Random running annoyances No. 3: Timing chips

Timing chips are a brilliant invention. Really they are. It’s a simple concept: timing chips allow race organisers to individually time each participant in a race from the moment they cross the start line until the moment they cross the finish line. Brilliant.

Without timing chips, race results have to be determined by ‘gun time’ – the time taken from the moment the start gun goes off (well, very few races actually use guns now, but ‘air horn time’ doesn’t have the same ring to it) until each runner crosses the line. Simple, but in a big race not very fair to those who start down the back of the pack and might have to spend a long time shuffling forward before they can actually get to the start line.

With timing chips, each every runner can be given a time that actually reflects how long it takes them to run the course. It’s fairer all round. So yes, timing chips are brilliant.

So why list them as a running annoyance? Simple: they have to be attached to you somehow.

In a previous random running annoyance I already expressed my frustrations with affixing a race number, so the fact I’m similarly riled by timing chips probably won’t surprise. But timing chips offer multiple routes to frustration, because there’s a huge variety of chip types with a huge variety of ways to attach them. And they can all be very annoying.

Let’s run through some examples. By the way, I’m sure there are proper, technical names for some of these chip types. But I’m not sure what they are, so I’m just calling them what I’ve come to know them as…

Shoe tags

These are small rectangular bits of plastic with holes in. They’re usually supplied with two of those wire twist ties. The idea is to feed the wire through your shoelaces, then up through the holes in the chip. Then you twist the chips until tight – and you’re done. Except…

It sounds easy, but it usually requires loosening your shoelaces to feed the wire through. And once you’ve done that just before the start of a race, it’s basically impossible to get your shoelaces back in the nice, tight snug position you had them in before. Grrrr.

Disposable shoelace tags

Small strips of a weird reinforced paper-like substance that has a thin timing chip built in and a sticker bit on one end. You feed them between your shoelaces and the tongue of your running shoe, and stick the two ends together. Simple. Except…

This has the same shoelace-loosening problem as the shoe tags, with the extra challenge of trying to stick something down. You’re also warned to make sure the thin timing chip bit is facing upwards, which is quite difficult when you’ve messed up the sticker bit and accidentally stuck it to a bit of your shoe.

Then, during the run you’ve got the weird paranoia that the paper-like substance is going to rip and fall off, leaving you without a time. Except it never does, because it’s one of the toughest substances known to man – which you’ll discover when you later try and rip it off your shoes…

Ankle holders

This is a cunning way of bypassing shoelace attachment altogether: just put the chip in an ankle holder that you fasten with velcro. Now that is nice and simple. Except…

First, they can be a bit heavy and feel quite unnatural fastened to your ankle during a run. Distracting. Also, it pretty much makes it look like everyone in the race is running with an ankle tag, like they’re on parole or serving an ASBO. A classy look.

Race number chips

Now this is a great idea: a disposable chip that is integrated into your race number. Essentially you combine the two things you have to attach to your body to take part in a run into a single object. That automatically halves the annoyance, right? Except…

Except it simply makes the already annoying task of attaching a race number even more challenging. The timing chip adds a bit of weight and a weird section that won’t crumple like the rest of the number. There’s also the paranoia that you might somehow stab the timing chip with a safety pin while you’re wrestling to fix it to your vest, which might cause it to explode. Or at least not work.


In other words, no matter what form a timing chip takes, attaching them ahead of a race is invariably frustrating and annoying. Although, to be fair, that’s still less frustrating than being given a slow official time for your run because you were stuck in a crowd and couldn’t cross the start line for a minute.

It’s also worth considering timing chips may well become less frustrating in years to come as technological advances makes them smaller and easier to attach. In fact, in a sci-fi style it’s probably not too far fetched to think race organisers in the future could conceivably inject small timing chips into your skin for fully accurate timing.

An injection? Think I’ll take my chances fiddling with my shoelaces…

Previous random running annoyances

No.2: hydration (and consequences)

No.1: race numbers

I’m running the 2016 London Marathon to raise money for the South West Children’s Heart Circle, a local charity that helps children (and their families) undergoing heart surgery. Sponsor me by clicking the ‘Just Giving’ button below – any money donated will go to a truly brilliant cause

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