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You pull off your goggles and swim cap as you run towards transition. After peeling off your wetsuit, you step into your cycling shoes only to discover that something is missing. Your timing chip is gone!
Whether it got clawed off during the swim or tangled up inside your wetsuit, you can’t find that pesky ankle band anywhere. Do you keep going? Tell someone? Sit by your bike and cry?
Losing a timing chip during the swim is the stuff of triathlete nightmares. Add to that: running without a bib number, missing a timing mat, or having a timing chip malfunction, and you’ve described the most common scenarios that plague the minds of triathletes everywhere. But never fear. We have the answers to all of your triathlon timing questions.
How triathlon timing works
When Todd Henderlong, the owner of T&H Timing, first got his start in the business over 20 years ago, triathlon timing was much different than it is today.
“The way we used to time races was by recording athletes’ times at different points on the course by manually recording their number, along with taking data from a time machine, and merging that with the number list. Hopefully, you have 300 times and 300 numbers. It was very complicated and very difficult. It was an art form back then,” Henderlong says.
Most modern timing systems use RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology, which consists of a transponder, antenna, and reader. The transponder is your timing chip, and it can either be passive or active. A passive chip has no battery, so it relies on a signal from a timing mat, which sends information to the chip and reads its response. “Once in range, the timing chip is constantly communicating with the antenna and receiver and sending data.”
In contrast, an active chip has an internal battery source and is constantly transmitting a signal to any receiver in range. Active chips are extremely reliable and accurate, but very expensive, so they’re used at events like the Tour de France or the Olympics.
The Achilles heel with any RFID chip is that it can’t broadcast through a body of water, which makes getting a read from a chip that’s obstructed by the human body, or a soaking wet wetsuit, very difficult. Hence the need for a timing mat at the entrance and exit of the swim course in a triathlon.
What if I lose my timing chip during the swim?
“The most common reason people miss a split time is from losing a chip during a race, especially during the swim, which results in 95% of all lost chips,” says Fred Sommer, a race timer for the past 39 years with Sommer Sports.
Depending on the race, an athlete will receive either a reusable chip on a neoprene ankle band, or a disposable chip on a plastic band. “If you have a neoprene band with velcro, we always recommend athletes use a safety pin to secure it, because it’s really easy to get clawed off during the swim,” Sommer says.
If you lose your chip during the swim, it’s not as dire as it might seem. Henderlong explains that no matter what happens to your timing chip, during any portion of the race, you should always keep going, because there are backup systems in place.
“Don’t do anything that would negatively affect your time,” he says. “We know when you started the race, and we know when you finish the race. So although you might not have a swim split, or transition time, you will still get an overall time. You should always keep going, but let someone know. It might be possible for someone toget you a replacement chip when you head out for the bike.”
Once you enter transition, simply shout out to a race volunteer that you’ve lost your chip, and they should be able to provide you with a replacement. At that point, your entry number will be synced with the new chip code and input into the timing software. Henderlong assures athletes that no time will be “lost.” You likely won’t see a swim split or transition on your results breakdown, but the overall time will remain the same.
“One thing people don’t understand is that we don’t time you with a stopwatch,” he says. “Instead, we record the time of day when events occur. For example, you might be recorded as starting the race at 8:03, entering T1 at 8:31, and leaving T1 at 8:49. Then, that’s imported into the scoring software and it works out the net times for each occurrence.”
During a race, Henderlong has a timer waiting at the swim exit. If an athlete says they’ve lost their chip, the timer will write down the athlete’s number, the time of day, (all timers have their watches synced to the software) and put in the time manually. “Then, we can hastily grab you a spare chip and make the correction later,” he says.
What if you leave transition without your race bib?
Have you ever left T2 without your race bib? Don’t worry. Even professional athletes are guilty of this offense. Depending on the race, an athlete might receive a time penalty for running without a bib, but it won’t affect your ability to receive an overall time.
“There’s a whole different level of USAT rules and regulations regarding athletes wearing a number for racing purposes, but not strictly for timing,” Henderlong says.
Remember, you should already have a timing chip on your ankle, so the bib number is more of a visual reference for race officials, and a backup method for timing. Some races do have disposable RFID chips placed on the back of race bibs, as a secondary timing method.
“At our races, we use both,” Henderlong says. “Hopefully, you will either have an ankle chip on, but no bib, or a bib on, but no ankle chip. Even if you don’t have either when you cross the finish, as long as we can see your body marking, you will still get an end time.”
If you realize your error as soon as you leave transition, it might be worth going back to grab your bib to avoid a time penalty. But if you’re a few miles down the road, there’s not much you can do.
What if you miss a timing mat?
With thousands of athletes competing on the same course, it’s bound to get crowded at certain areas, like the entrance to T2 when everyone is scrambling to get off their bikes before the dismount line. What happens if an athlete misses the timing mat? While you should make every effort to cross all timing mats on course, accidentally missing a transition mat won’t affect your overall time.
