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Langford runners make dent in race market

For any race director, the electronic chirp as runners pass over timing mats is music to their ears.
Edward Hill/News staff Langford runner Mark Nelson shows some of the timing equipment used in road races on Vancouver Island and the Mainland. With business partner Nick Walker

For any race director, the electronic chirp as runners pass over timing mats is music to their ears.

The beeps acknowledge that timing is triggered and logged — recording hundreds or even thousands of personal victories. For those who run, weeks and months of training can come down to a precise record of minutes and seconds.

But when Nick Walker and Mark Nelson faced the “blue screen of death” computer failure while timing their Bear Mountain 10K race last year, fortunately it wasn’t panic stations. The mantra of any race timer is data backups and backups of backups.

“Every timer has a primary and backup (computer) for redundancy,” Nelson says. “We have a lot of systems to ensure your time is correct.”

After starting the popular Bear Mountain 10K and then taking over the Gutbuster trail run series, the two elite athletes from Langford are poised to become the dominant players in race timing and organization services.

Under the umbrella Langford Running Company, Nelson and Walker bought RaceDay Timing services two years ago and are now timing the vast majority of running, triathlon and adventure races on Vancouver Island, and are quickly expanding to the Mainland. Complementing that, they’ve also developed, an online race registration company.

“It’s a real growth time for the business. The last three or four years have been the real punch forward, but with 80 hour work weeks,” says Nelson, who with Walker also operates and owns Langford Frontrunners. “It’s nice to grow the company and afford to have staff.”

In 2010 they timed about 30 events on the Island. They’re on track for 45 this year and 60 in 2012, including events on the Mainland.

“The number of events have swelled,” Nelson says. “The region has such a large running, walking and fitness population.”

Small runs of less than 500 people can work with a push-button timing system at the finish line, but such events tend to be volunteer heavy. Last year Nelson and Walker jumped into paper thin radio-frequency tags (RFID tags) glued on race bibs.

“They are crazy accurate and you can have a million people crossing the line,” Nelson says. “The fun part for me is the race timing. There is pressure. Everyone’s time comes down to you not messing up.”

Now owners of 40 mats and five computers to log runner times, the company is timing sizable events such as the Oak Bay, Comox and Whistler half marathons, the Tour de Victoria and the Frontrunners Island race series.

They are busy enough to turn down timing the growing and popular Subaru Western triathlon series. But they’ve got their eye on other big prizes — the Victoria marathon and TC10K, both events which attract more than 10,000 runners.

“We’ve got to keep growing with the industry. We’ll be doing Twitter and Facebook updates as people cross the line,” Nelson says. “People want results right away and the technology allows for that now.”

Nelson estimates they’ve invested $100,000 in gear and web development to be in a position to grow the running services company, but notes that what people pay to enter a race usually doesn’t match actual production costs.

Equipment rentals, race announcers, traffic control, policing, medical crews, food and liquids, and portable washrooms often can’t be covered by entry fees alone. Creating safe but festive race atmosphere comes at a price and business sponsors are critical.

“People don’t want to pay a lot to get in, but they want a lot of features — live results, announcers and all things around a race costs huge money.

“If people paid for what they get, it would be $75 for a 10 kilometre race. Most events do a really good job at keeping prices low.”