Why bother with clocks on race courses?

In large, chip-timed events, the times displayed at mile markers are only accurate for front-of-the-pack runners.

by Dave McGillivray
Getty Images

Years ago, before the huge field sizes and multiple wave starts, I always thought seeing course clocks along the race route was both informative and motivational. Now, I am not so sure anymore.

Once the gun fires and the clocks are set to that gun, the times displayed by those clocks are accurate only for the runners who were right on the starting line. Given that most races now time and score using chip time, the clocks along the course aren’t accurate for most runners.

Interestingly, for races with early starts for wheelchair athletes or athletes with disabilities or even elite women, most of the time the course clocks are not set for these divisions and it doesn’t seem to be an issue for them.

So, why bother with course clocks anymore? I polled some race director friends and runners, and here were their arguments for keeping (or eliminating) course clocks.

Why to keep course clocks

  • Most runners still expect to see them.
  • Many runners have no problem doing the calculations based on when they crossed the starting line.
  • The clocks help to clearly identify the mile markers along the course.
  • Many runners have stated that seeing and then passing clocks along the course are a form of immediate gratification.
  • In most smaller races, course clocks still remain very relevant and effective.
  • If a runner’s watch or GPS fails, at least they have something to go on.
  • Spectators can get a sense of when a runner they are following might be coming by that checkpoint when viewing a course clock.

Why to eliminate course clocks

  • As stated above, the times displayed on course clocks in large scale races are not accurate for most of the field.
  • There is a cost to renting all the clocks and manpower required to placing them, but that is expected.
  • Some runners have stated that when they see the clocks with the times displayed, they get confused and lose their sense of pace.
  • A fair number of runners have stated that they don’t even look at the clocks anymore.

So, as you can see, some runners want clocks along the course; others don’t think they are necessary. Some race directors have done away with them; others think runners would miss them.

As technology improves, maybe the day will come when course clocks can display the chip times of all participants as they run past (although in races with high concentrations of runners I’m not sure how this could actually happen). Others have suggested that if there were four wave starts, for example, the race should place four clocks at each location representing the time from the start of each wave. This not only gets costly, but it isn’t that simple to find one source for this many clocks, especially for a marathon.

So, if you were a race director of a large race, what would you do? Or, as a runner, what do you prefer?

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Discuss this story

I've not done a race with clocks throughout the course, except for a track 10000m (but that hardly counts...), and surprisingly the track race was the only clock that I took particular notice of when I approached the finished - most other races I'm too transfixed to glance around for it!

Posted: 24/10/2016 at 20:55

I think that this article is another example of the lazy journalism that often appears in the UK edition of Runners World. I'm sure you know the kind of thing I'm talking about, where the article first appears in the US version and gets lifted wholesale to be printed over here, without researching its relevance. They might have clocks at every mile in US races, but I've never heard of or seen such a thing over here.

The other thing that bugs me about such articles is that they are often too lazy to take into account cultural differences between us. for example keeping temperatures in farenheit instead of celcius.

After checking the runnrersworld.com website I see that the article first appeared on there 3 days ago.



Posted: 25/10/2016 at 10:51

And don't get me started about the use of American spellings.

Posted: 25/10/2016 at 18:20

I think clocks are useful at the finish - unless I'm doing a big event where I might have crossed the line minutes after the leaders, I will still be interested in my gun time. 

Posted: 26/10/2016 at 13:24

Couldn't agree more.

Posted: 29/10/2016 at 11:27

... with Kenbro

Posted: 29/10/2016 at 11:28

I'll tell you a clock that was super pointless once.

One that was about 200metres from the finish of the Southend 10k.

 Monstered round a bend, saw the clock, sprinted in, then realised the actual finish was another stretch away. Ridiculous!

Posted: 29/10/2016 at 19:26

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