Should chip timing be done at the finish AND start of races?

Posted by Filed Under: Polls

This article contains background for the poll. [poll=10]

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. Putting All the (Timing) Chips On the Table : Complete Running Network on April 8th at 10:56 am

    […] Note: We’ve created a poll to go along with Ian’s post. Click here to […]

  2. Peter on April 8th at 1:30 pm

    Race directors do what they can to bring races to you that you can run to stay fit and remain honest in your training. Most of them are volunteers, and your entry fees don’t cover his/her time. Did you volunteer dozens of hours last year, or did you spend those dozens of hours last year on training or on nothing.

    Peter’s last blog post..Finally got in my twenty

  3. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on April 8th at 6:47 pm

    This isn’t a fair question.

    Obviously if it is within the races budget then they should provide mats at both the start and the finish.

    However, if it is a choice between just the finish or not having any chip timing, should they just go back to the old tear off a tag from your bib method so as not to piss off a few people?

    If it bothers you that much, start your own race and provide mats as often as you like. You can justify the higher expense of your race by telling people that you will have both net and gun time.

    I certainly prefer having mats in both places, but I am not going to get up in arms because a race doesn’t want to raise entrance fees and doesn’t want to take money away from the race beneficiary in order to provide two mats.

  4. Mark Iocchelli on April 8th at 8:44 pm

    Hi Blaine,

    You can blame me for the question in this poll – I was merely (and quickly) trying to distill Ian’s post into something very brief. I felt that referring to the article was enough to give the poll the context provided there.

    You have raised the issue of cost a couple of times. Others, including a fellow from a race directing organization, seem to be implying cost is not such a big deal.

    To get a better handle on this issue, I’d really like to get some data as to what the costs ARE. Do you have such numbers? Maybe if we all had a better appreciation, we’d share your opinion (or get closer to it). Are things black and white or shades of grey?

    Thanks. 🙂

  5. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on April 9th at 8:18 am


    My problem with this question isn’t what is being asked. It’s the way it’s being asked. The question is loaded to get 1 specific result that does break things into an either or situation. Obviously people are going to prefer to get a start and finish line mat if they have the choice. But if the choice is between a finish line mat only or no mat, or even no race, wouldn’t you still go with a finish line mat?

    I don’t have specific numbers to hand right now. I remember that we decided in our races to go with gun time for the finish for a few reasons, but I didn’t keep those numbers to hand and we canceled the race this year so I haven’t had any reason to be involved in getting a recent quote.

    Basically, our race was 1 mile, was only a few hundred people, and there just didn’t seem to be a huge need for it. It only took a couple of seconds for everybody to get over the line.

    Along with the higher cost, you also have to look at the increased complexity of the results and the higher likelihood of inaccuracies. Chips are certainly better than entering things by hand, but they aren’t perfect (as evidenced by all the problems last year in hawaii where thousands of people didn’t even get a finish time let along net or split times.)

    I will check around to see if I have any numbers available, but since I didn’t get the quote I doubt I have anything for our particular race. I just remember that it would have involved us finding another sponsor or raising entrance fees. This year, we lost our principle sponsor and couldn’t find anybody to step up to the plate, so it seemed as though it wasn’t worth putting the race on.

  6. Mark Iocchelli on April 9th at 10:05 am

    But if the choice is between a finish line mat only or no mat, or even no race, wouldn’t you still go with a finish line mat?

    I think you and I disagree on what Ian is concerned about in his post. My interpretation is that he has no problem with a race that doesn’t have any chip timing at all. I think what he is basically saying is that to have only one mat is missleading – runners go into the race thinking they are being measure from mat to mat and that is not the case. With that in mind, I think the way the question was worded is fine. But, the beauty of the web is that you are free to disagree.

    I am guessing that if you only have one mat, and people know this, a couple of unfortunate things happen (due to people wanting accurate measurement and result listings):

    1. They don’t enter the race. They go somewhere else that has both mats.
    2. They line up as close to the start as they can, not caring about getting in front of the faster runners.

