Races, RFID, and an Editorial Note

As a sidenote, I’m posting these Saturday-morning comments while sitting near the start line of the annual Grouse Grind mountain run. The race usually attract a few hundred people who want to spend their Satuday morning racing up 2,800 vertical feet (853 metres) over 1.8 miles (2.9 km) on Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver, BC. The record time is an absurdly low 27 minutes or so, but I usually wander across 13-15 minutes later. (But trust me, it will be worse this year — I’m in less-than-spiffy shape.)

Technology has changed much since the first time I did one of these events, way back in 1998 or so. For starters, I wouldn’t have been able to leap onto an open WiFi network and post, as I’m doing. I have no idea whose network I’m piggy-backed on, but thanks whoever you are.

Second, a chip is attached to my right ankle via Velcro. Timing is to be “chipped”, as they say in the race business, replacing manual timing in prior editions. One interesting aspect is that the chip picks up all of our start times, despite there being as many as 20-30 people crossing the start line at the same time.

According to the company’s (ChampionChip, a Dutch firm started in 1993) website, send and receive attennae are in thin mats at the start and finish line. Each time a “chipped” athlete crosses the mats the passive RFID gets pinged and sends back an ID number. Apparently the system can handle as many as 5,000 athletes per minute (that’s what they get at the start of the New York City Marathon).

On a purely race note, I love pre-race sociology. People are flitting all around having come early, almost certainly out of nervousness, but now they’re becoming even more nervous as they mill about near the start-line with other nervous people. The ensuing nervousness death spiral is wonderful free entertainment.


  1. As a regular marathon/trail-marathon runner I can say chipping is a good thing. In very competitive races, chips are needed to prevent cheating. Yes people have been known to ride the subway part way through the NYC marathon. The chips mandate that runners make all checkpoints.
    The chips also provide very accurate timing. In a very crowded race you may not cross the *start* line for ten minutes after the gun has shot. When there are 20k people running, only the elite runners can get near the start line. Chip sensors will measure your transit across the start line accurately, much better than those people fumbling with watches in the dark.