How Marathon Race Timing Works

By: Kevin P. Allen
They're just numbers but they mean a lot to marathon finishers.

Finishing a marathon is an achievement that requires discipline, desire and lots of preparation. Think of it as the athletic equivalent of getting a college degree. It doesn't come easy. And, like a transcript with a corresponding grade point average, marathoners want written proof that they've finished with that all-important number -- their finish time. It's evidence of a job well done.

The system of providing marathoners with their respective finish times has changed a great deal over the years. That's partially due to the increasing number of people attempting to complete the 26.2-mile race. In the past three decades, the ranks of people who have completed a marathon in a given year have swelled from less than 150,000 to 425,000 [source: Hamann]. It's more challenging to record the finish times of thousands of people in a single race, as opposed to just a few dozen runners.


Advances in technology have also made it possible to offer amenities to runners and spectators they couldn't have conceived of during the age of clipboards and stopwatches. Thanks to high-tech timing systems, a runner can review his or her split times after a race to determine what sections were run too fast or too slow. And not only that -- family members and friends can get real-time alerts indicating, for example, when their favorite runner crosses the mid-way point. In some cases, the alerts will even indicate where the runner is in relation to a local coffee shop or burger joint and when they're expected to cross the finish line [source: Bank of America Chicago Marathon].

Of course, as any early adopter will tell you, technology has its pitfalls. Some timing systems have failed with irritating and disappointing results [source: MacInnis]. Tweaks and upgrades continue to be made in the timing industry, even as marathoners adjust their training plans and improve their physical fitness.

So, how tough can timing a marathon be? And how does it benefit the runner? Consider the net times.


Marathon Net Times

Imagine trying to time thousands of runners using a traditional stopwatch.

Imagine this scene: You've completed months upon months of training and you're about to embark upon your marathon quest. The "Star Spangled Banner" has been sung, and a nervous tension hangs in the air. Crack! The starter's pistol sounds and … you wait and wait and shuffle a few steps and wait some more. That's what tends to happen to mid-pack runners in the bigger marathons. They get stuck in a human traffic jam that doesn't even begin to clear until they cross the starting line, which is well after the race clock has begun ticking away.

When tens of thousands of runners congregate -- as is the case for premiere events like the Chicago and New York City marathons -- a runner may not cross the starting line for as many as 22 minutes after the race begins [source: Sinha]. Those minutes are valuable to a runner who's trying to beat a friend's time , qualify for an exclusive race like the Boston Marathon or simply reach a pre-determined goal. That's why most marathon race results indicate a runner's "gun time" (the time from when the actual race clock began) and her "chip time" or "actual time" (the time from when she crossed the starting line). The chip or actual time is the true, net result.


For years, race organizers depended on numbered race bibs with pull-off tags to record marathon times and preserve the correct order of finish. The runner would cross the finish line, her race number and finish time would be written down and a pull-off tag at the bottom of her race bib (which included important information like name and age) would be ripped off and put on a spindle in the order of finish [source: Mitchell]. As marathons became a bit larger, finishers were hustled into finishing chutes until volunteers could tear off the tags from the athlete's shirt-front. But how to offset the difference between Runner A and Runner B's start times?

Enter the timing chip and subsequent marathon tracking technologies.


Marathon Timing Chip

Running is, in many ways, the simplest of sports. It doesn't truly require any equipment other than what you're born with -- heart, lungs, legs and feet. But technology made a big impact on race organizers when the marathon timing chip was introduced in the 1990s. Suddenly, they were able to track runners from the second they crossed the start line to when they reached the 5-kilometer point, to halfway through the event and the all-important finish line.

Timing chips are typically encased in a hard plastic ring and given to each runner in their race packet prior to the event. The morning of the race, marathoners tie the ring into their shoelaces. Meantime, antennas sheathed in wide, rubber mats are positioned along the course. When the marathoner steps on the rubber mat across the starting line, his individual chip is electronically recognized by the timing system, and his time begins [source: Sinha]. Likewise, any time he or she steps on one of the specialty mats along the course, a computer records the accumulated time to that point in the race.


Chip timing revolutionized marathon timing, but its drawbacks were recognized as well. While it offered accuracy and simplicity, chip timing was labeled by some as too expensive. Each timing chip ring had to be removed from the shoelaces of weary athletes at the finish line by race volunteers and returned to the given company that was timing the race. If an athlete happened to stumble past a volunteer and later discarded the chip, he would be billed as much as $30.

In 2007, organizers of the Philadelphia Marathon and the Las Vegas Marathon opted to use the services of a business offering a disposable microchip technology. The chip was actually part of the runner's race bib. Each runner simply tore the adhesive-backed label from the bib and attached it to his shoelaces. After the race, the chip was simply discarded. The system worked well until the Honolulu Marathon in December 2007. Severe weather caused the system to malfunction, resulting in inaccurate finish times and several thousand runners not having their finish recorded by the system at all. Houston Marathon officials who were set to use the disposable microchips for their race in January had a change of heart and reverted to the older technology [source: MacInnis].

As of 2010, both the standard chip timing system and the relatively new disposable chip system were available and in use in notable races [sources: MYLAPS, ChronoTrack Systems].


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bank of America Chicago Marathon. "Runner Tracking." (Sept. 8, 2010.)
  • ChronoTrack Systems. "ChronoTrack Is Gaining Traction With The B-Tag."Apr. 16, 2010. (Sept. 8, 2010.)
  • Emmons, Julia. "The Champion of the Chip." 1998. (Sept. 8, 2010.)
  • Hamann, Carlos. "Americans run off the recession in record numbers." Nov. 19, 2009. (Sept. 8, 2010.)
  • MacInnis, Roberta. "Houston Marathon officials opt against new timing system." Dec. 12, 2007. (Sept. 8, 2010.)
  • Mitchell, Don. "Race Timing -- How it Works." Feb. 2001. (Sept. 8, 2010.)
  • MYLAPS. "Welcome to the World of MYLAPS." (Sept. 8, 2010.);jsessionid=8F2F54A716D861E53B2DD833FEA3AD0B
  • Sinha, Alex. "Chip Timing -- What it Does and How it Works." (Sept. 8, 2010.)