at the end? if it’s smallish and if gun time/chip time wouldn’t be too different, why bother?

    Uhm, because you can get the same information, except that it’s faster, more accurate, and requires fewer volunteers?

    Trust me, if it’s a largish race that is being hand typed up, then your going to get even more bitching on message boards about how slow and messed up the results were than you will about people complaining there was no starting mat and that there shouldn’t be chip timing at all.

    Blaine Moore (Run to Win)’s last blog post..Weekly Back Cove Race Series » Week 8

  22. Open Letter to Race Directors Everywhere : Complete Running Network on September 9th at 12:02 am

    […] timing is within your budget, it is something that many runners appreciate. So as to not re-open a certain can of worms again let me just say that you should disclose whether you’re going to place timing mats at […]

  23. Russ on October 16th at 6:34 am

    I think the lesson is…if you’re running competitively: be on time to the race.

    Most of the time, I don’t care what they publish. I race with a watch and that’s what I use for my records–regardless of whether the race organizers use gun time or chip time.

    Most of the races in our area, if you’re running for prizes or medals it’s based on gun time–just like the elites.

    Russs last blog post..2008 Chicago Marathon

  24. Anna Richard on March 8th at 6:52 pm

    It depends. Vista came out buggy at first and it took a lot of patches for it to be a good OS. Leopard is nice but it is still overly simplistic for me.

  25. Affordable Software on March 15th at 5:53 am

    My buddy is into racing like this and he said that he used to slow down 1/4th of the speed at about half way to create a better finish.

    Affordable Softwares last blog post..Sneak Peek at Yellow Bear

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