    I don’t think you can blame people for wanting to be measured from mat to mat. This is perhaps a reality of the age we live in – we expect more from races.

    Of course, some races are very small. In those cases, I could see people lowering their expectations. Maybe there is value in dividing the discussion into the size of the race?

    Anyway, I’m not “up in arms” but I do think that each “side” has valid points.

  7. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on April 9th at 10:28 am

    For myself, I would say that at least 90% of the chipped races I run in only have a gun mat. The races that have 2 mats are either marathons with at least 500 people (plus 1000 runners in other races that start at the same time such as a 10k or half marathon) or shorter races with at least 3000 runners. I can’t think of any other local races that use two mats.

  8. Mark Iocchelli on April 9th at 10:32 am

    Ha! I guess this is where personal experience comes in. Most races I have done this past few years have been 1/2 marathons and marathons and all have had both mats.

    That said, this article was based on a 5k. I am not sure about the number of people that were in that one.

  9. Ian on April 9th at 10:48 am

    The 5K mentioned in my article had around 500 runners, but the starting gate was a little narrow and it took a while for everyone to cross. I have no problem with smaller races only using one mat or not chip timing it at all in cases where everyone can get through the start quickly. My issue really comes in when larger races advertise themselves as being chip timed but are only using the chips to record a finish time. Had I known in advance that only one mat would be used at the finish I would have skipped the race altogether or tried to get across the start faster.

    It has always been my assumption, and I don’t think it’s an outlandish one, that the purpose of chip timing technology was to benefit middle and back-of-the-packers in larger events.

    Ian’s last blog post..Site News

  10. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on April 9th at 11:29 am

    It has always been my assumption that the purpose of chip timing was to provide faster, more accurate results.

  11. Jon (was) in Michigan on April 9th at 2:01 pm

    I’m not really sure there is much accuracy in the results for a single mat race, except for those toeing the line at the start. The rest of the runners who are walking to the start line will get a time that is a combination of actual race time and time to reach the start line. You might at well include the time they spent using the bathroom before the race.

    Given a choice between one mat and no mats, I would take no mats. I’ve run in no-mat and one-mat races and I found the no-mat race to have essentially the same result as the one-mat race. I timed them both myself and got my real race time. The matted race cost me more to enter, so I’d say that wasn’t really worth. I would skip a one-mat race in the future because its a waste of money for me.

    I think the only people that are really going to argue in favor of matted races are the folks who naturally are at the front of the pack. They benefit from it. The rest of us don’t.

    Jon (was) in Michigan’s last blog post..Into the dark

  12. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on April 9th at 6:53 pm

    Once again, this is why I think this is a loaded question designed to only get one answer. Obviously, two mats are better than one, and I don’t deny that. I’m just pointing out that 1 mat is better than no mats and I’m not suggesting that a race should only use one mat ever.

    As for the accuracy, I’m talking about taking out human error and inefficiencies, not changing people’s times as they cross.

    When you have somebody pushing a button when somebody crosses, it’s easy. The person crosses, a volunteer pushes a button, another volunteer yells out the number (this may be the same one that pushes the button) and yet another volunteer writes that number down. Then after the run walks a little bit, he tears off the tag and gives it to somebody else, who then has to collect the rest of the numbers and run them over to somebody who manually inputs the numbers into a computer. Once enough people have passed through, then somebody has to then go in an enter all of the times, unless the timer’s button is connected to the computer. Races around here that don’t use mats aren’t that fancy though.

    That’s when 1 person crosses the line at a time. When 5 or 10 or 20 people cross the line w/i a span of a couple of seconds, it gets really difficult. First, somebody has to push the button the right number of times for the number of runners that cross the line. If they miss one, or they push it an extra time, everybody behind that person then winds up with the wrong time without being manually fixed. (The races that I’ve worked get around this by adding another volunteer to work a second button on a different machine. Which adds more work because then somebody has to reconcile the two times and the number of finishers between them, as well as decide which one has the “more” accurate time if they are different.)

