Time to sort out the race timing debacle

I am not a fan of the twin-timing systems used at running events. Out with the “official” and in with the “net”, I say. It's confusing and annoying and I know that many runners feel the same way.

By way of definition, official (or gun) time is the time it takes you to complete a race from the moment the starter's gun is fired. Net time (sometimes called chip time) is measured from when a runner hits the start-line mats to when they hit the finish-line mats.

Net time has been used in races since the late 1980s, but really took off in the 1990s as timing chip technology got more sophisticated. Transponders were threaded onto shoe laces or on velcro anklets and had to be returned at the end of the race. Most events now use race bibs that have the runner's data on the back, alleviating the need to return anything.

The chip or the gun?

Chip timing was a breakthrough for timing accuracy. The computers didn't lie, so runners could no longer make generous guesstimations of their net time. And before chips (BC) not all events published times at all. Your watch and some rough maths was your guide. Chip timing has also progressed to the extent that mats can be positioned at the halfway mark or at multiple points along the course to feed real-time updates on a runner's progress and provide useful split data for post-race analysis.

These days, unless you're an elite athlete - meaning you're invited to enter and you get to stand right on the start line with a few other very serious skinny runners - the gun time is pretty meaningless. This is because for most runners the start line is so far away, appearing as a blurry banner strung up between some street poles in the distance. So far, in fact, that it's not uncommon to hear runners ask each other: “Was that the sound of the starter's gun?”

Minutes can pass after the gun goes off before you actually get to the start line, every precious one of which is being added onto your official “gun” time. Also, in every race, without fail, there are fools who go to the front who shouldn't be there. They're the types who decide after less than one kilometre that running is exhausting and that walking is better. That adds to your gun time as you dodge and weave around them.

It is therefore annoying that, typically, the official time is what is published first against your name in results, and it is what counts when deciding where you came in the field. It still counts officially as the most important time.

So when race officials exhort you not to push towards the start line because chip technology means that your real time will still be recorded, there is little incentive to obey.


'Real' time and reward for effort

As more and more people take on the challenge of getting fit, they use running races as measurable goals along the way. And for that they need a “real” time and therefore some reward for their efforts. The way the system works in many events now, you can be officially placed behind someone who ran slower than you, just because they were closer to the start line when the gun went off. Some incentive.

Race directors are conflicted because the International Association for Athletics Federations (IAAF) competition rules require gun time to be the official time. And elite athletes need an IAAF-recognised time when it comes to rankings and qualifying for national teams.

Fairfax Events holds 10 running events a year nationally, some including multiple distances, attracting about 200,000 runners in total. In acknowledgement of the confusion the two-time system wrought among runners, it did try just displaying net time for some races. However, this didn't help the star athletes because it contravened IAAF rules, so the dual system has been reintroduced with some compromises to achieve more fairness for the rest of us.

Trying to please everyone

Rebecca Wilmer, sports and race director for Fairfax Events, says net time will be used for all age category placings, “but to ensure we are abiding by international rules, gun time will be displayed and used for athlete ranking purposes and also to award the first three male and female runners across the line. It is important for the race to recognise the first person across the line as the overall event winner.”

Wilmer says Fairfax Events hasn't decided whether the terminology they use will be “gun” or “official” time - but either way, the difference in meaning between that and net time will be made clear on the results website and in FAQs.

“The important thing to remember is that category placings are taken from the net time, so there is no need to push to the front as the individual time doesn't start until the runner crosses the start line,” she says.

“As our events are so large we implement staggered start groups. Net times allow participants to compare themselves to their age category regardless of which start group they were in and allow us to recognise age-group placegetters.”

Importantly, too, net times are increasingly being accepted for qualification into big events such as the Boston and New York marathons.

Now it's just a matter of convincing people to arrange themselves honestly at the start line to avoid any outbreaks of fun run rage.

Where do you stand on the gun-versus-net issue?