One of your core race day services is timing.
There is no race if the race promoter does not present a way for people to win.
This makes timing the method to which you ultimately decide who won, and who lost.
It is your essential tool in race day arbitration.
This makes you, as the race promoter, a neutral party to all competitors, enforcing the rules of your course, and providing an unbiased accounting of everyone’s time across the finish line.
Sometimes there are officials that step in to take on that role, but in the end, it is the race promoter that takes the heat if things go wrong.
In this day and age, there are all sorts of racers supplementing the race time with their own timing system.
Garmin, Strava, and Nike all give racers a very personal way to record individual effort.
However, in a race, those tools are not “official”, and therefore do not count against the time the race promoter records.
For the modern race timer, these personal timers can cause problems.
The more technology individual racers have in their pocket, the harder it is for race promoters to meet expectations.
The expectation that you recorded their time correctly and accurately.
If your time does not meet their time, you’re a dummy.
Once upon a time, race timing accuracy used to be straightforward.
Finishers were listed in order of their finish time, and nothing else.
Now with smartphone apps and GPS tracking devices, the time the individual racer logs will far more accurate than the time the race promoter logs.
This tends to rub some racers the wrong way.
They think the time they record should be the same as the time you do. If it’s not, then your race time must be wrong.
If your race time is wrong, then your timing system is suspect, throwing doubt on your entire operation.
If they never come back because of it, it is a bummer way to lose a customer.
Yet, should you care if they go?
I say, no. Let them go.
You will never, ever time a race to their satisfaction.
You will never meet their expectations of time and space.
And you shouldn’t have to.
However, they do put a spotlight on what a majority of your racers DO want.
Racers DO want a certain level of accuracy in your timekeeping service and an expedited turnaround in presenting those times for review.
In other words, racers want you to do a good job in recording the time they cross the finish line AND get those times to them in the shortest amount of time possible.
Three days later?
No. More like 30-minutes later, tops!
And up on your website within 24 hours.
That may not seem like a lot of turnaround time, but it is an expectation you can achieve.
Yes! Here’s how!
1. Make sure all bibs are on correctly
The art of timing a race is two-fold.
First, you need to know who is in your race.
Second, you need a quick and easy way to identify them on the course.
Registration solves the first issue, bib numbers the second.
But both come with their own challenges.
Registration is a challenge when racers hand-write their own information in a scrawl that is barely legible.
When given to the registration person to put into the computer for computer timing, that scrawl becomes bizarre spellings and bad data.
Issuing a bib number is another challenge.
You can lead a racer to a bib number, but you cannot get all bib numbers on a racer.
Plenty of veteran racers can get this part correct, but the world is full of novices.
Bib numbers need to go on a certain way — front of the jersey, pinned to the back of a backpack, on the front bars of a bike, on the side of the jersey — whatever the timers need to record the number correctly.
It seems simple, but a lot of racers will screw this up.
The starting line is your last chance to fix these.
Hopefully, you will spot the bib numbers that are upside-down, on the wrong side, folded under or just plain missing.
It needs to be quick, too.
Because once the gun goes off, there is no coming back.
The trail will do the rest of damage for you.
Mud, wind, water, rain, trees, dirt, sand, falls, collisions — you name it — will take your well-placed bib numbers and create havoc with them.
This is why we have dedicated “teams” of timers.
While one is recording the bib number, the other can move.
Yes, move around, in-between, shout at racers, do whatever they need to do to figure out what bib number they are.
2. Have dedicated teams
I prefer to have three teams of two-person timers.
One person records (this is the timer), the other has the watch and calls out bib numbers to the timer to be recorded (this is the caller).
Why three teams?
One team uses a computer and works the timing software.
The attention needed to punch in numbers takes away from your capability to read numbers as they go by.
Another team is a paper and watch timing duo.
One holds the clipboard with a timing sheet, the other calls out the bib numbers and times (or approximate times).
Why do this on paper when you have a computer?
Because technology is a fickle beast.
If the computer dies, you need a backup.
Repeat after me: two is one, and one is none.
Their third team is special.
This is your Top-3 team.
All they care about is your top three racers in each category.
Why do I need this team?
This is for your podium.
If the computer timers mess up, or the computer fails, you have a quick and dirty way to have an awards ceremony within 30-minutes.
