Road Race and Finish Line Management - The Start

USATF Road Running Technical Council
Road Race and Finish Line Management

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Timing Requirements

Watches and Timing Devices

Getting the runners and your timing devices started at the same time when you are dealing with thousands of anxious runners is not an easy task. Let's look at the technical aspect, i.e., getting the timing started, and then consider the people problem. Refer to USATF Rule 37 regarding timing requirements and USATF Rule 60 regarding the start.

There are basically two categories of timing methods. The fully automatic timing method is started automatically and records finish times automatically, i.e., without direct human input to the timing device. Hand timing refers to those devices started AND stopped (or read) manually. NOTE that mixed systems are not acceptable for official (record-keeping) purposes, i.e., starting manually and recording finish times automatically.

A timing device that is "stopped" on an individual will be referred to as a "stopped" time; a timing device whose display is "frozen" but may be returned to the "running" time will be referred to as a "split" or "cumulative split" time; a timing device that is visually read while running, i.e., the display is not frozen, will be referred to as a "running" time. Note that a "stopped" time means that the watch cannot be returned to the running time. If you are able to return to the running time, the time is referred to as a "split" time.

A"split" time should not be confused with a "lap" time. When a "lap" time is taken, the running watch "snaps back" or resets to zero, i.e., each lap time represents the time elapsed since the PREVIOUS lap time was taken. A "split" time is more properly referred to as a "cumulative split" time since it represents the cumulative time elapsed since the watch was "started" such as at the start of the race. When a split time is taken, the running watch is NOT reset.

Unfortunately, many digital watches confuse lap and split times. Watches that provide ONLY split times may erroneously refer to these as "lap" times. Watches that provide both options usually identify lap times correctly but refer to split times as "cum" times, short for "cumulative split" times.

Mechanical watches are those which provide a 30 or 60 second sweep hand (most commonly). Digital watches are those which provide a digital "read-out" which is usually a liquid crystal display (LCD). Electronic "timing devices" are basically the same as digital watches EXCEPT in the manner in which times are "out-putted." Electronic timing devices such as those produced by Chronomix, Seiko or Heuer employ a printed tape of places/times and will be referred to as "printing timers." Certain models of printing timers can be interfaced directly with computers.

Computers with built-in "real-time" clocks are considered to be electronic timing devices. Real-time clocks that operate from 60 Hz (cycles per second) or other alternating current input are not as accurate as those which incorporate timing circuits such as used in the printing timers.

Although mechanical watches are acceptable, they are NOT recommended. The drift or error accumulation in mechanical watches is roughly ten to one hundred times greater than for digital watches. Digital watches are fine for timing small races and taking times on selected individuals. Electronic timing devices are better suited for timing larger races.

Official Times and Provision for Alternate Times

It is said that a person with one watch always KNOWS what time it is, but the person with two watches is never sure! Actually, the person with one watch only THINKS he knows what time it is.

If you only have one watch and it malfunctions, you may never know, especially if the error is only a few seconds. If you have two watches and one malfunctions, you are never sure which is the culprit so you have to go with the more "conservative" or slower time. If you have three watches and one malfunctions, the two that agree are correct and the other is wrong.

Suppose you have ten watches going. Which do you use? Refer to USATF Rule 37.5. PRIOR to the start, you need to assign three official timers and one or two alternate timers. In the event that one of the three official watches fails, the designated alternate becomes the third official timer. This means you need to designate the first alternate and the second alternate timers PRIOR to the start. You may wish each official timer to start an "official" watch AND and "alternate" watch. You may NOT have one timer responsible for TWO official watches.

The times reported by these three official timers will be used to determine the official winning time(s) foryour race. You may wish to employ your primary timing system, e.g., your printing timer as one of the official watches, PROVIDED the device was present at the start and started in the proper manner.

Synchronizing the Primary Timing Device

Since your primary timing system will be used to provide finish (split) times for most if not all of the runners in your race, it is important that these times be correct. The split (or stopped) times reported by the official timers for the first finisher should be compared with the time assigned to the first finisher by the primary timing system.

You should also perform a "closing" time check as follows. Take split times on your first finisher and, once these are checked and recorded, return to running time. Repeat this procedure for one of the last finishers, taking split times for each official watch AND the primary timing system simultaneously. This checks that the primary timing system did not malfunction after the first finisher was timed.

