Chip timing systems have been the gold standard for mass-participation race timing since the early ‘90s. So much so that it may feel sometimes like there’s no alternative.
Well, there is – and you may have a legitimate reason for needing one:
- You may want a cheaper solution. Although the cost of buying or hiring RFID systems has been moving in the right direction, they are still a fairly expensive solution, particularly for smaller events or races on a budget.
- Your may want to record times at remote or inaccessible locations. Dragging antennae and timing mats up a mountain may not always be possible or straightforward.
- You may just want a backup for peace of mind. You can use any of the alternatives described below alongside your RFID system.
If you catch yourself wondering what else might be available, other than chip & mat timing systems, we’ve got your back. We looked at 3 viable alternatives to RFID systems and share everything you need to know about them below, so you can make an informed decision.
Brave enough to want to try setting up your own RFID chip timing system? Check out this RFID DIY guide by James Thrasher at Atlas RFID.
Seeing as your phone can do pretty much anything these days other than make toast and walk the dog, you’ll be forgiven for thinking there might be an app or two that could help you time your race. And you’ll be right.
In their simplest form, timing apps work like your pad and hand chronometer would, by allowing you to punch in finisher bib numbers the moment a runner crosses the finish line. What you would do is sit at the finish line and when a runner crosses the line, tap your phone or tablet. The app would automatically pop a window for you to enter the finisher bib number and record the time.
More complex apps, offer greater functionality. This may include the ability to load start lists before the race, so you can tap bib numbers on your screen to record times rather than having to enter bib numbers manually. Quite a few apps will also upload live results for you as soon as you have them and some will even integrate with your existing RFID or NFC chip systems (we’ll look at NFC chips in a moment).
At this point, it’s important to note one fundamental limitation of timing apps that is also shared by all timing alternatives discussed in this post. Since you’re only standing at the finish line recording times, these times are not actually race times but ‘gun’ times, i.e. times measured from a common start-of-race time, not each participant’s start-line crossing time. Now, depending on your circumstances this will likely not be such a big deal. But it’s a crucial point to keep in mind if you go down this route.
There are a number of apps out there, both free and paid, than can help simplify the task of timing participants in your race. Below we list some of the most popular.
Sports Timing Solutions, the company behind STS Pro Score, has a solid track record in delivering high-quality free tools for athletes and race organisers, alongside its regular chip-timing services. STS Pro Score can handle multiple wave starts and split times, and is an excellent choice should you be considering a free timing app for your race.
Webscorer PRO is a subscription-based premium timing app that integrates with Webscorer’s registrations and results management platform. Webscorer includes support for reading NFC chips and can even dabble as timing software with your existing RFID chip infrastructure. A lot of work has gone into making Webscorer one of the best and easiest-to-use timing apps available internationally. As a bonus, Webscorer comes with a large library of video tutorials to help familiarise you with the app before you purchase.
If you’re looking for a middle ground, RaceSplitter offers support for online start lists, wave starts, live results and a great interface to work with. RaceSplitter comes with an extensive support site with a wealth of tutorials to get you started.
If you’re on Android and looking for a basic timer, try out this simple timing app.
All timing apps above are either licence-free or come with multiple device licenses, so if you’re going to use them, make sure you use a backup (or two, depending on how paranoid you get about these things).
If you don’t fancy the idea of using a timing app or expect closely-packed finishes, a barcode system might be the right solution for your race. Barcode systems are particularly well-suited for race series and have been deployed in the field with great success, most notably in the UK by Parkrun, UK’s largest free-for-all 5k racing series (now rapidly expanding to the US and elsewhere).
The way barcode systems work is by issuing every participant with a unique barcode before the race which can be used for all future eligible events. With that barcode, participants can register and show up for a race without the need for a race bib – their barcode is their ‘bib number’. All they need to receive a finish time is to present their barcode, which can be simply printed on a piece of paper or worn in a wristband or keychain, at the finish line.
The way the system works is in three steps:
- A race official records successive finish times at the finish line. This can be done with a simple lap stopwatch. In contrast to the timing procedure used with timing apps, the official does not have to record participant bib numbers at this stage, only finish times.
- A second official hands finishers a position token which records each runner’s finish position (usually in a scannable format). Note that it is important that every finisher receives a token and that position tokens accurately reflect finish position. After this step, provided position tokens are handed out in the right order, participants can do whatever they like as long as at some point they present themselves for Step 3 to a race official.
- A third official records each finisher’s unique barcode and position token.
What we described above is the procedure used by Parkrun. In theory, you can do without Step 2 provided you can ensure participant barcodes in Step 3 are recorded in strict order of finish, which would be possible in smaller and sparser races.
Barcode systems are a legitimate alternative to chip timing, whether you’re organising a series or a single race. Barcodes and QR codes are easy to generate and reading barcodes/QR codes can be done as simply as with a smartphone app.
Some things to consider before adopting a barcode system for your race are the following:
- Since barcode systems record times and participant positions separately, they are critically reliant on both lists being complete and accurate. A single error or omission in one can bump around the whole stack of finish times, affecting all subsequent times. So you should seriously consider doubling up on all steps with a backup official.
- It may be helpful for safety reasons to issue participants with bibs regardless, just so your crew can distinguish who’s in the race and who isn’t at any one time. If you decide to issue bib numbers, the need for scanners disappears and Step 3 above can be carried out manually by taking down bib numbers instead of scanning barcodes.
NFC Chip Timing
NFC stands for Near Field Communication and it is the technology behind contactless payments. NFC chips are cheap to acquire and easy to configure and they can be read by any smartphone with a suitable reader-app installed by bringing the phone close to the NFC chip.
Since recording a time requires a race official scanning your participant’s NFC chip, this alternative may not be practicable as a finish line solution (although it could work if your finishing rate is relatively manageable). NFC chip timing, however, could be an excellent solution for checkpoint timing or for recording times at remote solutions such as in the case of trail races, adventure races and ultras.
If you want to learn more about NFC chip timing, take a look at this great explanatory article by Beyond Marathon RD Richard Weremiuk.
If you run a small race or one, such as an ultramarathon, where multiple close finishes are unlikely, you can opt for fully manual timing. Both procedures used by timing apps and barcode systems can be adapted for manual timing.
At a minimum, a single official can record finish times and bib numbers manually at the finish line (the procedure timing apps help automate), although a backup will again be prudent. For larger races, the barcode procedure can be followed with bib numbers instead of barcodes, i.e. official 1 records successive finish times, official 2 records bib numbers or hands out position tokens, in which case official 3 takes down pairs of positions and bib numbers.
Noticed how many times we mentioned ‘backup’? You should not be afraid to use one of the alternatives above, but because a lot of the responsibility in doing so will shift from the timer to your team, you should put measures in place to minimise the chance of a timing error. Sometimes something as simple as a smartphone or budget camera rolling at the finish line could prove a lifesaver, as there’s few things guaranteed to upset your participants more than messing up finish times.
SEE ALSO: 5 Best Free Course Mapping Tools
Have you used any of these timing alternatives in a race? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
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