Catch me if you can
As one of the top race management and timing companies in the country, Athlete Guild gets a lot of requests to not only time events but also simply to consult on timing issues. We have a large network of other timers around the country that we constantly share ideas and issues with. Our goal of course is to be become the best race management and timing company around.
It's always interesting to hear some of the issues that other timers face in different parts of the country. A lot of people may not realize it, but we spend a lot of time prior to an event trying to understand exactly what the event needs are. For a lot of races, it is really simple. We show up and setup our finish line; time the event; produce the results and then packup and leave. More and more though we face some real challenges with events because the race directors want to do more with the event. Whether it is having multiple races such as a 5K and 10K in the same event; multiple wave starts; or a combination of timed and non-timed participants, we as a timer have to be prepared so that we have minimal problems at the event.
I was reminded of the complexity in one of my events last week with the Orange Leaf Half Marathon and 5K. We start the half marathon at 6:30am to try and beat the heat. The 5K starts 30 minutes earlier. On the surface, it sounds like a really simple thing to accomplish but behind the scenes it is anything but. I like to try and educate participants about the issues we face so that you can better understand why things sometimes can go wrong. Multiple events are one of those areas that we do all of the time but we really have to pay attention and make sure that everything is handled correctly, or there can be huge delays in getting final results out or worse, not getting results at all. In this case, we had a lot of half marathon participants decide at the last minute to switch to the 5K but didn't bother to tell anyone. We even had a few 5K folks switch to the half. It caused big delays in getting our results out trying to sort it out.
Think about the chip that you are wearing that is supposed to capture your time. The readers at the start/finish line when enabled are constantly sending out a signal to "wake up" those chips and attempt to read their number. For radio antennas such as what we use, the distance is about 10 feet. For a mat or strip like you see in some races, the distance is about 1 to 2 feet on either side of the mat. What this means is that if you are standing around the area and the readers are enabled, chances are the timing system can "see" your chip and possibly misinterpret you as a starter even when you may not be in that particular race. One thing you will see especially with mat based systems is that people will be herding the crowd around the area telling you to stay away from the mat. The reason is that they don't want you to accidentally get read at the wrong time.
A lot of the magic with timing systems comes from the software that actually interprets the data. If the software is any good, there will be filters provided that allow us to ignore certain reads. This is especially important for events with multiple categories. If for example, we are timing a 10K at 8am and then a 5K a few minutes later, we want to make sure that when we time the 10K start that only those participants in the 10K actually get read. This is really important because participants in an event are naturally standing around waiting for their event whether it is time for them or not. If we did not have those filters, if you are standing at the starting line but not going for another few minutes, you would mistakenly get a starting time too early. By using the filters we can start a 10K and only read those participants that have registered for the 10K. A few minutes later, we can change the filters and read the 5K times.
Notice that I said registered for the 10K. One of the biggest issues that we all have is that a few participants will change categories and not tell anybody. People assume that if they cross the line then they are automatically being read and conversely at the finish line, we'll just "know" what their intentions were. It's not that simple. If you are registered for one event that starts at one time but then run with a different group, chances are you wont' get any time at all until the finish line. At that point we recognize that we don't have a starting time for you. We don't know particularly why the chip wasn't read but all that we can assume is that you simply need to be given the gun time of the category start. Your actual finish time is now completly wrong because not only are you being assigned a gun time rather than chip time, the time we assign is not even close to the time you actually started.
I like to joke that it's often a game of "catch me if you can". Participants can sometimes assume too much about the way things are working without understanding the intricacies of the environment. Most timers and race directors don't mind if participants change categories or waves, but you need to remember to let us know. Preferably before the race begins but especially once you have finished. I know that in our case, even if we have filters on and didn't catch you initially, we can always go back to our logs and pull the correct time.
My primary motivation for getting this right is because our first and foremost goal at an event is getting people timed and then results out in a timely manner. When participants change on us without notification it can really bog things down because we end up producing multiple result sheets and making lots of changes trying to get it right. If we were simply notified up front, all of that would be avoided.
I hope to see you at a future event. If you have time, stop by and say hello.
See you at the race!