Now that you have all these times, what should you do with them? USATF Rule 37.7 states that you take the MIDDLE time of three or the SLOWER time of two to be the official winning time. Suppose your primary timing device returns a time of 30:42.7 and is used as one of the three official watches, having been started at the start, and your two other official timers report 30:43.1 and 30:42.5. The MIDDLE time or the official winning time is 30:42.7 which happens to be your primary timing device which means it is just fine as it is.

Suppose your primary timing device returned the SLOWEST of the three times, i.e., 30:43.1, and the other two watches returned 30.42.5 and 30:42.7. The official time for the first finisher is 30:42.7. You may either report the remainder of the times taken by the primary timing device JUST AS THEY APPEAR or you may wish to subtract 0.4 seconds from each time returned by the primary timing device.

Suppose your primary timing device returned the FASTEST of the three times, i.e., 30:42.5, and the other two watches returned 30:42.7 and 30:43.1. The official time for the first finisher is still 30:42.7. However, ALL of the times returned by the primary timing system MUST have 0.2 seconds ADDED to the times. The properamount to add is the difference between the primary timing system and the official (middle) time.

When you report the three (or two) split times from your official watches for record-keeping purposes, you should include fractions of seconds. When you prepare race results, you may wish to report times to FULL seconds. If this is done, the proper procedure is to first make all necessary adjustments (if any) as above. Then raise ALL non-zero fractions of seconds to the next slower full second (USATF Rule 37.8). An exception should be made for 5 kilometers (road) where times should be reported to tenths of seconds, i.e., raise non-zero hundredths of seconds to the next slower tenth.

If you report non-winning times to full seconds when you submit race results, you should note any adjustments that were made (if any) to the non-winning times. If the official winning time indicates that the times reported by the primary timing device need to be adjusted to slower times and this was not done before raising non- winning times to their next full second, the adjustment will also be raised to the next full second and applied accordingly. Consider a non-winning time of 32:47.1 with an upward adjustment of 0.1 seconds required. If you neglect the adjustment and simply report 32:48, the time will be adjusted by one full second to 32:49. If you had applied the adjustment BEFORE raising the times, the 32:47.1 would be adjusted to 32:47.2 and raised to 32:48.

If your watches return times to hundredths of seconds, the procedure for "returning" hundredths of seconds to tenths of seconds is the same. For example, a time of 43:47.02 is returned to 32:47.1. This means that a time of 32:47.02 is returned to the next higher full second or 32:48.

Reporting Times from a Running Watch

What if you don't have three official split or stopped times? Times may be reported from a "running" watch. These should be reported to full seconds. Note that a "running" watch LCD display that reads 32:47 is really 32:47.xx where the fractions of seconds usually are going by too fast to read. When submitting a mark for record purposes, report the running time as read and identify it as a "running" time BUT realize that for determining the offical winning time, you should add one second, i.e., the 32:47 running time is REALLY a 32:48. When you report such a time in your final race results for general distributiion, please report the 32:48, i.e., ADD that second.

Handling Automatically Truncated, Rounded, or Raised Times

Another problem occurs when the primary timing system returns times only to full seconds, i.e., the fractions of seconds are not available. In such cases, fractions may be dropped (truncated), they may be rounded (0.49 and less is dropped and 0.5 and greater is raised), or all non-zero fractions may be raised to the next full second in compliance with USATF Rule 37.8.

Suppose your primary timing system truncates and returns a winning time of 30:42. Suppose your three official timers report 30:42.5, 30:42.7 and 30:43.1. The primary timing system had a time of 30:42.xx and truncated the fractions. Hence, the official winning time should be reported as 30:43, based on the official watches.

The problem arises with the non-winning times. If the primary timing system actually had a time of 30:42.1 that was truncated, the official time is 30:42.7 and 0.6 seconds should be added to all times. Unfortunately, since ALL times are truncated with unknown fractions of seconds, a reported time of 32:45 could be 32:45.1 which would be adjusted to 32:45.7 and taken up to 32:46. A reported time of 32:45 could also be 32:45.6 which would be adjusted to 32:46.2 and taken up to 32:47! In such cases, the SLOWEST time represents a time that the runner ran AT LEAST as fast as, i.e., add TWO seconds to each non-winning primary time.

The rule to follow in reporting non-winning times when using primary timing devices that return times to full seconds is as follows. Determine the official winning time, raised as appropriate to the next full second. Determine how many seconds need to be added (subtracted) to the winning time reported by the primary timing device. Add one second to this figure.

