Race Timing: Know your Options

person holding digital watch

Providing timing for your race is considered a must for serious events, and is part of the reason runners will justify your entry fee, so that they can get an official race result time. But there is a large number of options, when it comes to timing systems, ranging from buying your own, renting one or building something from scratch. 

So we’re going to try our best to summarize for you the pros and cons of the available options so that you can make an informed decision for your event. 

Chip Timing- What is it and how does it work?

Race chip timing systems use RFID transponder chips to precisely measure racers’ times. Race participants wear the RFID tags during the race. The type of RFID tag varies on the system being used, but they range from shoelace tags, ankle bracelets, to the more common disposable race bibs with an affixed UHF RFID tag.

Chip timing is able to precisely measure your race results by registering your race chip as you run across RFID timing mats located throughout the racecourse. Your individual clock starts as soon as you pass over the mats located at the starting line, and likewise ends as you cross the mats at the finish line. Larger races will have mats at checkpoints throughout the race giving organizers the ability to measure split times.

Gun Timing - Does this still have a place?

The traditional method of timing races, gun timing starts the race clock for everyone at the initial pistol shot. Regardless of when you actually crossed the starting line, the time from pistol shot to finish line will be your official time.

The reasoning why some stick behind this inaccurate timing method boils down to an attempt to uphold the integrity of competition. The individual at the head of the pack needs to be perceived as being in first place so that competitors can strategically pace themselves and set up a final kick at the end. Likewise, the individual first needs to be able to protect their position at the front.

In smaller races, the discrepancy between net time and gun time is minimal; however, in large races, it may take up to ten minutes before a participant actually crosses the starting line. Even though chip timing is far superior technologically, gun timing still has a place in racing, although it’s now the norm to employ both systems simultaneously.

Buying a chip timing system

If you’re looking to start lowering your expenses year on year, and you have the capacity to look after and store equipment, buying chip timing can be a good option. You don’t have to delve into the complexity of RFID components too much either. 

When purchasing a race timing system from a manufacturer, you’re getting a box with all the necessary timing components connected under the hood. These are most often components you would find in the open market, if you wanted to build a similar system from scratch, that have been picked, assembled and tested for you by the manufacturer.

HOWEVER, there is a catch. Most chip timing systems (bar a few) come with some sort of coding which means they can only read RFID tags encoded by the same manufacturer. So instead of being able to go out to the open market and purchase RFID tags for a few pennies, you are locked into purchasing encoded RFID tags from the manufacturer at likely much more than the market price. 

Much of a seller's reason for doing this is financial of course, to have reoccurring revenue from the sale. As the cost of the disposable/recyclable timing chips over the product's lifetime will often exceed what was paid for the system considerably. So before committing to a purchase, make sure you’ve looked into the seller and you like/trust them. They will likely tell you that the extra £ you’re coughing up is to provide you a service that supports your system. You can think of it as a license that you have to renew for every race.  

So don’t forget to ask what the system is compatible with! As its an important consideration. Whether a system you’re buying can read any compatible RIFD tag (usually means any UHF Gen 2 tags) or only system-specific tags you will have to buy from the system manufacturer, will determine the ongoing cost. 

Timing Software

Some chip timing systems are sold with software from the manufacturer. In other cases, the manufacturer will offer their own timing software at a price. Pretty much all systems will be compatible with a number of third-party timing software, and that might be your best option.

So to summarize the pros and cons of buying your own chip timing system:

Advantages

Disadvantages

Components have all been pre-assembled and tested

Upfront purchase costs

Easy to use on race day

High ongoing costs if you’re locked in to buying your manufacturers tags

Support from the manufacturer to user guidance

Upgrading isn’t easy, faulty components may be a liability to the whole system

 

Chip Timing Event Service/Rental 

There's a couple of reasons you might want to rent out a system as opposed to buying one:

  1. You want to try a particular race timing system before committing to a purchase
  2. The full upfront price is not feasible at the moment
  3. The manpower that comes with the service to help race day logistics
  4. You’re having trouble with your current timing system and need a short term solution

If you’re looking for the full service, something you should consider is the locality of the company to your race. If you want to hire a crew to go with your system, it will likely cost you less if they are nearby to save on their transport/accommodation crew costs. If you’re just renting the equipment, you can either get it direct from the manufacturer or through a regional distributor. 

