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How Marathon Race Timing Works

Marathon Timing Chip

Running is, in many ways, the simplest of sports. It doesn't truly require any equipment other than what you're born with -- heart, lungs, legs and feet. But technology made a big impact on race organizers when the marathon timing chip was introduced in the 1990s. Suddenly, they were able to track runners from the second they crossed the start line to when they reached the 5-kilometer point, to halfway through the event and the all-important finish line.

Timing chips are typically encased in a hard plastic ring and given to each runner in their race packet prior to the event. The morning of the race, marathoners tie the ring into their shoelaces. Meantime, antennas sheathed in wide, rubber mats are positioned along the course. When the marathoner steps on the rubber mat across the starting line, his individual chip is electronically recognized by the timing system, and his time begins [source: Sinha]. Likewise, any time he or she steps on one of the specialty mats along the course, a computer records the accumulated time to that point in the race.

Chip timing revolutionized marathon timing, but its drawbacks were recognized as well. While it offered accuracy and simplicity, chip timing was labeled by some as too expensive. Each timing chip ring had to be removed from the shoelaces of weary athletes at the finish line by race volunteers and returned to the given company that was timing the race. If an athlete happened to stumble past a volunteer and later discarded the chip, he would be billed as much as $30.

In 2007, organizers of the Philadelphia Marathon and the Las Vegas Marathon opted to use the services of a business offering a disposable microchip technology. The chip was actually part of the runner's race bib. Each runner simply tore the adhesive-backed label from the bib and attached it to his shoelaces. After the race, the chip was simply discarded. The system worked well until the Honolulu Marathon in December 2007. Severe weather caused the system to malfunction, resulting in inaccurate finish times and several thousand runners not having their finish recorded by the system at all. Houston Marathon officials who were set to use the disposable microchips for their race in January had a change of heart and reverted to the older technology [source: MacInnis].

As of 2010, both the standard chip timing system and the relatively new disposable chip system were available and in use in notable races [sources: MYLAPS, ChronoTrack Systems].