Timing Problems at Craftsbury, Bozeman Sprints Shine Light on Challenges of Hosting Bigger, Better Races

Chelsea LittleDecember 21, 20129
Race officials converge on a timing laptop at SuperTour races in Bozeman, Montana, earlier this season as they try to iron out problems in the results from a classic sprint qualifier.

In some ways, regional races aren’t a big deal. When the U.S. Ski Team nominates Olympians next season, they aren’t going to go back and check someone’s results at an Eastern Cup or the Tour de Ski Fairbanks.

But in others, they are a very big deal. Juniors rely on these races to qualify for Junior Nationals, the ultimate, season-long goal of many young competitors; college and senior racers use them as tune-ups for carnivals and nationals, and to gauge how their training is going; masters relish the opportunity to hammer out a hard effort and chase age-group glory.

And in the past few years, regional races have gotten bigger and bigger, both in size and importance. Ten years ago, there were only seven FIS-sanctioned series in the U.S., and one of them was that year’s Olympic Games in Utah. Five years ago, there wasn’t a FIS race east of the Mississippi until U.S. Nationals at the beginning of January, and none in New England until the UVM Carnival in February.

This year, there have been four FIS series already, in New England, Montana, and Alaska, and 17 more are on the schedule. The points at regional races have gotten better and better, and can seriously help an athlete’s season ranking.

“If you’re looking purely at the numbers, and the level of points available at our races now, that is certainly increasing, and to the people that are there chasing those points it could certainly be more serious,” New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA) Executive Director Zack Stegeman told FasterSkier in an interview on Thursday.

And that’s exactly what regional organizations like NENSA want.

“I think that all the organizers in New England have always worked very hard to make these events as good as they can possibly be,” he said. “That’s why we have such great regional races – our venues, and organizers, and NENSA itself has been trying hard to really raise the bar. The abilities of our venues and our community to continually step it up speaks volumes.”

Arguably, nowhere is this trend more apparent than in New England. The opening races of the Eastern Cup series were held last weekend at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in northern Vermont; Saturday featured almost 400 racers, while Sunday’s number was close to 500.

Which makes it scary when something goes wrong. On Saturday, Craftsbury was on tap to hold a classic sprint qualifier followed by 30-racer heats for the open division, plus 12-person J2 heats and a separate bracket for the next 12 fastest J1’s and OJ’s. Instead, due to timing problems, the heats had to be scrapped entirely and a second qualifier was held in the afternoon.

“We’re constantly evolving and learning from events, whether they go really well, or whether they are a bump in the road,” Stegeman said. “Saturday was definitely one of the latter.”

Cascading Failure

Craftsbury, which hosted a highly successful SuperTour Finals and Distance Nationals in March, has been moving towards using its own timing system. While Summit Timing was in charge of the March races, staff learned the ropes and were ready to implement their own system for the Eastern Cups.

Once the unofficial women’s results were posted, though, it was clear that there had been trouble with timing the morning’s qualifier.

“Once we posted unofficial results, we saw that there were major problems,” Stegeman said. “We tried to run through one fix and put them up again, and that’s when we realized, wait, the thing we’re doing to try to fix it isn’t working… and we identified all the timing equipment malfunctions and our inability to salvage those results.”

With limited daylight in northern Vermont, the race jury and timing crew decided that they wouldn’t have time to reconstruct the results and still run heats, so the immediate consequence was the cancellation of the heats and a second time trial instead. Although there was certainly some initial griping, racers seemed to buckle down and motivate for round two. Coaches quickly got to work re-waxing dozens of pairs of skis.

But for Sheldon Miller, an occasional racer, talented cyclocross competitor, and Craftsbury’s media and computer guru who was heading up the timing crew, the problems were just beginning. When FasterSkier contacted him on Monday afternoon, he was still wading through timing equipment just to get to his desk.

After setting up three Summit timers at the start and three at the finish, Miller had felt confident in his timing system. Ever since the central timing laptop that all those timers fed into crashed mid-race, he has changed his tune.

“It’s great to have all those individual timers, but when the thing that’s consolidating all of that information goes down, it doesn’t really do a whole lot of good in a near-term sense,” he told FasterSkier.

