Time on the minds of Ski to Sea officials ahead of 2013 race

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 15, 2013 

Ski to Sea Road Bike Leg

The Bagelry teammates James Lander, right, and Chris Teufel, left, exchange a timing chip between the running and road biking legs of Ski to Sea Sunday, May 29, 2011, in the Mount Baker area.

JORDAN STEAD — FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - In 2007, Ski to Sea Race Director Pete Coy and the race committee introduced electronic chip timing to the annual Memorial Day weekend, 93-mile, seven-leg relay race from Mt. Baker Ski Area to Bellingham Bay, bringing Whatcom County's annual celebration of the recreational sports in the area into the 21st century.

In 2012, the race's timing system fell back into the Dark Ages.

"We know we have a very difficult event to time electronically," Coy said earlier this month. "With seven finish lines, we require seven timing systems and a way to compile the results from all seven. Not many companies have that much timing equipment and it only takes one of them going down to create problems."

Last year, there were two timing system failures.

The race started off with a cross-country skier crashing into the timing system at the finish of that leg, taking it out of commission.

The timing system on the downhill leg suffered an equipment failure, according to Eric Ewing, manager of the Pacific Northwest division of Milliseconds, the timing company.

Skiers' times ended up being inaccurate, incomplete and in many cases just plain bizarre.

And the results trouble trickled down to the running leg, as well. Without accurate start times at the end of the downhill leg, it was impossible to figure out how long it took each runner to finish the eight-mile run from Mt. Baker Ski Area to the Shuksan Department of Transportation shed.

The race's only backup to the system was a set of volunteers at each of the seven finish lines writing down team's bib numbers in the order they finished. While that got the order of the finishers, accurate times for most competitors on those legs will never be known for sure, though team overall times were accurate.

"I have heard a few comments from more seasoned racers that are in a lot of races, but mostly they said, 'Hey, that's racing. It happens at every race,'" Coy said. "Some of our Recreational Division racers, they said, 'Hey, we're just happy to finish the race. We don't care about our time. We knew we probably weren't going to be competitive.' I was probably more frustrated than anybody by the fact it didn't work out the way it was supposed to happen."

And when Coy is frustrated by something, he's the type of guy to make a change.

Change is exactly what he and the race committee set out to do achieve for 2013.

Welcome Race Day Timing Solutions out of Kansas City to Whatcom County, as the company takes over the timing duty from Milliseconds.

"When we went looking at timing companies, Race Day Timing Solutions was the only one that could provide us what we were looking for with two, independent timing systems at each leg," Coy said. "I said we need a primary and we need a backup at all seven finish lines."

Coy estimated that 95 percent of the time, assuming both systems are working, the two identical systems will record two times, about a half second apart, for each competitor as they finish. In the instances that the first timing system misses a chip as it crosses, the second should get it.

And in the rare opportunities that both systems miss the chip, or if the unthinkable happens and both timing systems are taken offline, Ski to Sea will have time-stamped photos taken of each team as they cross the finish line as a backup system.

And just in case all three timing systems fail, the race will once again have volunteers writing down team numbers at the end of each leg.

"My hunch is we'll have the times," Coy said.

The other good news for racers is that Race Day Timing Solutions uses more sensitive timing equipment, meaning the "Ski to Sea Stoop" as racers cross the timing mat is a thing of the past.

Satellite dishes also will be used to record chips in the snow at Mt. Baker Ski Area, rather than having a wire run underneath the snow, to help improve accuracy and durability at those finish lines.

To keep the timing systems out of the elements at all finish lines, Coy said the finish lines will now be located under big tents, making them difficult for racers to miss.

"We feel very good about the change we made to the timing system," Coy said. "It cost a little more, but we feel it was worth it."

To offset those costs and not pass it on to racers, Ski to Sea went with a less-expensive registration system, though that may soon change again.

"Our's is a very complicated race," Coy said. "We have team captains go to a website and register their teams and invite the eight team members to join. It's more complicated that most races, and we only hired this company in December, and that didn't give them enough time to reprogram their system to accommodate this complicated race. We heard that it was frustrating for teams and team captains. We're already working on changes for next year and developing out own system for registration."

But besides the timing and registration systems, very little else has changed in 2013 for a race that is known for its continual evolution.

The race is now giving hooded sweatshirts to racers, while volunteers will receive the usual T-shirt. Both are already on sale around Whatcom County, and Coy said the sweatshirts have been well received by racers, as has the new eye-catching artwork.

Coy also has planned a Memorial Day salute to precede the awards ceremony at the Marine Park finish line in Fairhaven, complete with a Blackjack air squadron from Skagit County doing a flyover of the park and Squalicum Harbor, the presentation of the Colors by a group from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and the introduction of a Ski to Sea team of wounded warriors from Walter Reed National Military Hospital in Washington, D.C.

"I've always been a little embarrassed that we have our event on Memorial Day weekend, and to this point we've never done anything to recognize that it is Memorial Day weekend," Coy said. "This year, we will."

But other than that, Ski to Sea isn't changing much in the hopes that racers, volunteers and spectators have a great - and accurate - time.

"It's not all that different from what we've done in years past," Coy said. "We're just trying to do a better job it, and I think we are."

The nature of the 2012 downhill leg timing failure was updated May 28, 2013.

Reach Sports Editor David Rasbach at 360-715-2271 or david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com. Browse the Ski to Sea special section at BellinghamHerald.com/skitosea.

Reach DAVID RASBACH at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2271.

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