“When you cross the timing mat at the start and the finish line is what’s critical,” Sommer says. “To a timer, it doesn’t really matter what your bike split was. At a congested point, like the bike in area of transition, an athlete might run around the timing mat, or the mat might miss a read. That person might not have a bike split, because they didn’t cross the timing mat, but that will have nothing to do with their finisher’s time.”
Missing a timing mat in transition is one thing, but not crossing a timing mat out on course can cause bigger problems for an athlete, depending on the race. If a course has multiple loops, timers will often use a checkpoint mat to ensure that athletes have completed the entire course.
“If there’s someone who had a ridiculous run time of a three-minute 5K, we can look and see if they had a time registered at the run checkpoint or if they only did one lap instead of two,” Sommer says.
Also, timing chips can be programmed with different parameters to determine how they will be read. “For example, with a two-lap swim course, where athletes have to run on the beach and back into the water, the swim exit timing mat is programmed to only record the last occurrence of the chip crossing the mat.”
If you get caught up in the fray and miss a transition mat, don’t fret. But be sure to cross all timing mats out on course, or you could risk a disqualification.
What if you cross the finish line with your bib number behind you?
As you approach the finish line, you might hear the race announcer reminding all athletes to turn their numbers around to the front. This is for several reasons. First, if the race uses a bib with a disposable RFID chip, it will read better if it lies in front of your body as you cross the line. Also, it’s the only way for a race photographer to identify athletes. Most importantly, it’s the last safeguard a timer has to provide a time, if all other methods fail.
“If you lose your chip, we can still use your bib number to identify you based upon the time you cross the finish line,” Henderlong says. “Now, if you lose your chip and your number is obscured, then our ability to manually identify you gets reduced.”
“The bane of my existence is people putting their number behind their back.If I had one thing to tell every racer out there it would be that your race number means something. They aren’t just for decoration.”
Going a step further, Henderlong has a bone to pick with athletes who stop their watch while crossing the finish line.
“I hate it when people cross the finish line and immediately grab their watch, because they lay their arm across their number and cover it up. I can time you, or you can time you, but we can’t do both. Your bib number is the last line of defense. It’s a back up, so even if all the technology goes kablooey, I still have visual sight of that number and can give you a finisher’s time.”
But even in this scenario, there’s a back up in place. Have you ever wondered why there are two timing mats at the finish line? We already know that RFID chips can’t broadcast through water, and the human body is made of 60% water, so if the tag’s view of the timing mat is obscured by any part of the body, it’s ability to transmit is greatly reduced. “Hopefully, by the second mat, the athlete will have removed their arm from in front of their bib a little and given the tag a peak at one of the timing antennas,” Henderlong says.
If you cross the finish line and realize your number was flipped around to the back, Henderlong says it doesn’t hurt to let the timer know. But, 99% of the time, your ankle chip should do the job just fine.
What if your timing chip malfunctions?
Triathlon timing systems are accurate to 1/100th of a second, but all technology can fail. That’s why it’s important to have backups.
“I always say that timing a triathlon is like a NASA space shot,” Henderlong says. “When the gun goes off, there’s no stopping it. You’d better have redundancies, and treat it seriously, because the day you don’t is when you will have a major problem.”
Even if your ankle chip and bib chip fail, most races can still provide a fairly accurate finisher’s time. This can be accomplished by using video cameras out on course, multiple checkpoints, the announcer’s mat, and looking through a photographer’s time stamped images.
At the start of a race, Sommer has a timer standing with the announcer to note the exact time each swim wave starts. Even if the race started at 7:30, you might not have entered the water until 7:35:42. As athletes approach the end of a race, they cross over an announcer’s mat, located 75-100 ft. ahead of the finish line. This device relays their number and name to the announcer so it can be broadcast over the speakers. That can be used to estimate a finish time, as a last resort.
“We almost always have a camera recording athletes crossing the finish line,” Sommer says. “Also, we can also look through the photographer’s photos, which are taken in consecutive order and have time stamps, in case we totally missed someone. Sometimes, we even have a person at the finish with a device punching in numbers as the athletes whiz by. That’s why it’s important to make sure to have your bib facing to the front!”
Tips from the timers
- Use a safety pin to secure a neoprene ankle chip.
- Don’t attach your chip to a copper bracelet or metal ID tag, because it can interfere with the signal.
- Only use the timing chip that was given to you.
- Make an effort to cross all timing mats on course.
- Place your bib number in front when crossing the finish line.
Even if all timing technology fails, most races have enough back up methods in place to provide you with a finisher’s time. If something goes wrong with your chip while you’re out on course, you should keep racing. Just let someone know as soon as you can and the timing tech team will make it right.