It’s All in the Timing

Generously contributed by John Anderson, David Corn, Chris Cutler and Terry Wilmoth

You’ve trained hard, you’ve eaten right and gotten a good night’s sleep. You arrive early and hit the Porta Potty in plenty of time before the race. You’ve stretched, run out your jitters and pinned on your bib (on the front, please). The call comes for runners to head to the starting line. The gun goes off and you and your fellow racers take off as one in that beautiful motion that is running.

And all the while another team has been hard at work to ensure that you have a smooth start and finish and can quickly find out how you did. This is, of course, the race timing team.

So what goes into timing a race?

A little history

Of course, in its simplest form, it’s clocking how fast each runner finishes the set course. Race timing has changed dramatically over the years, from getting a popsicle stick as you crossed the finish line to today’s lightning-fast technology.

“Fast runners and wanna-be fast runners would pack the starting line to get the best possible gun start time,” says David Corn, a member of the Twin City Track Club race timing team. “This crowding sometimes caused tripping and always an overly fast start.”

At other times the bibs had perforated tags on the bottom that the runner or a volunteer would tear off and place on a wire clothes hanger to run into the results tent to be entered carefully and in sequence manually by one of the timing crew. An old-school tower computer was lugged around to each race. Times were recorded by a small timing machine that is sometimes still used for manual timing.

“Chip timing changed everything,” says David.

In early days, expensive chips were removed and reused, but as technology improved so did the experience for runners and the timing team. Today runners start where they want to and know they’ll be timed from the moment they cross the line. They get results instantaneously via text. It’s a whole new experience.

“The equipment has gotten more sophisticated and faster. The timers older and slower!” jokes John Anderson, another member of the team.

Roles on the team

Depending on the size of the race, there are a few roles on the team. There is a primary race timer and a backup race timer for all races. Most races, except very small ones, will also have a manual race timer and perhaps a spotter to assist the manual timer.

“And most important but little acknowledged is the individual charged with bringing the timing trailer filled with our equipment to the race,” says David. “This person may or may not be a part of the timing team, but without this vital piece we cannot work.”

There are multiple levels of timing backup capabilities to ensure that if there is a problem the team can recover quickly and it affects only them, not the results for runners.

Timing a race

The actual process of timing a race involves a lot of checking and rechecking. There is a pre-race setup of the database with registrants, awards and the like. On race day, the team validates and backs up registrations and makes last-minute updates to the database. They assist with hardware setup—computers, antennas, printer, etc. They monitor the results during the race and compare primary and backup records to see if anything is missing. They push results to the website, correcting as necessary.

Finally, they print the results for the race director, back up the database and pack up the timing equipment.

What can be challenging about race timing?

“There isn’t enough space on the internet to document that,” says John.

“Anything can happen,” David agrees. “Anyone who has a computer or a cell phone knows that technology can at times be fickle. Since ‘stuff happens,’ we have two of everything, a primary and a backup.”

Weather can act up. Sometimes runners will pin their race numbers on their backs, creating problems for the antennas reading the chip embedded in the bib. Last-minute changes from race directors can throw things off. A family of runners might be wearing each other’s race bibs. Occasionally a spectator leaning into cheer for his or her favorite runner might knock over an antenna. A generator powering the timing trailer could run out of gas.

“A race is organized chaos,” says David. Technology can fail and people—runners, volunteers, spectators—can do some odd things.

Race distance and the speed of the fastest runners in a race can add complexity and stress to timing, notes Terry Wilmoth, another member of the team. “For instance, if you have a 5K with 4- to 5-minute pace runners, then you only have 12-15 minutes to fix an issue before the first runner comes to the finish line. With a longer race or slower runners, you get more time to fix issues.”

“Timers need the ability to understand the big picture as to how all the components fit together and possible solutions for when things don’t work as anticipated,” adds Chris Cutler, who coordinates the assignment of timers for TCTC races and those the club is contracted to time. “With experience comes the ability to troubleshoot and quickly resolve issues when they arise. Having a fully staffed team on race day means there is more brain power to draw upon to right the ship when things start to go sideways.”

And what’s fun?

“Drinking beer,” jokes John. “And cheering for the finishers.”

David agrees, adding, “Working a race is fun. We are all runners and know what a well-run race looks like. We are all willing to help each other out to get the job done, and this creates not only positive results but a friendly atmosphere of camaraderie. And second, there is an energy around a race that comes from the runners. Some are excited, some are expectant, some are nervous. All these emotions energize all of us working the event. The atmosphere at a race is a good one and makes the timing crew want to make their race a good experience.”

Want to join the timing crew?

You can join the fun, with or without the beer, by contacting Chris Cutler or Er Ralston. “Contact Chris or me,” says Er, “And we’ll get them set up.” You can also visit the SignUpGenius timer volunteer page.