On Saturday, he had the data on the timers, but no way to get it off of them without having it reduced to gobbledygook. But by late Tuesday afternoon, he had unraveled the multiple failures that had created and then heightened the whole mess.

“Saturday’s qualifier results preparation was derailed by a failure of the timing computer and subsequent crashes of XL part way through the men’s race,” Miller wrote in an e-mail.

Despite the “cascading failures”, as he described them, Miller has since been able to reconstruct the data from the morning race by counting backwards from the last finisher. With three separate timers in each place, he had been pretty sure it was possible – but on a sprint day, results need to appear fast, and there simply wasn’t time.

NENSA and Craftsbury had to move on to plan B.

“We wanted to ensure that everyone who had invested the time and the effort to come race walked away with a result that counted,” Stegeman said. “That was really important to us. We were disappointed that we couldn’t do the heats, because they’re really fun.”

But it was the right thing to do, and Stegeman believed that the team had handled the situation as well as it could have.

“Were I to talk to a race organizer, that’s the big thing I would suggest, would be to identify that timeline,” he said. “For us, it was, how much time do we have to repair these results, before we have to just say, too bad, we can’t fix them, we have to run another individual-start before we run out of daylight.”

Public Relations

The change in format did cause problems. Some athletes, for instance, left the venue after the first set of unofficial results were posted, believing that their day of racing was over since they hadn’t qualified for heats. Since Miller has now recovered the morning results, they will receive points, but initially, they were simply DNS for the afternoon race.

Saint Michael’s College was one of those teams, but head coach Molly Peters didn’t seem to hold a grudge.

“It was a bummer to hear about what happened,” she wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “I didn’t make a big deal about it, mainly because I didn’t really know what happened. I was under the impression that they were trying to recover the morning’s results and if they did then they would take the best result… As a race organizer myself, it is hard to get mad. I understand that things happen and it looks like they did what they had to do to make sure it was a valid race.”

Green Mountain Valley School racer Heidi Halvorsen, who placed second in the morning qualifier but won the afternoon edition, agreed.

“The race organizers and all the volunteers at Craftsbury worked unbelievably hard and ran a great race,” she told FasterSkier. “With no snow anywhere else in New England, it was amazing that they have had skiing for the last few weeks, and they were even able to hold races. So it is impossible to criticize the organizers for the timing fluke, they made the best of the situation and overall the race was run very smoothly.”

With so few options for salvaging the race, the biggest question was actually how organizers communicated what was going on to athletes and coaches. At no point did unofficial men’s results ever appear; while that was a good decision, not all racers understood why. A second set of unofficial women’s results were posted, which observers initially assumed had corrected the problem, but those turned out to be wrong too.

It’s unclear exactly what could have been done to prevent teams like Saint Michaels from leaving, or to spread the word that the unofficial results were wrong. While some coaches picked up on the fact immediately, simply based on where their athletes sat on the list, there didn’t seem to be any official announcement that the results were under review.

Stegeman said that he and the jury had hesitated to post anything that was “still fluid,” believing that it could add to the confusion. While they were intently focused and racing against a clock of their own to solve problems, talking to athletes in the parking lot didn’t seem like a good use of time. At several points, they sent “runners” (coaches, as well as J2 and BKL athletes) out into the parking lots to update the community on what was happening. Stegeman was unsure how well the messages were conveyed.

Lessons – And More Questions

As a timer, the lessons from Saturday’s race were simple for Miller, who held himself accountable for the failures even though he isn’t trained as a timer and despite the apparent forgiveness of others.

“The biggest thing is the importance and necessity of having completely independent systems,” he told FasterSkier on Monday. “On Saturday I had three timers, literal timing machines, at the start, three literal timing machines at the finish. On Sunday we added another completely separate system that had nothing to do with what I was doing, as backup. We had two complete parallel systems running that we were able to cross-check against, as well as, should the cascading failures that we had on Saturday occur again, we could just jump off that burning ship and on to the other one.”

That, however, brings up some interesting issues. How many volunteers are needed to time a race with two completely independent systems? Craftsbury has a notoriously deep, loyal, and dedicated volunteer base, but can every venue be expected to have the same – or to pay a thousand dollars or so for a timing company, without a solid guarantee of a better outcome?

NENSA itself has had problems with sprint timing before, both in Weston and in Rumford, Maine; in at least one of those cases, timing had been hired out to professionals. And it’s not just NENSA. Already this year, there have been inconsistencies at other sprints.

