Once upon a time, a man named Paul and a few of his longtime friends started meeting in their local park at the same time each week. Paul would record the time it took them to run a 5km course, then they’d have a whale of a time talking and chatting in the cafe afterwards. It all went like clockwork – except when it didn’t!
Over time, more and more people made the time to come to the park. Before long there were lots of people in lots of parks, all being timed. As parkrun’s popularity grew, so too did the need to evolve the method used to record people’s times, to ensure volunteers had the time of their life and that things were as simple as possible for the walkers and runners they were timing.
During the current parkrun downtime, we’ve taken some time to get some first-hand accounts of the all-important part of parkrun that puts the ‘timed’ in free, weekly, timed.
A moment in time
“At the very first parkrun in October 2004 the timing system consisted of a clipboard with two columns: position and time,” recalls parkrun’s Founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt CBE.
“The position was pre-recorded in column one and the time had two sub-columns: minutes and seconds. The minute column was only filled in when it changed. Hence, we scribed the minutes and seconds for the first person crossing the line – it happened to be two people that first day – and then just the seconds for the next person. When we passed 59 seconds we scribed the next minute position. We used two stopwatches, one for backup. The backup was a simple wrist running watch but I can’t remember what type!”
The main timepiece had been lent to Paul by Ranelagh Harriers Running Club in Richmond. It was a Seiko S149 Printer Stopwatch.
The main benefit of this watch was that it recorded and stored 300 times which, back then, was far more than Paul felt they would ever need. It also had a tally roll just in case the timekeeper deleted all the times.
“There was some kind of connector to export the times but this was an optional extra that we didn’t have,” says Paul. “When producing the results I simply transcribed the values into an Excel worksheet.
“This solution worked for a while until the running club needed their timer back for their own events. We still had the wristwatch version which was fine too.”
The best use of time
parkrun didn’t open a second event until January 2007, but even though the requirement to have many parkruns all timing their events was a long way off, Paul wanted a solution that would allow times to be downloaded to a laptop. He wanted to remove any errors and effort required in producing the results and this would be the first step.
By this time, Paul had written the original parkrun results system. It was very rudimentary but had taught Paul how to program using Visual Basic and Microsoft Access.
“I undertook an experiment to write a timing application for the laptop. It needed to be robust as I didn’t want a situation where we could lose the finish times. I also had to consider that operating a laptop outdoors in the British weather could be problematic,” Paul says.
Paul produced a stopwatch for parkrun’s needs which operated for a number of years across several events. The application allowed for a team to start a new event, record the lap times of every finisher and end the event. It recorded these times to a database table hidden from the user, and on ending the event, it spat out a simple text file with a header record, the individual position and times and a trailer record to close the file. It recorded that datestamp of when the timing took place – useful as many teams ran a test before the event started and there might be hundreds of files on the laptop. This file was very useful because the team could interrogate the data and make the necessary changes, and the file could also be ingested into the bespoke parkrun results system.
In the first instance, teams would produce a timing file and a positions file. The positions file held the finish position and the barcode of the individual that finished in that position. Teams would transmit these two files to parkrun HQ, which at that time was Paul’s shed, via email.
Paul recalls “I would sit at my desk all Saturday waiting to receive these files. Ingesting these files, one by one, for each event, it would be up to me to resolve any anomalies that existed such as unknown runners and missing times.”
The laptop version worked quite well but had a few issues. It required a laptop for every event. The software had to be downloaded and installed and that wasn’t as simple as it is these days. Sometimes there were issues and resolving these took time and effort. The weather made it difficult for the teams, and it was cold in the snow! Sometimes teams would forget to charge the laptop in advance. A simpler solution was needed.
Time to test
Paul started searching for a robust, weatherproof solution which would allow a downloadable file to be created and where there was a reasonable restriction on the number of times stored. parkrun was still a small family of events and Paul admits he thought the number of events may double, but not increase any further than that.
So when Paul found the TAG Heuer CP454, a rugged timepiece offering a limit of 9999 times to be recorded and an interface to the laptop, he decided to give it a go. There was a problem however – a price tag of £1000. Nevertheless, Paul purchased one and went into development mode, producing software that teams could download which would read the CP454 and produce the same text file Paul had previously designed.
“Bushy parkrun was the guinea pig where we introduced and tested all new initiatives. The number of participants had exceeded all our expectations at this stage, which was about 250 finishers at that time,” Paul says.
“This technology proved to be reliable and easy to use as long as the team didn’t get inquisitive and decide to change the settings! This is something that happened occasionally and meant that they could time more than one finisher a second. We produced the setup instructions, guidelines and how-to documents and made these available on the parkrun Wiki.”