    Once the person has pushed the button, the runners have to be reminded to keep moving or else the finish line backs up. They also have to stay in the correct order. They also have to have their tags kept in the same order once they are handed off. Recording their times is no more difficult than when one person comes through the line, at least.

    It’s a lot of work, there’s a lot of margin for error, correcting those errors is time consuming, and the runners are pissed because results are taking a long time to be put together.

    Now enter chip timing. With two mats it is great, I’m not going to argue against that. With just a gun mat, though, you still eliminate the need for 90% of your volunteers who had specific duties other than to just help runners at the finish line. Make that 80% because it’s nice to use a few of those people to help get chips off of shoes or ankles so that the runner doesn’t have to bend over. The results go directly into the computer as the runner crosses, you don’t have to wait for results for nearly as long, there is less of a chance for there to be an error, and when there is an error it usually won’t affect anybody except for the person who had a bad chip instead of everybody behind that person.

    So why is having 1 mat a bad thing? I think it is a good thing. Having 2 mats is a better thing, yes. But 1 mat is still a good thing.

    I don’t know how often you have volunteered at your local races, but I have worked almost every aspect of the finish line from a director who helps puts things together to the random volunteer removing chips from ankles to the guy that pushes the button as people cross the line to the person that just encourages runners to keep moving and who helps anybody that is in difficulty. I will admit, I’ve never had to be the guy typing the numbers into the computer manually, and obviously I’ve also been the runner crossing the finish line.

    Maybe the 2 local timing companies that we have up here are professional enough to have things running pretty well and you are only used to people who can’t set the mats up right and have all of the same problems as a chipless race. Up here, though, finish lines tend to be both wide and long, roped off so runners can’t leave, plenty of buckets for chips with between 1 and 3 volunteers at each bucket to take your chip off your ankle for you (both local companies use them on the ankles instead of the shoe) and everything usually runs pretty smoothly.

  13. Lacey on April 9th at 8:47 pm

    I’ve been at more than one race that advertised as ‘chip timed’ and only had one mat. I’ve been irked by it, too, because I am a rear of the pack runner and therefore a lot of people are in front of me. It didn’t make much of a difference at a 10k where there were only about 100-200 people, but at the last 4 mi run I did it took me almost two minutes to get to the starting ling. It was a PR for me, but I don’t actually know what my real time was now. So, it will be hard for me to know if my next 4 mi race is a PR or not, especially if it is also a one mat race. Kind of makes it a little more difficult to compete with myself, and can be a bummer if you are expecting the two mats.

    This does, actually, now affect what races I choose to enter.

  14. Eric on April 10th at 5:45 am

    I don’t agree with the one mat is better than no mats argument. I think that, although more work, old methods could come up with a better time. If it takes you 20-30 seconds (over even 10-15) to cross the start in a 5k, there goes the PR.

    If I’m choosing between 1 mat or no mat, I go no mat.

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

  15. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on April 10th at 7:06 am

    I have trouble understanding why you would choose no mat over 1 mat other than that it irks you that you have a chip but don’t get a net time. It isn’t going to get you over the starting line any faster, and you will still have only a gun time, although now you may not even get that and it will take longer for you to find out after you finish running anyway.

  16. Tina on April 14th at 10:35 am

    I feel that if you are going to invest in Chip timing for a race you should get it at the start and finish. Whoever is organizing the race should care enough about those participating to do both and get returning runners next year. If you are not going to have chip timing or just chip timing at the end then you should call it a fun run… no stress and no numbers unless you keep track of them yourself. I live in a little town in Northern California but our Local Running store is one of the best in this half of the state. They are dedicated to its runners including having a fun and fair race each year.

    Tina’s last blog post..Where is Margaritaville again?