It’s not pretty, and those in 4th place and beyond will not get their times until you can compile your paper time sheet, but you will be able to still award the winners and keep things running.
Your paper teams are you back up. No matter HOW GOOD you timing technology is, you should ALWAYS have paper timers.
What should you always have? Paper timers! Nuff said.
One racer at a time is easy.
Five racers in a pack are daunting. So that the timer doesn’t miss a number, flip a number (6 for 9, 3 for 5, 7 for 1, etc.), or transpose a number (135 for 531, 71 for 17, 808 for 880, etc.) of the recorded bib, one person shouts out the bib numbers to the timer, and the timer punches them in has they are called.
Sounds simple, but it can be very stressful when a big pack is coming through.
This is why your computer timers should be more experienced than your paper timers.
3. Have a clear finish line
Having a finish line may seem obvious, but you would be surprised. Not all finish lines are created equal.
To make timing easy on your timers, you need a good, open space for viewing racers as they come in at a distance.
At a distance?
Some timers have good eyes and can see bib numbers from way off.
But just knowing a racer is coming in is enough to get a timers attention.
Distance also helps with packs of racers.
When they bunch up, calling out the bib numbers fast enough for the timer is tough.
If you don’t have time to react, a bib number gets missed.
Seeing racers coming at you from a distance will immediately tell the timers how many numbers they are dealing with in a pack, and know if they missed one.
Distance also gives the callers a chance to start calling before the pack arrives, reducing the stress of everything coming at the timer at once.
4. Use timing technology with caution
Timing technology comes after registration, bib numbers, and timing teams because it is your best friend and your worst enemy.
Computer timing can benefit you greatly if you can get all the times into the computer, and in the correct order.
However, computers do not like the outdoors.
Heat, water, and dust are a computer’s nemesis.
Power too can be an issue, especially if you have a long race with no generator.
You have to plan for your computer to fail because it will.
And when it does, you will have to rely on your paper backups to get you through the rest of the race.
Remember from before — two is one, and one is none.
Use your computer timing to make your race results quick and easy, but always have paper just in case.
The same goes for chip timing.
Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is all the rage in racing these days.
When it works, it works well!
When it fails, the mess is grand.
Don’t let anyone fool you into believing they only use computer timing.
Somewhere in their finish line area is a team either writing down bib numbers or collecting bib numbers in the order they arrive at the finish.
Old school, manual timing will always be the backup to computer timing.
Learn now, or pay later.
5. Provide timing training to timing teams
Training your timers before race day seems like an obvious thing to do, but few race promoters actually do it.
Most train timers on race day with many handing them a clipboard and a watch and saying, “go do timing.”
Baptism of fire.
However, if you want your timing to be correct, or written down in a way that makes some sense, you need to try and train them at least once before the race.
This is especially true for computer timers.
Using most computer timing software requires a Ph.D. in software engineering just to get your racers into it.
Now take a new timer and force them to learn it minutes before the race starts.
Let’s face it, software for computer race timing sucks.
From chip timing to plain old spreadsheet timing, not a single vendor out there has a clue what “user testing” or “easy of use” really means.
The result is a complex Rubik’s cube application that needs serious explaining.
If you do that explaining 10-minutes before the starting gun, your computer results are going to suck just as much.
Do yourself, and your timing teams a favor — train them before the race!
When you computer timer’s know what the software is supposed to do, they can react faster, record times better, and respond to error messages without freaking out.
Plus your results will get processed and presented to you in a way that makes sense.
Training makes you and your race look good.
Don’t skip it.
6. Give yourself some power
Your computer timing will require more than just the power in the laptop battery.
Because laptop batteries will fail.
And they will fail right in the middle of your race every time.
This is why you need direct access to a power source.
Whether it’s park power, a generator, or a portable battery, your laptop will never have enough battery life to finish everything you need it do.
Same goes for other things you need that are connected to computers, like printers and displays.
No power means no printer and no displays.
So don’t press your luck. Have some power standing by or available during the entire race.
7. Present your results
The easy way to present results — if your computer timing worked — is to print out each category and tape/staple them to a sheet of plywood.
Posting your results this way allows racers to gaggle around the board, inspect your accuracy, and note discrepancies.
Racers also like to take pictures of their placement, especially if it’s their first race or they finished with a podium win.
Having a board for this allows them to do all of this without bugging you.