“Truthfully, I was much more paranoid during the Bozeman sprints, when they kept erasing the heats and putting up different people, because the World Cup was on the line,” CXC racer Jennie Bender, the winner of the morning qualifier but not the afternoon edition, wrote in an e-mail.

At the Bozeman SuperTours, unofficial qualifier results were allegedly never posted for the classic sprint; or if they were, they were taken down during a protest and organizers continued to distribute bibs while racers and coaches only had access to the hypothetical sprint brackets. As it turned out, those sprint brackets were based on an initial set of qualifier results which were incorrect due to an inadvertent tripping of the timing wand when there should have been a ghost.

There were also other problems with the classic sprint results. Skiers were not initially assigned to the correct heats – for instance, in every sprint, the first, tenth, eleventh, twentieth, twenty-first, and thirtieth fastest qualifying skiers should be assigned to heat one, and so on. The brackets had to be redrawn once the error was caught. Racers in the first heat were already lining up when the announcement came that bibs would be redistributed.

So while organizers always hope for smooth sailing, it’s certainly not a given. There is guaranteed to be more problems in the future, somewhere in the country, whether at a regional race, a SuperTour, or something even bigger.

“It seems to me that there are variety of issues that skiing in North America is grappling with:  homologation, climate change’s effect on skiing at large as well as racing in particular (e.g. the desire to have more mass starts vs. too little snow or too short of a loop to support them adequately), smaller clubs or organizations’ ability to provide racers with FIS-scored events (and the inherent requirements the governing body mandates) at a feasible cost, and more,” Miller wrote in an e-mail. “We’re in a very productive time in North American skiing, but these tensions are ones that continually need to be engaged creatively for the sport to continue to thrive.”

Given these challenges, it’s important for race organizers to keep in mind the advice from Stegeman and Miller. Always have completely independent backup systems; set cutoff times for decisionmaking when something goes wrong; keep all the stakeholders involved and informed.

Stegeman believes that his region’s venues are up to the task. For one thing, NENSA is committed to education, and runs seminars for TD’s, race organizers, and even Bill Koch League (elementary school) race officials. But for another, he’s seeing the level of organization at New England venues rise all the time.

“The venues themselves are investing more and more in equipment,” Stegeman said. “Craftsbury had a top-notch camera set up on the finish line anticipating very tight finishes in sprint heats. You wouldn’t have seen that a few years ago. So there’s equipment investment, those are more tangible examples, but there’s investment in the human capital too. Venues all over New England are getting really good people on board from an event organizer standpoint right up to the grooming. Because expectations are rising right along with the rise in field sizes.”

At the end of the day, Bender, too, was optimistic.

“Everyone there saw the panic rise in the hardworking Craftsbury crew once the timing started to malfunction, and knowing many of them, I am sure that all the kinks will be worked out before the next event,” she wrote in an e-mail. “They did a great job on the course and snowmaking, and although some of the coaches and athletes may have been frustrated, it’s just a ski race.”

-Audrey Mangan contributed reporting.

Chelsea Little

Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.

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  • rbradlee

    December 21, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    I was deeply involved at the timing problems in the Weston races a few years ago. Two things I learned:

    1) Races that are electronically timed need to have a completely separate hand-timing operation and should go ahead and compute a complete set of independent results. We had the hand-timing records at Weston, but failed to use them to compute a set of independent results. If we had done so we could have fixed the problems in the electronic results and had our heats on time.

    2) The crew that works with an electronic timing system must be trained and have practiced using the system. Electronic systems do not operate by themselves. They must be set up and managed and there are many details that the timing crew must master by practice. Although we hired a professional timer with electronic timing, we supplied all the volunteers that he needed to help run the system and they were untrained and inexperienced with such systems so they made mistakes.

    While I’m writing, let me thank Craftsbury for almost single-handedly saving XC skiing in NE. Their huge investment in man made snow and quality race organizing has kept us going this fall. Bravo!

    Rob Bradlee

  • crashtestxc

    December 22, 2012 at 12:15 am

    However, the timing errors in Bozeman were unacceptable! There was a small field and absolutely no excuses for such a poorly-run event.

