Ask the Race Director: Net Time vs Gun Time?
by John Mortimer and Mike Peabody, Millennium Running’s Director of Timing Operations.
Imagine this hypothetical scenario from next year’s Boston Marathon….
The race announcer booms over the P.A. “Let’s welcome the winner of the 2013 Boston Marathon, defending his title, from Kenya Geoffrey Mutai“
What a race!! Mutai made a strong move with 1 mile to go put 10 seconds on the second place runner and win the race in 2:04:00. TV cameras and newspaper reports immediately swam Mutai to capture the moment and his comments. Meanwhile, packs of runners begin to stream across the finish line with each runner enjoying the accomplishment of finishing the famed Boston Marathon.
After about 20 minutes, the timing company goes to publish the results online for millions to see. The head timer sorts the results by the runners NET time and realizes that Mutai shows up in second place overall…
What? Hold the phone! The winner didn’t win?
Unbeknownst to Mutai, race officials, or the media following every move of the lead pack, there was a guy named “Miles” who started way back in the starting corral and crossed the starting line 4 minutes after the gun was fired. Miles weaved his way around slower runners and spent 26.2 miles reeling in runners 1 by 1 to finish 12th overall with a time of 2:07:00. Since Miles started 4 minutes later than the gun, his actual net time was 2:03:00, 1 minute faster than the winner, Mutai.
Who is the actual winner? Who wins the $100,000 in prize money? Who goes down in history as the 2013 Boston Marathon Champion?
I have asked Millennium Running’s Director of Timing Operations, Mike Peabody give a technical explanation.
As the Director of Timing for Millennium Running, I will explain how Millennium Running (and most other timing companies) follows a set of timing standards that make a fair and accurate event within the road race industry.
Runners in a chip-timed race usually have two sets of times, which are called GunTime and NetTime.
One of the most common questions I get at races is “What’s the difference between the two?”
Well it is a simple answer, but first it must be known how timing works…
In all Millennium Running events and just like in the Boston Marathon, we “chip time” each registrant with a RFID (radio frequency identification) chip adhered to the back of your bib number, a starting line mat and a finish line mat. (We use MyLaps equipment – the same technology used at the Boston Marathon)
Each finisher receives a NetTime that “starts” when you cross the starting mats (StartTime) and “finishes” when you cross the finish mats (FinishTime). Like most timing systems, this technology operates using time of day (based off GPS time to the thousandth of a second). When you cross the starting line, the mats activate the chip and read its unique code from antennas embedded within the mats. The time of day is recorded and paired with your chip code and stored in a special computer box called a decoder that is attached to the mats. The same exact thing happens at the finish line as the exact GPS time of day is recorded when you cross the line.
Each finisher also gets a GunTime. This time starts when the starting device (gun, air horn, voice command) is implemented to begin the race, regardless how long it takes the participant to get to the actual starting line. We call this time of day of the official start the ScratchTime. Therefore, all participants are assigned the same StratchTime at the start (again this is a GPS time of day to the thousandth of a second).
** Note: Within the timing industry, not all races have a start mat but all Millennium Running signature events have start and finish mats.
Technically speaking there are 3 different time of day times recorded for each participant (StartTime, Scratch Time, Finish Time). All 3 separate times (remember, in time of day) that are brought into the scoring computer from the decoder boxes attached to the timing mats. These times are then used to produce everybody’s total race time. So your GunTimes and NetTimes are calculated in the computer by the formula of;
GunTime = FinishTime – ScratchTime (The exact time the gun went off) whereas ,
NetTime = FinishTime – StartTime (The time you cross the starting line)
Once a participant’s NetTime and GunTime are calculated, timing companies generally produce results – order of finishers – that are sorted by NetTime
What happens if the overall winner is different if sorted by NetTime or GunTime? It is industry standard that overall winners (i.e. top 3, top 5 or top 10 – often associated with prize money in big races) are almost always determined by GunTime. It may seem like common sense, but you have to win the race to WIN the race!
That being said, age groups and other awards like Clydesdales are normally based off NetTime however.
So based on our hypothetical controversy of next year’s Boston Marathon winner between Godfrey Mutai and Miles, it turns out the person to cross the finish line first (Mutai) will be the actual winner of the race. That being said, if you finish somewhere in the pack where you are not competing for the overall win or prize money, you may have been the 1,000 person to cross the line and actually finished in 1,300 place overall because 300 people that started behind you, actually ran a faster time.
While one could argue either side of which is more fair, chip timing technology has allowed runners of all abilities to measure themselves against their own personal bests, not just when the gun goes off.
– John Mortimer, Millennium Running – Founder