Changing Times: Speeding up those Gate River Run results
Mar 08, 2013 (The Florida Times-Union - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
In the early days of the River Run it took weeks -- sometimes months -- to publish the final results.
But that was three decades ago.
Times have changed.
The results for Saturday's Gate River Run, the U.S. 15K national championship, will be available live online during the race, and spectators will even be able to track their favorite runner on a mobile app called nRace.
Find your Gate River Run time on Jacksonville.com after Saturday's race
Tell us how you did in Saturday's Gate River Run
"[The timing system] has come a long way," said Doug Alred, who is in his 31st year as race director. "It's been exciting because we've gone through all this, and it is reaching a point where it's probably not going to develop much further than what it is now.
"Of course, I say that, and 20 years from now, who knows what they'll do."
When he took over as race director in 1983, Alred would have been hard-pressed to imagine technology like the nRace app that will be available for this year's 36th annual River Run, which begins on Gator Bowl Boulevard at 8:30 a.m. and ends on Duval Street.
The app, developed by Jacksonville-based IDS, takes a runner's pace at the markers along the course and interpolates where the runner is on the course throughout the race, projecting an icon that moves along a course map. The app is free, but the service for the River Run costs $1.99.
Alred said he remembers the year before he became race director the results took about four months to be published -- a far cry from the real-time results available now. It was one of the reasons he decided to get involved with the race.
"They were just taking so long to get the results out with the system they were using," Alred said. "It was really stone-age type stuff.
"They were using tape recorders, and they were calling people's numbers into the tape recorders and then they'd have to go back and listen to it and write down the numbers, and it would just go on and on."
When Alred took over, he introduced a pull tag system. Every runner's race bib included a tag with the runner's name, age and gender printed on it. The tag would be pulled off the bib by a race volunteer as the runner entered a chute at the finish line. The tags would be matched up after the race with times that had been entered in a timing machine as the runners finished.
"That's the system we were using right up to 2001 when we bought into the chip timing system," Alred said. "When we did that, it changed everything."
Chip timing, which electronically records the runners' times as they cross timing mats along the course and at the finish line, improved accuracy and allowed races to grow, according to S. Mark Courtney, who owns Runner's High, a road race timing company based out of Grove City, Pa. Courtney has worked with Alred to time the River Run since 2002.
But former River Run streaker Elfrieda Wyner, 70, remembers the race's first attempt at chip timing didn't go too smoothly.
In 1997 a company approached Alred and offered to time the River Run with its newly developed chip timing system. But a glitch erased about 700 of the 7,000 runners from the final results, Alred said.
"There was a lot of hype revolving around the 20th running, and the thing got pretty badly messed up," said Wyner, who ran every River Run from 1978-2010 and still owns several age records in the race. "No matter how many times these race directors have put on races, there's always something else that can happen.
"Maybe that keeps it kind of interesting."
The chip timing fiasco soured River Run officials on the system for several years. They returned to their previous system, but Alred said by 2001 they knew they needed to remain current, so they purchased ChampionChip timing systems, which they're still using today.
The system originally used chips, worn on a runner's foot, which had to be re-collected after every race. Then disposable "souvenir" chips were developed that could record the times without having to be returned.
Now, the chip, which is still disposable, is in a runner's race bib.
"It's easier so that the runners really don't have to do anything but pin their race bib on," Alred said.
But even with all the technological advancements, it's not all smooth sailing.
"You just can't predict what's going to happen," Courtney said. "When you're dealing with a finish line area like that, there's so many people on their cellphones and all this data floating around in the world that it slows the servers down."
But the faster race officials produce the results, the more people expect, Alred said.
"I kind of chuckle at people sometimes when they come up to the results trailer and want to know when we're going to post the results," Alred said. "I used to go, 'You should have been around the time it took four months to get results.'
"I just think people can't expect too much," Alred said.
Just look at how far they've come.
Francine Frazier: (904) 359-4372
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