Your Course is USATF Certified: Now What?

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Official Clock and Rate Your Course is USATF Certified: Now What?

Speed is a function of distance and time. The distance a runner covers is not necessarily that advertised by the USATF certification body. The time they expect to run a race is not necessarily that reported by the watch on their wrist. Runners really care about their time. With an official time, they can report to qualify them for other races and without the certification and time, qualification may not happen. Let’s explore some of the reasons for variation in speed, distance, and time in a race. These can help the race director make the best decision for what kind of timing is best for their race.

If you want people to show up to your race, get your course certified. USATF will come out to your course, measure it, provide suggestions for layout, and then certify it for a fee. Now it is up to your timing pro to make sure those coveted race times are accurate, documented, and reportable.

There are numerous ways to time a race and each comes with its own level of fidelity. Ground level is bibs with tear-offs matched up with a stopwatch. Bibs are usually bought in bulk to get a volume discount. Racer placement happens when they cross the finish line, kept in order of finish through a narrow chute, and surrender their tear-off to a volunteer. Accuracy issues with this system are obvious as the timer relies on a number of manual systems. Somebody clicks the stopwatch while somebody else tries to keep runners in order while somebody else rips bibs as each runner hurries by to clear the chute.

Enter chip timing. It’s more expensive than bibs but much more reliable. However, official time can vary between the gun time and the chip time. That’s because the official race clock starts on the gun. Runners in the back of the corral and may not cross the start line (thus activating their chip) for seconds or even minutes at big races. Be sure you know how you report time as there are two options here: gun to chip, or chip to chip. Encourage your timer to use the latter especially if you want to report the time for future qualifications.

Video Clock Finish
Video adds further confirmation of runner time and placement

Clock visibility is also something important to runners. While a finish line clock is usually a given, there are some variations you may want to discuss with your timer. For a short race like a 5, 8, or 10K, a finish line clock may be all you want. Longer distance races sometimes have mid-course clocks. They may be at the halfway split, every mile, or somewhere in between. Just remember that clocks come with a cost. One nice feature that is not so expensive is a finish line clock with a rate clock included. Both clocks update continuously so that runners can note both their finish time as well as their rate. Just remember that there is only one clock at the finish line and it shows time relative to the gun start, not each individual runner’s chip.

Having said that, runners will then meander and calmly wait for the timer to post official times. With manual bib rip and stopwatch timing, it takes a while to enter all the results into a computer. Then someone prints out and posts a spreadsheet. Runners then crowd around the posting to get their times, take selfies, and find reason to argue with the timer about their results. This process speeds up just a bit with the chip timing system. Sometimes nothing is posted at all and runners must wait to get their results when they post on-line. This posting may happen in one or more iterations as the timer adjudicates results.

Official Results
Times Posted for Patient Runners

The timer may have to deal with noise factors like double entries (a runner got too close to the timing mat before the race started and tripped the clock, then again when the race started), ghost runners (people who ran without a chip or bib but got counted anyway), and DNFs (runners who started the race but did not finish). These are very common with races of any size and must all be reconciled before official times are posted.

For runners who are extremely picky about their times, here are a few more issues to be aware of. Course certifications use strictly controlled, repeatable, reproducible instructions. For example, the certified length of the course is calculated from mid-point to mid-point along a road and around corners. On the other hand, runners may shave corners in order to cover less distance. Elite runners will start at the front corral so that they have minimal interference from other runners. But latter corral runners may have to deal with jostling and weaving to get around others. This means they may cover more distance than the course designation. The point is, these runners on the two extremes will then compare their times and distances as advertised by the race to those shown on their race watches.

In addition to the deviations mentioned above, the error factors of the race watches also factor in. They include weather, satellite resolution, and numerous errors between the watch, satellite, and GMT clocks upon which the time standard is based.

For example, while the clocks and GPS satellites used to launch and land the first stage of a Falcon X rocket have a resolution beyond the millisecond (1/1000th of a second), the clock on your wrist is not that accurate and does not need to be. Unless you are striving to break the sub-2 marathon record with Nike, don’t worry so much about the time errors inherent in the system. Just run and have a good time.

My wife, a race director, and her timing pro meet twice for each race. They meet a few months prior to lay out all the logistics and implement lessons learned from the last race. Then they meet shortly after to talk about what worked and what didn’t. They assign actions to improve the next race. Now that you have a better understanding of the timing and measurement systems, you can make a better decision on what to ask for at your next race on a cost-per-runner basis.

Timing Professional
South Jersey Timing

Helpful References:

USATF Course Certification –