The Truth About Chip Timing Accuracy

The Early Years of RFID – LF RFID

As race timers, we are always aware of the limitations of our systems. In the early years of chip timing, low frequency RFID made it a slam dunk for picking up runners. That’s because there was nothing outside of the timer’s control that would affect read rates. The only thing that would cause a missed read was if the runner wasn’t wearing their chip on their shoe or ankle strap. And any external interferences (magnetic fields from power wires, for example) would be accounted for by a good timer. A standard practice by a good timer is measuring the EM field of the start/finish lines to ensure there’s no interference. The only way a runner would be missed was outside of the timer’s control. So, in essence, the timer could get 100% accuracy if you account for chip mishandling or misplacement by the runner.

UHF RFID

The introduction of UHF RFID was tremendously well received by race directors and race timers. You didn’t need to distribute or recollect hard chips. It lowered operational costs all the way around. So it was a tremendous advancement in race timing technology. There was only one drawback: It was often not possible to get 100% accuracy anymore. While it is very possible to get 100% read rates at the finish line , the start line read rates are often less than 100%. Why?

UHF RFID Technology

UHF RFID operates in the UHF frequency range (~850-925MHz). In this frequency range, there are two major sources of interference for the propagation of the UHF signal. These are water and metal. Whereas LF RFID signals could travel THROUGH water up to 2 feet deep, UHF RFID signals are completely absorbed by water. Metal (and carbon fiber) do the same thing. So if a passive UHF RFID tag is placed too close to a body of water (i.e. the human body), then the tag cannot be read.

The Start Line

The presence of hundreds of bodies crossing the start line simultaneously presents a large body of water in the UHF field all at the same time. As previously explained, this reduces the ability of the RFID reader to read the tags on those bodies. One way to improve read rates is to place the tag on the shoe. This moves the tag away from the larger water mass in the upper part of the body. And it moves the tag closer to the antennae lying on the ground. However, the popularity of the big tag has virtually eliminated the shoe tag in race timing applications.

Numbers

Start line read rates using best known practices and top-of-the-line equipment will get about 99.3-99.7% start line read rates. This means that 3 to 6 runners out of every 1000 will not have a start read. Instead they will receive the gun time as their start time. If a race timer using UHF RFID technology says they get 100% read rates, then they are not being truthful. The fact is, those 3 to 6 runners for every 1000 likely will not notice or simply don’t care if their time is a few seconds off. And it almost never matters from an awards perspective because the runners at the front are rarely missed. And they are the runners receiving awards.

The Short End Of It

UHF RFID technology has significantly simplified race timing all the way around. The tags simply need to be placed on bibs. And the bibs are given to the runners. Virtually every runner knows you need to wear the bib on the front of the body, so it’s difficult to misplace the tag. Sure, some runners will wear their bib on their backs (which hurts read sensitivity), but most wear it right. The race director doesn’t have to do anything special except send their bibs to the race timer beforehand. And the race timer doesn’t have to spend hours dealing with chip allocation and return.

Most people in the industry have decided that the small misses at the start line are worth the significant cost and time savings. If someone does notice their missed start time, it’s simple to add it in if they have a watch time. And if they are an award winner, the race timer always performs a manual backup anyway, so it’s known that they are an award winner.

All in all, the benefits outweigh the cost of a few missed start reads.

What Is Chip Timing And Why Is Chip Timing Important?

The Basics

Chip and tag timing is the use of RFID (radio frequency identification) technology to determine when a tag is identified within a certain area. There are a number of ways for the athlete to carry a tag. But, as of this writing the most common way is the use of the bib tag. The bib tag attaches to the rear of the bib and is logistically the easiest for everyone to manage

Chip Timing History

Chip timing got its name from the nickname for integrated circuits (ICs) that people simply called ‘chips’. In the early days, the RFID chip was imbedded with some other electronics inside a glass capsule. That glass capsule is encased in a plastic mold designed to be durable and easily attach to the shoe lace using a thin zip-tie. These chips are expensive at about four or five dollars a piece. Adding to the difficulty, they required retrieval from the athletes after every event.

As technology evolved, UHF RFID tags became popular due to its much lower cost, making it virtually disposable. The early tags were looped around the shoelaces until the bib tag technology evolved. Bib tags are now the standard timing device, and have been for over a decade.

The Technology

UHF RFID technology makes it possible to accurately determine when and where an athlete is for an event. And it requires a smaller amount of equipment and manpower than ever before. With just equipment, a single person can conceivably time thousands of runners single-handedly. Prior to RFID technology, the timing task would’ve required dozens of people and resulted in more errors. Timing results are produced much more quickly. And the logistics for the entire timing aspect of race management is significantly easier for race directors.

Why is Chip Timing Important For Your Race?

Chip timing means that you accurately measure a runner’s time from the start line, not the gun time. This means that every person’s time is accurate for the course distance. Previously, large runner populations meant people starting away from the start line received times too high.

