When one Toronto runner registered for the 2019 Boston Marathon this week, having qualified in her age group for the first time, she discovered that her “official” time at her qualifier race was her gun time, not her chip time. Luckily she knew that the Boston Marathon now accepts chip times, and she wasn’t worried, since the difference between her gun time and her chip time was too small to hurt her chances of being accepted into the world’s most prestigious marathon.
Still, she was surprised. “I thought all races now accepted chip times as official,” she said.
In fact, that’s not the case. Though all but the smallest races now use timing chips (the technology has been in use since the late 1990s, or about 20 years), and most chips are now embedded into the race bib, gun time is still considered by many to be more appropriate. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Your time is recorded from the the moment you step over the start line timing mat (which may be anywhere from less than a second to many minutes, depending on how far behind the start line you start) til you cross the finish line. There may be additional timing mats at split distances (like 21.1K on a marathon course, for example, or even every 5K). This gives those further back in the pack the assurance that their race will be accurately timed, with no need for them to elbow their way to the front.
A fringe benefit of the technology is that it makes it easier to spot cheaters who cut the course, since it’s pretty obvious they cheated if split times are missing altogether.
But purists still regard victory as belonging to the first person to cross the finish line, regardless of the fact that someone who started further back might have a faster chip time.
Florida Running & Triathlon cites two examples where gun time and chip time differed enough to cause a ruckus: one was the 2008 Chicago Marathon, in which Wesley Korir crossed the finish line well behind the elites, but actually had the fourth fastest chip time. Korir did not win any prize money for finishing fourth because he did not race with the elites, who started five minutes ahead of the rest of the field. In effect, he ran a different race altogether.
A similar controversy erupted after this year’s Boston Marathon, when, according to an exhaustive report in Runner’s World, several women in the open category demanded recognition (and eventually were given prize money) based on the fact that they had faster chip times than some of the elite finishers who were awarded prizes. This, no doubt, had to do with the highly unusual weather conditions, but, as the report pointed out, just like Korir in 2008, they were not in the same race as the elites, and therefore should not have expected prizes.
It boils down to a debate between whether runners are racing against each other, or against the clock. Those who feel strongly about racing in real time generally want gun time preserved. Those who race only to better their PB tend to think we should dispense with gun time altogether.
The Boston Marathon recognizes chip times from qualifying races, so do not worry if your qualifying race uses your gun time as your official time.
For the purposes of competition, the USATF and the IAAF use gun time.