By the end of 2007, parkrun had seven events and 2008 saw this number double.
“At a thousand quid a pop I realised I had a problem,” Paul admits. “This solution was the gold standard but not something we could afford at any scale. So I started looking for another solution.”
Time to scale
When Amager Fælled parkrun in Denmark became the first parkrun outside of the UK to launch in May 2009 it began with a Tag Heuer CP 520 – which they still use to this day!
“It doesn’t print the results on paper like it used to but other than that it’s doing a great job,” Event Director Anne Petersen says. “In 11 years it has never broken down.”
“A Tag Heuer timer is quite a handful. It’s ‘a bit’ larger than a cell phone as you can see from the photo, and of course heavier at 800 grams, but it is smaller than a shoe box! It comes in a handy little suitcase that also includes spare batteries and spare rolls of printer paper in case we decide to try to revive the printing! We even have a rain cover for it.
“We explain to new volunteers that all you need to press is the green button with the number two. You press it once to start the event and press it every time someone crosses the finish line. Timekeeping is literally as simple as that!”
After some further investigation and negotiation with TAG, Paul found the HL440.
While still expensive it was about half the cost of the CP454 and Paul felt it could work. He needed to make small modifications to the software he had written but these were minor. Paul believed it would provide a solution but he wasn’t to know that parkrun would balloon to 35 events the following year and double in size again in 2010.
The TAG Heuer HL440 Minitimer was a heavy square box that just about fits into an adult grip. By 2020 standards it is a cumbersome machine, with keypad contacts that have not changed much since the pocket calculators of the 1980s. The front has a basic LCD display and a simple keypad. At its base are a power input and two RS 232 connectors, and at the top there are four banana jack inputs. Built of sturdy black plastic it has classic TAG green and red detailing.
One early user of the TAG Heuer HL440 timer was Milton Keynes parkrun, which launched early in 2010. According to Event Director Gareth Snelson it was very easy to learn and use.
“I was shown once and had absolutely no problems for two weeks, but on week three I didn’t pay attention and gave the timekeeper incorrect instructions. That mistake never happened again in the seven years we used it! Eventually we put together this ‘how to’ video that clearly showed the device in operation and how to operate it.
“It’s a very tactile machine, it really feels like you are timing something important when you use it. You would turn it on (fully charged, of course), select Synchro manual, enter the date and time manually, and choose the first green button. You would then select ‘open run’ and plug in the manual contact button and you were ready to start.”
The TAG Heuer HL440 was incredibly accurate, could cope with huge temperature variations, and because of its size it felt very secure.
“We would never run out of data as it could store 30,000 times, and being a TAG it was designed for extreme temperatures with skiing events so wasn’t likely to give up on us,” Gareth says.
“The downside was that it needed to be looked after. The manual contactor eventually started to fall apart, with the wires becoming exposed where it entered the body of the button, and a very heavy rainstorm one stormy April Saturday in 2017 killed it.”
Well before the Milton Keynes parkrun TAG timer went cuckoo, parkrun had been through two incarnations of timers as Paul continued to search for more cost-effective and reliable timekeeping options.
Not the best of times
There was a short period of time when the black Opticon devices used to scan finishing tokens and barcodes were adapted to record times as well. Whilst this certainly wasn’t parkrun’s finest era, the upside was that many people spent many hours having many conversations over a post-parkrun coffee while trying to process results!
The Opticons weren’t all bad mind you. They were small, portable, easily charged and less expensive than the TAG timers. Their downfall was the lack of a display, which meant human error could be high, errors were often not detected until during the results processing, and even when errors were identified they couldn’t always be resolved. This method also meant the timing device and scanning device were identical, leading to many teams laminating printed labels and instructions to loop around the neck cord on each device.
Several teams who used the Opticon devices report having a photographer at the finish line each week and using photos with timestamps to help resolve situations where a finisher wasn’t timed across the line or the timer was pressed more than once. They also report several Event Directors going bald in a very short space of time.
Rory Marriott was one such Event Director at the time at Valentines parkrun in east London, who did in fact go bald in suspicious circumstances.
“I remember the good old days of using the Opticon as a timing device, and given the growth of attendance at parkrun events over the years I really don’t miss them!” Rory laughs.
“Seriously though, with a relatively small event size, typically around 100 for us back then, the big drawback of not knowing how many times had been recorded was just about manageable. There was also an upside to having no display, which was that people didn’t distract the timekeeper by asking what their time was after they had crossed the line.”