For any race wanting credibility, having accurate times raises it. Using RFID timing means that every time is accurate, not just the winning times. Although some runners don’t mind supporting the cause and running a fun run, many really do want accurate times. Eventually, all runs for a good cause do need to become real, credible events in order to draw the runners back. That’s because there are many worthy organizations creating new events all the time.

What’s the drawback to using chip timing? There’s only one: Depending on the size of your event and your sponsorship amounts, it can be relatively expensive. Chip timing can cost $800-$1500 per event to start. As with any venture, you should consider your first 1 or 2 years as investment years. It takes strong marketing.But once your race gets going, registration proceeds will easily cover the costs of chip timing.

What are the advantages of using chip timing? Here’s a short list:

  • Runners know it’s an actual race, not a fun run
  • Your awards presentation is accurate
  • It instantly increases the user experience
  • Compared with manually timed races, results are fast
  • You need less volunteers and manpower
  • Your event length is shorter and not drawn out

Do It Yourself?

If you are a race director, it would be easy to consider purchasing your own equipment. And if you plan to host multiple events every year, that would be understandable. But as anyone who’s ever timed an event knows, timing is much more than just the equipment. You need special software, technical know-how, a high tolerance of pressure, and a lot of patience. There aren’t many people comfortable with the job. And certainly no volunteer can do this. Because of these requirements, few production companies time in-house. They contract it out.

The Verdict

If you are planning to start your first event, there are few things that will bring instant credibility to it. Have it chip timed, and your runners will know this isn’t just a one-off. You are planning to do this for year after year. And runners really do appreciate that!

How To Market Your Race

We are always excited to sign new customers for more than the typical business reasons. It’s an opportunity to meet new race directors, with new ideas about how they want to shape their participants’ experiences.

Setting Your Expectations

While a niche race with interesting twists to the traditional road race may indeed create an exciting edge to a race, nothing will ever replace the need to market and advertise. Too often, a first-ever race never makes it to the third year. I advise clients to set an expectation to BREAK EVEN the first year. While a production organization can forgo some of the glitter of established races to keep costs down, they MUST create a solid marketing plan from the get-go.

Timeline

Ideally, a race should begin marketing itself twelve, but no less than six, months in advance of the event date in order to give it the upper-hand in making it to year two. After you’ve created the website, begin marketing immediately.

Tips

Here are some tips:

1) Get it on all of the local race calendars as soon as possible. Put it on the national calendars as well. Runningintheusa.com, Active.com, and Runnersworld.com are some well-known national calendars.
2) Hire a professional to design and produce print advertising materials. This includes placards to place in running stores and small posters to hang in establishments that permit it. Do this as soon as the date and venue are established. Even if some of the details aren’t worked out, it’s fine.
3) Setup a social media marketing plan. Facebook pages are a must for any event. Seek established sports-related businesses in the area and negotiate cross-marketing plans that are win-win. A single mention of your event on a facebook page that has 5,000 page fans is a simple deal to make.
4) Don’t consider radio or television advertising unless it’s FREE. The costs of this type of advertising make this out-of-reach for most events just starting out.
5) Find the webpages that your market looks at to discover activities – even non-sports webpages. Sometimes, you can get a small banner ad for the price of a couple of registrations, per month.

Entice Your Runner

Be sure to mention anything that will draw the runner to your race. If you are using chip timing, for example, that can make your race stand out from the untimed fun run. Swag (the stuff runners get with their race entry) is also a big reason why runners return to events. It’s amazing how people like the free stuff they get in their packets!

Most races just starting out will convince 75-150 participants to sign-up for their event, even with minimal marketing. Utilize the aforementioned tips, however, getting 200+ to your event is entirely possible. For most events that maintain reasonable budget controls, the difference in 100 people can often put them in the black. And for a first year event, that’s considered a big success.

Race On!

Tips To Create A Great Start and Finish Line

One of the biggest key elements for success is ensuring that you have smoothly-managed start and finish lines. Fewer issues will arise and interfere with the timing results if a race is organized properly from the beginning . And we all know that race directors and race participants expect accurate, efficient time results. Here are a few tips to keep in mind at the start and finish lines.

Starting Line

  • Set up cones or a barricades near the start to discourage spectators from getting too close.
  • Have runners line up 10 minutes before the race begins. Then give them a 5 minute heads-up and 1-minute to warm up.
  • Ensure that you properly mark the start direction.
  • For events with up to 1000 participants, allow at least a 4-meter-wide start. For events with over 1000 participants, consider a 4- to 8-meter start.

Finish Line

  • Set up cones, fences or barricades near the finish line. Keep spectators far enough away that the lanes are open for runners.
  • Manage the crowds at the finish line adequately. This ensures that timing equipment, wires, clocks, computers, mats, etc.are not accidentally damaged or obstructed. Too much chaos could potentially hinder accurate timing results.
  • Finish lanes should be 2 to 4 meters wide for up to 1000 participants. For events with over 1000, consider at least 4-meter finish lanes.

Be sure to keep your chip timer or race timer informed. All issues, changes, or anything at all related to the start and finish lines. It’s very important they understand all aspects of these areas. There are usually RFID antennae and mats that need to be specifically placed in order to be effective.