Runners are highly time-sensitive. We usually know our pace per mile, and we know our typical finish times for the standard race distances-5K, 10K, etc. We also know the times when we expect to pass the mile markers in a race. A sure way to enrage runners is to mark off inaccurate mile splits or mess up the race clock.

Runners usually rely on their own watches to record total time and intermediate splits, and we carefully analyze those post-race split times to chart our own performances. But, for example, if a runner is used to clocking 7-minute miles, and the clock shows 6:15 for the first one and, say, 8:10 for the second one, something is obviously wrong.

It might mean you went out way too fast, and died in the second mile. But if you felt like you were running at a consistent pace, the discrepancy was probably in the mile measurements or inaccurate split timers. I always rely on my own watch for the most accurate analysis of my performance. But if the mile markers are off, my numbers will be off, too. And I’ll be aggravated.

The increasing use of electronic chips has made overall race timing quite accurate, but there are some pitfalls. Most runners are used to crossing rubber mats at both the start and the finish of “chip races.” These mats contain sensors that identify when you crossed the start and finish lines, and your net time between those two points. But several years ago one local race posted finish times that were 20-30 seconds off. Evidently the timing equipment was not started properly, and many runners complained about their inaccurately listed finish times. Nonetheless, the race director kept repeating “chips don’t lie,” refusing to acknowledge that there could be any possible error. Meanwhile, runners were looking at their own watches saying “No way!.”

Another variation was at a recent local race featuring a “gun” start and a chip finish. Based on most chip races, runners expect their chips to be recorded when they cross the start line, so some hang back at the start to avoid congestion or the risk of bumping into other runners. At this race, however, those who started further back to avoid crowding through the narrow starting gate were disappointed to find that the clock had started with the starting gun (a horn in this case), and the only chip sensor was at the finish line. Those holding back at the start paid a price for their courtesy.

Runners like to babble about such things as mile splits, how we went out too fast and then died in the last mile, or perhaps about that perfect race with negative splits and a great finish. I think Woody Allen once said that one of his nightmares was to be at a formal dinner seated next to a CPA who had just run his first marathon. That trivia may be boring to everyone else, but precise times and splits are a critical part of our sport. The race administrator who mis-measures the course or messes up the clock will incur the wrath of many competitors, no matter how good everything else was.

Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club.

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