It also provides a great way for you read off the names when presenting awards and prizes to finishers.
While everyone switches their focus to the podium, you can use the board as your cheat-sheet for top 3, or top 5 finishers.
If you really want to get fancy, you can keep your computer timing sheets all digital, and use big screen displays to show your results.
This is a great way to “save some trees” by not printing a bunch of paper copies of the results.
However, like computer timing, you need to have a backup for this when your display fails to show anything (because it will).
Saving trees is great, but if it means having a bunch of really pissed off racers, 20 pieces of paper is a small price to pay for happy customers.
Besides, you can go plant some trees afterward if it helps you get your karma right.
The point is to have a place for you to present results so that those racers that care and see how they did.
It is a race, after all.
Checking results is kind of the point.
If you can’t present results, then you need to revisit the tips from above and do make some changes.
8. Deal with complaints quickly and decisively
When results get posted, someone is going to complain.
There is no escaping it.
It will either be where you placed them:
“I beat that guy at the finish, why is he ahead of me?”
That you didn’t place them at all:
“Hey, I raced today. But I can’t find my bib number.”
Or that you didn’t give them the right time:
“You have me at 25m:31s, but my Garmin said I finished at 25m:15s.
That puts me in front of that other guy, right?”
It is your job to correct these issues.
However, if it does not impact the top 3, or top 5 finishers, it is an issue you may not need to correct on race day.
Seems a little cold.
It might be, but you have a race to run.
Fixing an issue with the guy or gal that finished 26th place out of 27 racers is important.
It’s just not important enough to stop the whole race.
Some of these issues can be fixed quickly.
Missing bib numbers are often a computer oversight like a missed checkbox.
Timing issues where someone’s device gave them a different time is another problem you can deal with later.
Their Garmin is not the official course timer.
Finish order, however, can be a sticky situation.
Often, it’s not something you can fix until you see the paper timing team records.
If they have recorded bib number correctly, you should see where the discrepancies are in the computer results by comparing them with the paper results.
You would be surprised the delay that takes place between the caller’s shout, and the timer’s fingers punching in the numbers.
If they had a hard time hearing the number, they may ask for it again.
They could have also made mistake, and had to re-enter the bib number.
In a pack of racers, that delay could mean the difference between 5th place and 8th place, simply by what order the timer punched in the numbers and when.
Paper timers tend to have a better handle on order.
I don’t know why, but it just seems to be the case that writing the numbers happens to be better than the computer 9 times out of 10 times.
So when in doubt, trust the paper.
Chip timing can have the same problem.
Because the electromagnetic field near the finish line excites the chips at different rates (due to weather, body parts, clothing, angle, water, dirt, interference, damage, etc.), not all chips read at the same time.
In a pack, this could show the racer in the middle of the pack as the first to cross, while making the racer who was actually first, appear to be second or third.
Chips are only good as their read rate.
They have no idea which chip did what in tight groups.
So again, paper is a great backup.
9. Go to the video
One way to sort out placement issues is to record the finish line with a video camera.
GoPro makes a perfect product for this, but there are several other brands on the market that will do the same job.
Your smartphone (that will also need a backup battery) can do fantastic photo finishes too.
Selfie sticks, or even wooden poles (like broom handles) are very good at getting the right angle to see everything.
The advantage of a camera on the finish line is how easy it is to end disputes with a simple replay.
Camera footage of the finish is something you use when both computer and paper timing fails.
You can attempt to rebuild the race day finish by watching each racer come across.
Bib numbers are not always easy to read from the camera’s point-of-view, but it should be enough to figure out why your computer timers had one finish order, and your paper timers had another.
10. Website post
Once you have everything worked out, awards presented, and your race day events concluded, it is time to post your results as fast as possible.
Getting the results out and up on your site is important for two reasons.
The first is is allows racers to review them with a critical eye.
They might not have had that chance during the race, or had to leave early and never say them at all.
Their review will help you catch things like misspelled names or bib numbers you don’t have any racers associated with.
The second thing it does is satisfies those racers that did not win.
They will see your posted results as the official finding of the race, and know what they need to do to improve.
They can also share it with friends and family, report their finish to their clubs, or just be satisfied that where their thought they were on race day is still the same place there are official.
Delays in posting results only serve to hurt your reputation.
So the quicker you are in posting results, the more professional you appear to the average racer.
And now you know.