The start of the 2008 Chicago Marathon (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Sometimes rules can be complicated to explain - Chicago Marathon Follow up

Many have the impression that road racing and athletics operate in separate but parallel “universes.”  During this weekend’s Bank of America Chicago Marathon those worlds collided.

Essentially what’s involved are rules.  This year Chicago race director Carey Pinkowski decided to have what amounted to two races in one.

The first race being among the elite men and women, selected on the basis of their best times, who started the event five minutes before the 33,000 participants in the “citizen’s race.”

The elite race went off pretty much without a hitch until the results were printed.  The four place finisher in the men’s race was listed as Wesley Korir with bib number 248.  Problem was that Korir started five minutes behind the rest of the elite field in the citizen’s race.  Through the “magic” of chip timing—the small transponder runners wear on their shoes—runners in road races can have two or more times recorded in a major road race like Chicago.

The first time is called the “gun time” because timing starts when the starting “gun” sounds to begin the race and ends when the runner crosses the finish line.  In a road race not every runner starts on the official starting line.  Some are less than a second to many minutes behind the first line of runners. 

So, when the timing statistics are stored in the computer, each runner gets a “gun time,” or the time from the instant the starting signal sounds until the runner crosses the finish, and a “net” or “chip” time, the time it takes for the runner to cross the timing mat on the official starting line until the runner crosses another mat at the finish line.

Most races also have timing mats laid across the road at intermediate points along the course so that each runner has a time recorded for each mile/kilometre or other points along the course.  The beauty in this system is that it gives runners much more information about how they ran the race.  How fast their splits were, and for those starting in the back of the mass start an accurate time that it took them to complete the advertised distance of the race.

This has been a welcome addition to road racing as runners like to see their times displayed this way and it helps prevent too much pushing and shoving during the start as runners know they will get an accurate time for the entire distance and that they don’t have to push to get to the front of the start pack to do it. 

But this more detailed timing does have its issues.  The rules of the IAAF and USATF, the US governing body that oversees both road and track races in the US, state that only the gun time can be used to determine order of finish for awards, such as prize money, as is given out to the top finishers in many road races.

This is something of a track rule adapted to the roads as in track each participant starts at the same starting line for each race.  The starting gun tells the runners it’s time to begin the race and a timing device at the finish records when they cross the finish line.  The net or chip time that is recorded for road races is unique to those events.  And, as such, provides both opportunity and fairness issues.

For example, if it was allowed that runners could use their chip times as their official finish time for determining their place and awards in road races, a runner could intentionally start the race back in the pack so that he or she would cross the starting line a second or more behind those runners lined up in front. 

Then the runner could simply run behind the lead runner in the race and not have to attempt to outkick an opponent to get ahead at the finish because he or she would in effect be running in a handicap race, i.e. by starting behind the runners in front the runner would only have to make up that deficit any time during the race and stay close enough to the runner who started in front to record a better net or chip time when crossing the finish.

Meanwhile the runners who started on the front line would not know whether or not the runner running near them in the final strides of the race was somebody who started with them or with the “bonus” seconds from starting well behind them. 

The closest comparison to this is the “devil take the hindmost” runs on the track or handicap events on the roads where runners are seeded according to their PRs with the slower runners starting a set time before the faster runners.  The aim being that the faster runners have to catch and pass the slower runners in order to win the race.

In those events, however, each athlete knows what handicap each has and the drama unfolds much as it would if each runner had started the race at the same time.  On Sunday, race referee Jim Estes of USATF had to rule on the eligibility of Korir for prize money. 

The rules, Estes determined, are clear.  The elites and Korir ran separate races.  Korir may have been the fourth fastest man on the day, but he was not eligible to get the $15,000 on offer for the fourth place finisher in the elite race because he was not a competitor in the elite race.

Jim Ferstle for the IAAF