  • blueberryskier

    December 22, 2012 at 8:10 am

    Craftsbury’s snowmaking, hosting of extra races because of low snow, and pulling off major events such as SuperTours is awesome. No doubt it has saved the Nordic community many times in New England (notably the entire 2011-12 season!). Craftsbury has a bunch of staff to help do all this great work, while most other venues in the US host high level races with one or two paid staff.

    So here’s my question: If the same timing issues had happened at another venue, would everyone be so quick to forgive? At times, some in the ski community have been critical when other venues have struggled with similar logistical problems hosting large races. Hopefully, everyone realizes that mistakes happen, but should be minimized. FasterSkier did a good job of explaining what went wrong at Craftsbury. That should be done every time a significant problem occurs so that the quality of all venues and races can be lifted upwards as organizers learn. When the same mistakes get repeated at big races, that’s a failure.

    Lastly, USSA needs to ramp-up QA/QC to be sure venues hosting major races have adequate facilities, timing systems and personnel.

  • davord

    December 22, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Ryan, show some respect. Considering the amount of snow we had, the events were run very well. You should be thankful the races even took place. A lot of volunteers busted their behinds for those three races, some of them were literally working 20 hours a day, including going to Bohart at 5am to make sure the trails would be as good as possible, plus having other jobs in between. Have you ever organized a supertour? Have you even volunteered for one? I suspect not. You didn’t even qualify for the classic heats. I am not sure what you are complaining about.

  • crashtestxc

    December 23, 2012 at 12:31 am

    My comments might have been misunderstood. First of all I think we all recognize the tremendous job that the volunteers did that week. You are correct, there is absolutely no way that those races could have taken place without the help of so many willing people.

    I was referring to the “technical” aspect of the race (i.e. timing flaws) that should not exist with such a small field. We are paying money to compete in these races, and as an organizer it should be recognized that a service must be provided in ensuring that that these problems do not arise.

  • chadsalmela

    December 23, 2012 at 12:54 am

    This goes beyond the USSA. The problem is going worldwide, because of the FIS point system, and subsequent quality control issues with trying to manage a world ranking system, that drives athlete development. I don’t have an answer, but Mr. Miller adeptly scratched at the issues. The cash flow of an event of this nature requires a lot of resources, and man power, but ever more experienced man power–the balance of which is sketchy and not a reasonable approach to developing a sport. The economics of what we are talking about are extremely tight, requiring a lot of volunteerism, leading to an exchange like that between Davord and Ryan (? Presumably). The USSA is trying to manage a national tour that reflects and prepares athletes for the biggest stages. Those stages are arguably–at least I would argue–becoming too broad in numbers and disciplines. I don’t say this because I’m against any certain racing format, but from the national teams down to developing juniors, down further to parents and fans, the sport has become so complex. FIS keeps trying to milk and change a format at the highest level that just “cascades” functionally downhill, so that the sport doesn’t get easier tot follow and more exciting, it gets harder to follow and confusing. What FIS tries to squeeze into its World Cup season trickles all the way down to a Supertour or JOQ, and that kind of complexity for the development of a sport that close to the grassroots, isn’t a very good thing for broad growth. I think it is the sport’s second greatest challenge right now climate. I don’t think most of us recognize this because we’re just busy trying to figure out how to do it all day in and day out, but its something that should be on the radar at FIS. Whether or not it is, I don’t know, but their behavior doesn’t suggest it is.

  • sportalaska

    December 23, 2012 at 2:30 am

    It is important to separate volunteerism and the dedication of a race organization from the timing function – even if there is a lot of overlap (i.e. volunteers working on the timing crew). Our sport needs lots of dedicated volunteers and skilled and energetic race organizations that will work their butts off under challenging conditions in order to make events happen. Luckily, there are a number of such individuals and organizations in all corners of the United States of Cross Country Skiing – enough to put on a sufficient number of quality events.

    However . . . coaches, racers and technical delegates need to understand the difference in resources and experience that exists between clubs that organize races and World Cup level events. The Swiss Timing crew that travels the World Cup consists of a large number of people and a huge quantity of hardware. And they don’t always get it right, let alone get it right immediately.

