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Chip time or gun time? What's fair in road races?

November 1, 2011

Roland Lavallee

With cameras flashing, Jason Reilly wore a smile as he was the first to cross the finish line of the United HealthCare Half Marathon back on Oct. 16.
The former Cumberland High standout experienced the euphoria of winning and the satisfaction that his strategy paid off on the scenic Newport course.
For about 20 minutes.
Based on overall chip time, Reilly was informed by Eident Sports Marketing – the company that managed the race along with the Amica Marathon – that he was actually second place with his time of 1:14:51. The individual champion, about 150 meters behind him, was Scott Leslie of Rutland, Mass., who finished at 1:15:18.
Leslie was awarded the victory based on his chip time, the computerized device that’s attached to a runner’s shoe to get the actual clocking from the time a person crosses the start until the time that the person crosses the finish line. Leslie’s chip time was 1:14:01. Reilly’s chip time was 1:14:50.
In my opinion, it seemed unfair that a win was taken away from Reilly. Was it the fault of Eident Sports and Amica? Probably not. The fault here is in the system. When it comes to determining an overall winner or any of the top finishes, chip times can make things confusing, and certainly unfair.
Leslie was stuck in traffic and arrived late to the race. By the time he made his way to the starting line, the gun was already fired. Instead of having a disadvantage by his late arrival, he was able to monitor his own progress by glancing at his watch and knowing that a certain time might give him the win, despite being behind the lead pack the entire race.
On the other hand, Reilly had no idea that any of that was transpiring behind him. In his race, he broke from a small group of runners at around three miles and did what he needed to do the remainder of the course to insure a win.
Leslie admitted he knew chip time might determine the winner.
“I knew I started far back in the pack. I started my watch when I crossed the starting line,” he said. “I saw the race clock (at the mile mark) and knew it was about a one-minute differential. When it was getting to the final stretch, I saw I had a 30-second margin of error. I tried to catch him. I just couldn’t close the gap.”
The argument is the final time does not lie. But is it fair with chip time as opposed to gun time when it comes to basing a winner of a respective race.
Cliff Matthews, the current girls’ cross-country coach at Mount St. Charles Academy and one of the best master runners in New England in the early 1990s, believes chip time is unfair, particularly with the top competition.
“People say using chip time makes the race fairer, but what it does is take the ability to know who the competition truly is,” Matthews said. “Back in the day, if you started late, fine, you started late. If you can catch up and help your team, you are entitled to that place. You don’t have an advantage of coming out of nowhere with a faster time.”
“I think the chip is becoming the standard way of timing events now,” he added. “It comes with the territory. I don’t think it’s necessarily fair. Maybe there should be a rule that after ‘x’ amount of time you do get the advantage. Think about it? It’s definitely a disadvantage.”
No doubt.
Here’s a scenario – Let’s say a runner begins a race two seconds ahead of another runner at the start. The race begins and in the final few meters the runner who had the “slight” lead at the starting line out-leans the other runner at the finish.
Based on chip time, the projected winner is declared the runner-up despite holding off his rival down the stretch.
The half marathon in Newport was not the first time that chip time stirred a little controversy. It happened at two big events in 2008. At the Chicago Marathon that October, Kenya’s Wesley Korir finished fifth overall in the open race, but was excluded from prize money because he did not start with the elite group five minutes earlier. Just a few weeks later at the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco, elementary schoolteacher Arien O’Connell had the fastest chip time by nearly 10 minutes when she finished with a personal best of 2:55:11. But she was not declared the winner that morning because she was not the first across the line. She also was lined up with the open competition and not the elite group that began the race earlier.
Korir was never awarded prize money, but Nike overturned its decision with O’Connell and eventually gave her the victory.
Mount St. Charles boys’ cross country coach Roland Lavallee, a former MSC standout and now an elite runner, won the United HealthCare Half Marathon in 2010. There was no question he was indeed the champion as Lavallee crossed the line with a time of 1:06:40, nearly nine minutes ahead of his closest pursuer.
Talking with Lavallee on Monday night at The Call office, he indicated had his race been like this year where he was the first to break the tape but another competitor got the victory due to a faster chip time, he would not be a happy camper.
“I hate to say this, it’s probably not one of my prouder moments, but most people who know me and the competitor I am I probably would have turned into John McEnroe and thrown a ballistic fit,” he said. “I am not kidding. There’s no way in the world. I would be getting the race director on the phone. I would have been up in officials’ faces. I shouldn’t say that, but it’s the truth. I wouldn’t stand for that, not one bit.”
Lavallee feels race officials at the Chicago Marathon were right when Korir was not entitled to the prize money and that Nike should have stuck with its guns and not given O’Connell the win.
“If you want the money, you got to go in the race where the runners are for that money,” Lavallee said. “It’s clearly marked and stipulated. If you are going for the top prize or prize purse, you need to be in the elite race and run against those runners.”
I agree.
Again, it’s not fair to the overall leaders in a race with chip time for the simple and obvious reason they have no idea of what’s going on behind them. Lavallee brings up the point of his win last year in Newport.
“Let’s say I was doing it as a workout and I am way ahead and I decide to slow down and there’s some guy that started out five minutes behind me because he was in the back,” he said. “I slow down and I don’t see him coming and he gains on me and he’s 100 meters behind and I kick it in and do what I need to do to cross the line. We are in the same race, one race. I got there first. I win that race. A chip is a tool. It is not a competitive tool. You are awarded nothing for a microchip. It’s first to the finish line. That’s my argument.”
Leslie recalled a time when he had a faster chip time from the individual winner in a 5K race, but was not given the top prize. While he was happy with his win in Newport, he did indicate he would not have been upset had he not been awarded the victory.
“I wouldn’t have been disappointed,” he said. “It’s my fault for being that far back in the pack. I don’t blame that on the race at all. If they made the decision the other way, I would have not been upset. I am very pleased with the win. I do feel bad for him. If you come in first, I can see exactly where he’s coming from.”
With chip time, the numbers don’t lie. That is true. When it comes to determining the overall winners or the top competitors in the field, that’s when you bend the “truth” a little
Reilly’s runner-up finish in Newport continues an impressive, post-high school running career. After graduating from Cumberland in 2000, Reilly attended Salve Regina University, which does not have a track or cross-country program.
“I ended up doing road races on the side,” he said. “I got out of it a little bit and jumped back in my senior year and haven’t stopped.”
Reilly dabbled into the longer races a few years ago and ran his first marathon last year in October at the Bay State Marathon in Boston where he finished with a time of 2:54. He improved on that time at the Boston Marathon this past April, running 2:52.
Reilly is prepping for a 2:45 effort at the ING New York City Marathon this Sunday.
“I am just trying to get into the marathon world right now,” he said. “I am keeping busy. I have been training so much, my training this year compared to Boston – night and day. I was going into Boston injured so I hoped for the best…I still had a good race so I can’t complain with that. I am hoping for a good time in New York.”
Reilly has been getting his coaching advice from his mother’s boyfriend, David Segura, a former world class marathoner from New Mexico. In 1979, Segura ran his personal best of 2:13:59 at the Nike OTC Marathon in Eugene, Ore.
“He told me if I ever wanted to get into marathons, he would train me,” Reilly said. “He has been giving me workouts and I just go at it and do my thing.”
Reilly logged a high of 120 miles a month ago and in the week prior to the half marathon, ran 110.
“I am tapering down now, drastically tapering down,” he said. “I want to get under 2:45 at New York.”

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