The official winning time in the above example is 30:42.7, raised to 30:43. If the winning time reported by the primary timing device is 30:43, the winning time is OK and each non-winning time needs one second added. If the winning time were reported as 30:42, add one second to the reported winning time and TWO seconds to each non-winning time. If the winning time were reported as 30:44, subtract one second from the reported winning time and all non- winning times are OK (-1 second + 1 second 0 seconds adjustment).

Official Times when Fractions of Seconds are Unavailable

Times reported from a "running" watch or those times obtained from a primary timing device that does not return fractions of seconds may be used to determine the official winning time. A "worst case" scenario must be assumed. A time of 30:42 read from a running watch should be treated as 30:42.99. A time of 30:42 reported by a "truncating" primary timing device should also be treated as 30:42.99. A time of 30:42 reported by a "rounding" primary timing device should be treated as 30:42.49. A time of 30:42 reported by a primary timing device which raises non-zero fractions should be treated as 30:42.00

Once the official winning time is determined, perhaps from a mixture of times which fractions of seconds reported and times without fractions reported, the necessary adjustments to the non- winning times may be determined as discussed in the previous section.

Timing the Start

All official timers MUST be AT THE START. This means within ten meters of the starter or starting device. Timers at road races rarely observe the smoke or flash associated with the starting pistol. Often races are started by voice command. Sound travels at 300 meters per second. If you are 100 meters away, your watch will "lag" by 0.3 seconds due to the time required for the report of the starting pistol to reach you. If you are a half mile away, the lag is 2.4 seconds, i.e., such a watch would read 2.4 seconds TOO FAST!

Since it is not practical to recall a false start for a road race with thousands of runners, the timers MUST be prepared to start their watches (or timing devices) WHEN THE FIRST RUNNER BREAKS. Timers need to be briefed on this procedure so they won't be caught off-guard. This is a second reason why it is essential that the timers be physically present at the start.

Multiple Starting Lines

Multiple starting areas present additional problems. If you have separate starting lines AND finish lines for men and women, you can time these as TWO separate races although it is beneficial to synchronize these starts as well. If you have the possibility of runners from different starting lines crossing the SAME finish line, you MUST synchronize the different starts.

If you are using TWO starting lines and these are close enough so that a single starting pistol can be used to start each race, the starter should be stationed equi-distant between the two starting lines.

If your starting lines are too far apart for a single starting pistol or you are using three or more starting lines, co-ordination of the starts may be accomplished by Ham Radio, Police Radio, or by using hand-held FM Radio Transmitter-Receivers (tuned to the same frequency). You should NOT use citizens band (CB) radio or rely on very loud noises such as a cannon to co-ordinate starts. Remember each of these methods depend on people and even a basically good system can be fouled up by incompetent people.

Each start should have an FM transmitter-receiver which is channeled through a public address (PA) system. General race instructions and a minute by minute count-down can be handled by announcers at EACH starting area using a separate microphone to the PA system. At one minute to go, the starter should "clear" the FM channel, asking all others users to cease (or to use a secondary system on a different frequency if available). The chief starter (located preferably at the largest starting line) will make all last minute announcements which are broadcast to each of the other starting lines over each PA system via the FM radio link. A starting "horn" will broadcast better than a starting pistol.

Each starting area should have its own starting horn. When the starter for a given (secondary) starting area hears the horn over the PA system, he/she sounds the starting horn for that starting area, reinforcing the broadcast horn. All starts should be backed up with synchronized, digital, time-of-day watches in case of failure in the FM broadcast.

Auxiliary Watches and Digital Display Clocks

An auxiliary watch is any watch that is not an official watch. Auxiliary watches may be started at the start but often are started at a distance or lagged (started a known time after) from an official watch. This means that there may be TWO (or more) reflexes involved in starting an auxiliary watch. Thus, watches NOT started at the start, CANNOT BE USED AS OFFICIAL WATCHES. Note that the PRIMARY timing device may be an official watch or it may be an auxiliary watch.

Auxiliary watches are frequently used for enroute times, e.g., at the kilometer or mile marks, or other enroute marks. Digital display clocks are commonly started from another watch since they are not convenient to move around and may be pre-set so that they show the actual running time although started after the actual start.

If you intend to report official times for record purposes at intermediate (enroute) distances, the intermediate distance must be certified (with a signed certificate) AND at least two official timers must be present so that an official winning time may be determined. Auxiliary watches are not suitable for this purpose.

Although some primary timing devices are fairly portable and can be moved to the start and used as official watches, many are not portable and cannot serve this purpose unless the start and finish are in the same location. IF the primary timing device is NOT an official watch but has been started from another watch, it MUST be synchronized against at least two official watches.

