What happened to my time?

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This is from a blog that I wrote several months ago, but thought it important enough to rehash.  We've been timing a lot of races this year and I continue to see some of the same problems we've been dealing with.  I believe having this information out there will help improve the timing.

We've been timing and managing races now for over 12 years and one of the biggest challenges and sources of frustration that we face is the inability to capture your race times 100% of the time.  It's disappointing to us when we discover that we've missed a time and it's certainly disappointing to you.  Most of the time we can recover it and get you into the results but it would be nice if it didn't happen in the first place.  Why do we have the issue?  I hope to help answer that in this short article and maybe we can together improve our results.

If you look at the history of timing, a lot of you may remember when we did popsicle sticks or index cards in the buckets.  In many ways this was a much more reliable solution albeit much slower to calculate final results.  We simply handed you a card or stick when you crossed the finish line and then sorted those cards based on your finish order.  We didn't so much as care about your time as we did the order so that we could produce results.  With the advent of computer-based timing, we have now been able to capture finish order and times with the computers.  Prior to chips, we simply captured your time as you crossed the line and then using the tear tags, were able to match you up with your time and hopefully produce good clean results.  There were sometimes issues if we missed keying in a time but as long as we had the finish order of bibs, we could correct it and produce results.  This method was a vast improvement over the old system but still required more time at the end of the race to tabulate everything.  As a timing company, many of our clients still utilize this method as it is less expensive and is adequate for very small races.

Enter the age of timing chips.  These chips or tags as they are sometimes called are a technology called RFID or Radio Frequency Identification.  There are two types of RFID chips.  One is called active RFID and the other is passive.  Active RFID chips are used in very high speed races and in other types of critical applications.  There is a battery on the chip and it is always "active" so that the performance is much higher.  The problem is that these chips are very expensive and require ongoing maintenance.  The other technology which is what most road races use is called passive RFID.  These chips contain a very small microprocessor and antenna.  The chip reader at the finish line is constantly sending out a radio signal within a short distance of the area.  When the passive chip comes within range of the signal, the chip actually powers up, runs a short computer program and then begins communicating with the reader.  This happens in an incredibly short period of time.  The reader communicates with the chip to determine the particular bib number.  When that chip crosses the finish line, the computers are then able to capture the time and record order.  As long as the RFID reader is able to communicate with the chip, then the computer is able to record the bib and its time.

So what could go wrong with the chip and reader interaction to prevent a time being read?  One issue is density of runners.  Think of a cell phone in a very busy area.  You try to make a call and either can't get connected or the line gets dropped.  Oftentimes it's because there are too many signals to be processed in a given area.  At the starting line for a race, the same type of problem occurs.  The readers can only process so many signals at once.  With hundreds of runners crossing a line within a very short period of time, the readers have problems keeping up.  It's why you will see multiple mats or antennas at the line.  It's redundancy and an effort to accommodate the overload.  It's not as big an issue at the finish line because the density is much lower.  There the problem is usually due to a bad chip or human error.   Reusable or what we sometimes call hard chips or not as susceptible to breakage, but disposable chips are somewhat fragile.  The antennas on the chip can get broken if you bend and twist them.  The microprocessor itself can sometimes get damaged and simply not work.  Sometimes the chips themselves get programmed incorrectly.  Programming chips is a time-consuming and somewhat boring job.  It's fairly easy to make a mistake in this process.  The biggest issue that we see though is with the runners themselves.  Chips that are worn on the ankle or shoe are sometimes worn incorrectly as hard as you think that might be to do.  Bib tags though must be worn on the front so that they can be "seen" by the readers.  I'm not sure where people get the idea that the bib should be worn on the back, but in road races bibs are always worn on the front.  The photographers need to see you and the timers must be able to read your bib as you approach.  The forward facing readers don't do well reading through your body as the human body actually absorbs the signal and will cause a loss of communication.  Another big issue is caused by runners blocking the signal.  Remember that the chip must be able to communicate with the reader wirelessly.  This is almost a line of sight communication.  If you put up some metal or other obstruction in front of the chip it can cause the chip not to be read.  For example, runners will often bring their arm up to start or stop their watch at the finish line.  The metal and especially the GPS signal in the watch can definitely interfere with the RFID signal causing the chip not to be read.  The density issue that I mentioned earlier also has to do with blocking.  Runners directly behind someone else can have their signal disrupted by the person in front.   Paying attention and making sure that you have a little distance in front of you at the line can certainly help.

Lastly, the biggest issue is incomplete information.  Race day entries are always a challenge but especially if you forget to write your age or gender down.  In order to calculate results for age groups that is information we have to have.  In addition, many of you could give doctors a run for their money with your handwriting.  Sometimes the entry forms are almost illegible so we have to guess as to the name and other information.  You can help by writing clearly and making sure that all of the information is entered.

If you do find that your time was missed, please just let the timer know.  The timer is always happy to correct the issue.  Industry average is about one to two percent missed reads regardless of the manufacturer or timer.  As mentioned earlier, chips can even be programmed correctly and still fail for any number of reasons.  We know of timers that claim 100% all of the time, but what is happening is that times are simply being made up when missed.  Missing times is not something we like, but given all the factors involved and the number of things that have to go right in order to capture the time it's just a part of the business.  We oftentimes get 100% but the larger the race is, the more chances we have of having a missed read.  You can certainly help us by making sure that you are wearing your chip correctly and also looking at the preliminaries to make sure you are listed.  Every timer I know strives hard to get those results correct and complete before leaving the race.

See you at the race!

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