Advantages

  1. No long term commitment; try systems before you buy
  2. You don’t have to deal with faults in the system as they can get replaced 
  3. (Often) get good support from vendors

Disadvantages

Costly as a long-term solution

Park Run Style Barcodes

This is a solution that works for closely packed finishes, tried and tested for years and most prominently perhaps at Park Runs. 

The way barcode systems work is by issuing every participant with a unique barcode before the race. With that barcode, participants can register and show up for a race without the need for a race bib – their barcode is their ‘bib number’. All they need to receive a finish time is to present their barcode, which can be simply printed on a piece of paper or worn in a wristband or keychain, at the finish line.

 

In practice: 

  1. A race official records successive finish times at the finish line. This can be done with a simple lap stopwatch.
  2. A second official hands finishers a position token which records each runner’s finish position (usually in a scannable format). Note that it is important that every finisher receives a token and that position tokens accurately reflect finish position. After this step, provided position tokens are handed out in the right order, participants can do whatever they like as long as at some point they present themselves for Step 3 to a race official.
  3. A third official records each finisher’s unique barcode and position token.

What we described above is the procedure used by Parkrun. In theory, you can do without Step 2 provided you can line people up in the right finish order before taking down their barcodes in Step 3, which would be possible in smaller and sparser races.

Barcodes and QR codes are easy to generate and print. Reading barcodes is also very straightforward: if you can’t afford or don’t need a dedicated barcode scanner, you can probably do ok with a smartphone barcode-reading app.

Since barcode systems record times and participant positions separately, they rely on both lists being complete and accurate. A single error or omission in one can bump around the whole stack of finish times, affecting all subsequent times. So you should seriously consider doubling up on all steps with a backup official. 

Although this is a useful solution which you can likely get to grasps with after volunteering at a park run once or twice, it does have the means to take away from the finisher atmosphere of your event. Rather than being able to get ‘epic finisher photos’, runners will be queueing up to get their number, which might take away some of the finisher memories you want your racers to cherish. 

Race timing Apps

There are a variety of race timing apps available on the market, which can be perfect for smaller ‘race series’. The main reason for using some of these is the cost aspect. Cheap, in some cases free, and equipment-less, the appeal can be high if you’re not selling your race on its cutting edge timing solutions. 

Often, they work by allowing you to input finisher bib numbers the moment a runner crosses the finish line into the platform once set up, which will generate a result for you. This would require someone to sit at the finish line, and record each runner crossing the line, into your phone/tablet for you to enter their bib number to record the time of crossing. 

More complex apps offer richer functionality. This may include the ability to load start lists into the app before the race, so you can tap bib numbers on your screen to record times in a single tap instead of having to enter bib numbers manually. Quite a few apps will also upload live results for you as soon as you have them and some will even integrate with your existing RFID chip systems.

In Sum..

Depending on how adventurous your feeling, how much time you have and what your budget is, there is an array of options available to you as a race director to get timing for your event. It’s always worth speaking on the phone with timing providers or meeting them in person to ask more in depth questions, understand the process you will have to complete and how they will work to avoid any issues on the day. If going out and building your own or using unsupported software andequipment, be prepared for different scenarios so that you can troubleshoot any issues in a timely manner as they arise. 

 

On Hand To Help

The team at eventrac are on hand to assist with all components of your event. From advice on promoting your event through low cost channels such as social media, to a guided tutorial on a specific feature of eventrac. We are here to help.

Signup To Our Newsletter