In the event your primary timing device is NOT an official watch, do the following. Determine the official winning time for the first finisher as per USATF Rule 37.7 and described above. Compare this with the winning time according to your primary timing system. If it is the SAME as the official winning time, you are OK. If the primary timing system shows a time that is SLOWER than the official winning time, you may either report the times as returned by the primary timing device OR you may subtract the difference from each non- winning time returned. If the primary timing system shows a time that is FASTER than the official winning time, you MUST ADD the difference to each time returned by the primary timing device.

Managing the Start

The essential problem is to get ALL the runners BEHIND the starting line before the gun goes off. If you have tens or a few hundreds of runners, this is not a severe problem. When you have thousands of runners, you have a problem. Here are some tips.

Pseudo-Starting Line

Assuming you have a certified course, starting at the proper line is important. If the runners start ahead of the proper start, your certification is not valid!

Have TWO starting lines. Make one highly visible, e.g., start banner, big white line across the pavement, pace signs, ropes, i.e., anything to attract attention to THIS IS THE START. Place this "starting line" some 5 to 30 meters BEHIND the true starting line, depending on the size of the race. One to two minutes before the start of the race, allow the runners to "move up" to the true starting line.

This insures that the runners have room behind the starting line and helps reduce the "packing" at the start which often leads to tripping and falls when the gun goes off. Pace signs help in this regard. Funneling the runners into the REAR of the starting area by cordoning off the front is also useful. Packet pick-up should be to the REAR of your starting area if in the vicinity of the start.

Starting Command and Count-Down

A second-by-second count-down in a large race is an invitation to a false start. If you employ a count-down, announce minute-by-minute to one minute to go and the 40 seconds and 20 seconds. HOWEVER, build in a "safety factor" by telling the runners they have 20 seconds to go when actually they have 10 seconds to go. Likewise, your starting command should either be a single word or just the starting pistol or starting horn. If you use a two or three command starting procedure, this has the same effect as a countdown and invites false starts.

Seeded Runners

If you wish to make sure your seeded runners have a position on or near the starting line, the pseudo-starting line provides the space needed to "insert" these seeded runners in the few minutes prior to the actual start. Once the seeded runners are in place, drop the restraining rope at the pseudo-starting line and allow the main pack of runners to spread forward prior to the start. This should not be done more than one or two minutes prior to the actual start.

In some very large or "mega" races such as Bay-to-Breakers, only a small number of "seeded" runners are actually timed. In this case, it is necessary to "control" the start to insure that the "seeded" runners were actually at the start. At the Bay-to-Breakers, a "seeded runners area is cordoned off and only runners with appropriately low bib-numbers are permitted to enter. As they enter this area, their bib-numbers are marked with a colored marking pen to signify they were present at the start. Once in this area, they are not permitted to leave until the gun goes off.

Starting the "Wave" Start

A"wave" start is a device intended to reduce the finish line density by spreading the finishing runners out over a longer time. The wave start employs a single starting line but multiple starting TIMES, i.e., the field of divided into groups and each group is started at a different time. The first group to start consists of the FASTEST runners and each group's projected finish time is slower than that of the previous group. The wave start is discussed in more detail in Chapter II.

The wave start presents real opportunities for cheating. Runners are assigned a group with a specific starting order. The primary timing system is synchronized with the first start and actual running times for each individual are determined by subtracting the starting lag for his/her group from his/her finishing time. Thus, a runner that is supposed to start ten minutes after the first wave, could "improve" by starting in the wave that starts only five minutes after the first wave. Thus, he/she would have an extra five minutes to run before the "watch" on his/her group was "started." To insure the validity of any record that might be set in such a race and to simplify the awards search, it is important that the potential award winners and record-setters start in the first group. Most top 50-59 men and 40-49 women will be seeded in the first (fastest) group. It is recommended that the first group also include ALL men over 60, women over 50 and all runners under 15, regardless of their estimated or projected finish time. These do not constitute a large fraction of the field and will insure that all award winners are in the first group.

If all potential record-setting runners are started with the first group, this simplifies the problem of assigning proper times. Note that each subsequent start in a "wave start" is actually being timed as an auxiliary time since each start is "timed" from the original start.

The Bolder Boulder 10km in Boulder, CO has used a wave start for several years. Each starting group is given the same color of bibnumber, e.g., a group may have all green numbers. Each group is assigned a cordoned-off area to assemble. Monitors circulate within each area to make sure that only runners with the proper color bib-number are present. Prior to a group starting, the group is moved to the starting line en mass.

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