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Behind the Scenes of the the NYC Marathon Timing Operations

Most runners, and even some highly placed race officials, think timing and scoring a running event, even one as big as the TCS New York City Marathon, entails little more than pushing a button or two and waiting for the results to print out or be posted online. Tom Kelley, who’s in charge of that function for the marathon and the dozens of  other New York Road Runners races during the year, knows there’s just a bit more to it than that.

While the advent of transponder timing (colloquially known as “chip” timing) has made the process less hands-on, labor-intensive, the technology that enabled that has kept evolving at an almost exponential rate. Coupled with the growing fields of the marathon (some 50,000 runners will cover the five-borough course on Sunday) and the ever-increasing expectations of those following their family members and friends at home, it has made the task as involved as one of the old space shuttle launches.

Consider this: Kelley’s army of timers (including many from 15 outside timing companies as well as NYRR staff) will record runners passing over the start and finish lines, as well as every mile and 5K split en route, plus the halfway point. In addition, they’ll be tracked when they board buses or ferries early in the morning on their way to the start in Staten Island and when they enter the Athletes Village there, as well as when they exit Central Park after collecting their finishers medal and drop bags.

“It’s all a way of keeping track of how many people are in what stage of the race,” Kelley said from the timing and scoring control center, located in the NYRR headquarters more than half a mile from the finish line at Tavern on the Green. In total, there are 54 timing points, and almost all of them have two tag readers, or controllers.

These machines, about the size of a small microwave, all have to be synchronized, distributed along the course, then connected wirelessly to the scoring servers, which themselves have redundant backups, then fed into NYRR’s proprietary scoring software and posted online (fortunately, the days of printed results are long gone from races like New York, which would require two reams of paper for just a single set.)

In the early days of transponder timing, just the start and finish reads were recorded, but just like everything else in life, more data is always demanded. That’s become especially so with the advent of apps that allow tracking of runners: in order to make the progress reports as close to real-time as possible, lots of closely spaced data points are necessary.

The first attempts in this endeavor were hampered when the cellular networks became overwhelmed by all the people on the course following runners on their phones.

“Fortunately the wireless companies have really beefed up their networks and increased their capacity over that past few years,” Kelley said. “They’re less likely to be surprised by the demand on race day now.”

Still, the race for more data shows no signs of slowing down. This year, a dozen runners including some elites, some wheelchair racers as well as mid-packers, will be wearing a device that monitors biometric markers such as heart and breathing rate, body temperature and stride cadence and feeds that information back to the broadcast center.

How long will it be before all 50,000 runners in the marathon will be outfitted with similar devices? Given the progress in technology, sooner than you think. Tom Kelley and his team will be ready.