Using the Opticons as timers was actually very straightforward, with a large button and a small button. The small button would clear the data if held down for around five seconds, which needed to be done before the event started, with the large button being pressed at the start and then as each finisher crossed the line. Problems arose however when the timekeeper inadvertently pressed and held the small button, deleting all the results in the process. It was also possible to turn off the beeping noise the device made when pressed, which meant the timekeeper needed to keep an eye on a slim light that flashed when a finisher was successfully timed across the line.
To process the results, both the timing and scanning Opticons were plugged into a computer, followed by a collective holding of breath as the results appeared on the screen. If a result row was green the devices matched, if a row was yellow it usually meant someone hadn’t had their barcode scanned, while any pink rows meant another coffee or two while the problem was investigated!
Rory remembers one particular occasion when things didn’t go quite to plan. “I thought I had forgotten to press the button on the Opticon at the start of the event so I pressed it again, only to notice when we were uploading the results that we had more times than finishers and the first finisher had recorded a time of two seconds!”
Watch this space
Thankfully, the double Opticon method wasn’t in use for too long before Paul found a far cheaper and more reliable timekeeping solution – the JUNSD 9000 stopwatch.
“Never put your hands on a JUNSD stopwatch before? Think of the coach on the sidelines of any sporting event,” describes Aneez Kanji from Whitby parkrun in Canada. “Coach is often seen donning a tracksuit, a clipboard and a watch at the end of a rope!”
The JUNSD timer had several functions but keeping track of finishing times with a clear display was one of its biggest strengths. One button would start the time, then a lap button was pressed as each parkrunner crossed the finish line. A simple ‘beep” would indicate that the time had been recorded. All records would stay on the device until downloaded to a PC, and once the results were uploaded the times could be deleted.
“The JUNSD stopwatches were easy to use,” Aneez recalls. “The buttons were large with enough space to ensure the correct one was being pressed. On colder or wet days, even in Canada, you could keep the watch in your pocket and still be confident the times were being collected without having to look at the stopwatch. The watch face showed you the overall time and how many finishers had been registered, which made it easy to confirm the current finisher count with the volunteers giving out finishing tokens.”
The only downsides to the JUNSD stopwatch was that it was possible to accidentally turn the sound off, meaning a timekeeper would need to keep an eye on the watch face until the Tail Walker crossed the line. It was also possible for a timekeeper, between pressing the start button and the first finisher crossing the line, to accidentally pause the watch unnoticed.
There was also a bonus mystery button as Aneez recounts with a wry smile.
“When bumped, this button would inadvertently set the alarm to go off at midnight. For those who stored the device in the house instead of a garage or shed, this ‘feature’ was met with unfavourable domestic reviews!”
Moving with the times
By 2018, parkrun had developed the Virtual Volunteer App.
“We had noticed there were a few homemade apps around that were being used at events for timing and scanning,” recounts parkrun’s Global Operations Manager James Kemp. “We looked at a few and really liked an app made by a small company for their local parkrun. We decided it would be great for us to have an official app that we could offer to all events so we got in touch with them and the Virtual Volunteer was born.”
It was important that the scanning and timing functions were as simple as possible while reducing the amount of equipment that needed to be stored, transported and maintained by event teams. The Virtual Volunteer app significantly reduces the financial and logistic costs of supporting parkrun’s vision of being free, forever, for everyone.
Times can be recorded by tapping the split section on the screen of the device, and in addition, either of the two volume buttons on the side of the phone, or on plugged-in earphones, may be used to record the time. One of the earphones may be placed in the ear to hear the beep. On a cold or wet day, the Timekeeper could place the phone in their pocket and they will hear a beep to confirm each participant. The timer continues in the background even if the app has closed.
“In December 2017 parkrun launched in Germany, marking a landmark moment in parkrun history as it was the first time we had started a new country operating ‘app-only’,” James says. “This meant all events across the country would operate without the traditional hardware of stopwatches, scanners and laptops.”
Jenny Labitzke, Event Director at Ziegelwiese parkrun in Germany, was one of the people to benefit from this new parkrun technology.
“The Virtual Volunteer app is really simple to use – you just need to remember to download it before the event begins! You start the timer at the beginning of the event and just tap your phone every time someone crosses the finish line. At the end of the event you stop the timer and send the results to the event’s email account.
“It is really easy to handle and to explain to new volunteers and it works on nearly every smartphone. It gives you the chance to cheer on everyone as they sprint towards the finish line while also volunteering. My only advice is to bring touchscreen gloves in winter if you live in a cold part of the world!”
Remarkably, 127,000 different people around the world have carried out the timekeeper role 561,000 times at parkrun since 2004 on a wide range of different devices.
Who knows when and how parkrun timing technology will evolve into another timeless classic. But when it does, rest assured we’ll all be doing the time-warp again.
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