Tips and Insights from a Pro Timer

July 28, 2022

Aside from receiving a finisher time and wearing the required bib or timing chip, most athletes do not know the details that go into providing timely, successful, and accurate timing for races. When timing is flawless, these are the only details you should notice other than running over the timing mats at each split of the race. Timing is extremely complex and prior to race day, there are countless hours spent preparing and pouring over every detail to ensure a smooth and successful race day for the athletes and the event.

Times have changed drastically from your typical manual timing results. In those days, you would see people frantically pulling tags and punching in numbers as fast as possible as athletes cross the finish line. After you finished, you typically wouldn’t receive your results until several days later. Now, athletes and family members can simply pull up an app on their phone, track their friend or family member real time on the course, receive finisher results within a matter of seconds and even share this information instantaneously on social media accounts directly after finishing a race.

Imagine being responsible for the accurate and speedy arrival of finisher times for up to 40,000 athletes in a matter of hours. The pressure is real and in the life of a pro timer, this is the norm. As an athlete, it’s good to understand the work behind the results. I took the opportunity to collect timing tips and insights from Professional Timer (and husband), Ryan Morris. Ryan is hands down one of the best timers in the country. He has over 10 years of experience and throughout his career has been involved in some of the largest events in the country; as well as copious amounts of multisport events and smaller-sized running events. Ryan is COO of DelMoPRO.

Here are Ryan’s pro tips and insights:

  • Your Garmin or Smart Watch is good but not 100% accurate.  Certified race courses are measured very precisely (using a Jones Counter) and use the tangents of any turn – something that GPS tracking simply cannot replicate for both time and distance.  GPS devices aren’t measuring location in a ‘real-time’ stream.  Depending on the device, it will measure your location every 2-20 seconds on average.  Distance is then measured between these waypoints to create a ‘route’ and measure for distance.  When you add this up over a marathon for example – these little differences in distance vs the certified course will add up and your device will show a longer distance than the race course – every time. Keep this in mind when comparing your garmin/smart watch time to your official race time.
  • Another item to pay attention to on GPS tracking devices is the use of ‘auto-pause’.  Many devices have this on by default now and will show you your ‘moving time’.  Meaning, your complete race time with any pauses subtracted.  This will result in a time shorter than your official race time.
  • For accurate and timely results, the majority of the work is up to the timing team, but just as the athlete is responsible to know the course and race rules, the athlete is also responsible to wear the bib or chip correctly to ensure proper timing.
  • In a running event make sure to where your race bib on the front of your torso on the outer most layer.  If you are starting the race with an outer layer that you are planning to shed shortly after the start make sure to expose your race bib at the start line so it has the best chance of reading.
  • If you are participating in a triathlon and are wearing a wetsuit make sure that your timing chip is underneath your wetsuit.  This will ensure that your chip does not come off when you strip off your wetsuit.

A personal and professional Q & A with Ryan:

What about timing brings you the most joy?

Every event is different and each presents its own challenges.  No weekend (or weekday) is ever the same.  

How much prep work goes into timing an event?  

It depends on the size of the event.  A smaller event like a 5k run has prep work ahead of the race but is not ‘complex’.  Events such as large triathlons or a major marathon require more prep work than people will ever know. The execution before the race at that level is what sets up a timer up to be successful at an event.

How does timing work and what systems do you rely on to produce accurate results?

It’s magic.  Just kidding.  Chip timing systems use RFID technology to read timing chips and produce times.  There are 2 main types – Active & Passive.  Active timing systems use a timing chip that has a battery which allows it to be read at very high speeds and virtually through any barrier – resulting in 100% read rate.  They are also much more accurate – down to three thousandths of a second for some systems.  Passive timing systems use a disposable timing (some are reusable) that in majority go on the back of a race bib.  You will see these mostly at running events but they CAN be used for cycling and multisport events. A passive timing chip is more prone to interference as it depends on the timing mats to both power and read the chip and on a different frequency than an active timing chip. This is why you need to make sure you wear your race bibs properly. Body parts, outer layers, metal, etc. all can affect the reading of these chips.

On your typical race weekend, how many people are a part of the timing team to provide successful and accurate results?

Highly depends.  Most smaller events like a 5K require 2 timers at most.  Larger events can require upwards of 20-25 people on the timing team depending on the event requirements and number of timing splits.

What is one characteristic you look for in your timing team?

Passion – you must enjoy it.

Of all the events you have timed, which event was/is the most memorable and why?

The Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run in Washington, DC.  This is one of the OG events in our world that helped invent the modern era of running events.  Going into it’s 50th year it brings with it so much history that I am very fortunate to just be a part of.

As a previous triathlete who’s held some notable times, what are your top tips on race day?

Make sure you wear your timing chip correctly and if you need to return it – don’t forget ;)

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