    When a club relies on its own timing crew, or hires a timing contractor (one- or two-person crew) to come to a race and train local volunteers to time a (big) race, people must reduce performance expectations. That DOES NOT mean that the expectation of accurate and correct results should go away, only that it might take a little longer than it does at the World Cup level to produce correct results. And probably the reason for that is that volunteers are being used for the timing crew, and volunteers who don’t have a lot of experience will, inevitably make a few mistakes — even the best of them. And it only takes one or two mistakes in a sprint qualifier with 200-300-400 racers to add substantially to the time required to produce results.

    Timely results ARE important, but not anywhere near as important as CORRECT results.

    Now, if cross country ski race organizers want to pay more to timing contractors so that the trained personnel : volunteer ratio is better, they could do that, but that cost will, of necessity get passed on to the consumer – the skier. There’s a reason that cross country ski races cost $25-$35-$45 to enter and triathlons cost significant multiples of that. Triathlon organizers (at least for big triathlons) pay top dollar to big-time timing contractors to time their events. These contractors bring a lot of hardware and several trained personnel. That costs money. Many running races pay several more dollars per finisher to time running races than ski race organizers pay per ski racer. That’s just how it is.

    I’m not in favor of cross country skiers having fork over more money because $10 or so of every entry fee goes toward the cost of timing a race. However, skiers, coaches and TD’s need to understand that keeping participation in the sport at a lower price point comes at a cost — probably a little slower results.

    Chad is right that because skiers and coaches (and parents) are so concerned with USSA points and FIS points, a higher level of “sophistication” is needed in race organizations to meet the standards required for submission of correct results, etc. I think those point systems are, in general, a good thing. But, it’s one more i to dot and one more t to cross.

    We’ve got a great sport. It has become more complicated, race organizations have a higher standard to meet, and it’s taking a while to get there. Patience is important, both in the long term and while waiting for results.

    That said, every organizer of a high-level event (SuperTour, FIS Race, National Championship) owes it to the sport and to the skiers to train their timing crews to a high level of performance, to practice the timing of big races before race day to make sure that things work correctly, and to test the timing system out more than a couple of times before the race.

    If a race organizer uses an untrained crew with an inexperienced chief of timing who hasn’t practiced or tested, then if the results are messed up, the skiers and coaches have a right to complain — regardless of how hard the organization worked to make the race happen. But sometimes, you can do everything right, and things can still go to hell in a handbasket. And from the standpoint of a skier or coach, it’s hard to tell the difference.

    FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a running race timing contractor who times approximately 20-25 running races in a summer race season. I do not provide timing services for ski races on a contract basis. I am also an FIS TD, and have been Chief of Competition for several National Championships and FIS races. So I am throwing as many darts at me as I am at anyone else.

    John Estle, Fairbanks, AK

  • Tim Kelley

    December 23, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    As a guy that has worked automation and IT projects for 30 years – I get a good laugh reading this article. I see the classic scenario of “we can do it cheaper than the pros with our homegrown system.” This way of doing IT projects, and a race timing system is a small IT project these days, rarely is cheaper in the long run, and is always riskier.

    The other thing I get a chuckle out of is the use of volunteers as a critical part of this critical data acquisition process. Yes, volunteers are appreciated and laudable. But I might point out that in the real world it doesn’t work this way. If you want a project to go smoothly you get the most experienced people you can to do the job. And you pay them well, because they are worth it.

    Of course the retort from race organizers about only contracting pros to time their races is: “The entry fees will be too high.” Well, racers would probably rather pay an extra 10 dollars for an entry fee than buy a plane ticket, lodging and food to participate in a race where the timing was messed up. So perhaps race organizers should think of the competitors first and contract the pros. The chances of screw-ups will still exist, but they will be much, much less.

    Another suggestion would be for race organizers and NGBs to learn to say “No” more often. Doing this will reduce the cost of staging races. If everyone had said “No” to FIS homogulation requirements and made do with the courses they have … the amount of money saved would have paid for professionally timed FIS races for the next 10 to 20 years. Costs never stop increasing if you can never say “No”.

    Disclosure: I definitely like it when organizations say “We can do our own homegrown system cheaper.” My business partners and I have made good profits over the decades cleaning up the resulting computer system messes.

  • davord

    January 1, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Oh,and btw, it wasn’t anything the timers/timing system did or didn’t do, it was the work of two University of Utah women skiers that caused an issue in the qualifications. The whole story isn’t being told here.

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