  17. RunColo on June 6th at 11:20 am

    This is a loaded question. Because the people voting are spending another persons money. It’s the same reason people vote for politicans who support bringing federal dollars into there area (see the “bridge to no where”).

    A better question would be “Would you be willing to pay slightly more on a race entry fee in order to have chip timing at the start/finish”

    Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own. Nobody uses somebody else’s resources as carefully as he uses his own. So if you want efficiency and effectiveness, if you want knowledge to be properly utilized, you have to do it through the means of private property. – Milton Friedman

  18. Brandon on June 6th at 11:44 am

    I agree with Tina. If you’ve paid your race entry fee, and it’s advertised that there’s chip timing, it needs to be complete – start and finish. Let the race organizers figure out the price point for it, but if they show up with only one mat, they are delivering a partial solution to the timing problem.


    Brandon’s last blog post..Heart Walk Event – we need your HELP!

  19. Survey Says! on June 18th at 8:31 pm

    […] is an example of a loaded poll question. Asking whether or not chip timing should be done at the start and finish […]

  20. aaron OBrien on February 22nd at 6:26 am

    My local track club hosts fantastic events but lacks a chip timing at the START (finish only). I have heard many complaints from those who start n th back as well as those who have to try to cram uo to the front.

    I am told the system costs “a million dollars” — this can’t be, can it?

    Question: how much does it cost to purchase an integrated start and finish timing system?

  21. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on February 22nd at 4:22 pm

    It won’t cost a million dollars, but the type of chip timing system determines the cost and it can get pricy, especially if you are using an older technology that you are trying to upgrade.

    Blaine Moore (Run to Win)s last blog post..Registration Opens for New York » Expenses Guaranteed

  22. aaron OBrien on March 5th at 7:11 pm

    Does anybody have specific numbers as to the cost of a two mat timing system? Anyone ever bought one or upgraded from a one mat?

  23. Joe B on March 23rd at 10:33 pm

    I am familiar with costs involved in race timing systems. They are very expensive to purchase initially and have additional costs in the timing chips themselves. Investment is 10’s of thousands per system. For a local timing company or running club to purchase one system it would require a huge commitment especially if they only do 300 person races. To purchase 2 systems they need to be timing the larger races to be able to get a payback – ROI.

    The question of two mats vs one is really a decision for the event if they want to pay for the additional mat. Things to consider are expected field size and width of the start line. If you have 500 people lined up across 30 feet of start line it only takes half minute or less to get to the start line, and that’s the last runner/walker. Usually the fast runners are in the front and the slower runners are in the back so you are starting with your competition at your side anyway. The reason an event will decide to have one mat over pull tag timing is accuracy as was explained so well above by Blaine. Less headaches, instant results, = happy finishers. The last thing an early finisher wants is to wait for everyone to finish, then wait some more as the timing company has to make adjustments to the finish file because 5 bandits decided to cheap out and not pay for participation or the volunteer pushing the button didn’t quite do it right. Most runners want the results soon so they can move on to the next thing on their list of things to do on that Saturday morning.

    Another argument for finish line mat only is USATF Rule 245 Finishline Recording and Timing which states: “The timers shall start their watches or timing devices at the flash/smoke of the pistol or approved apparatus or at the first moment a competitor crosses the start line, whichever happens first. The official time shall be the time elapsed between the start of the watches or timing devices resulting from an appropriate start signal and the athlete reaching the finish line. However, the actual time elapsed between and athlete reaching the starting line and the finish line can be made known to the athlete, but will not be considered official time.”

    That being said, Chip Start to Chip Finish is a wonderul thing but please realize it is more expensive to provide and more expensive for the race to have. The races that offer Gun Start to Chip Finish are giving the participants a better experience with very accuate results usually presented during the race and then after the last finisher, with final results. Most chip timers post these results online within hours after the race giving the participant and even better experience.

    So if a race is only giving one mat for finish line timing they are improving their race. They need your support. If the race continues the grow they just might be able to offer two mats next time.