Catching Up With Sean Laughlin of Record Timing

Sean Laughlin of Record Timing, in his element. (Photo courtesy of Kirby Lee/Image of Sport)

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MileSplitCA checked in with legendary Bay Area-based timer Sean Laughlin of Record Timing to learn more about his history, the evolution of Record Timing, challenges during the pandemic, and much, much more. 

MileSplitCA: How did you get started with Record Timing?

Sean Laughlin: The short answer is, as a coach in the early 1990's, I got frustrated with waiting days for results, "NT" listed for some athletes, and wanted to leave the meet before dark. So, once I got my hands on a Finish Lynx system -- which may have been Lynx's third or fourth system sold -- our team's officiating duties became timing and results.

That same year or about that time, the CIF State Meet had just moved back to Northern California for the first time in many years and I, along with Bob Rush and Chuck Skow, timed the State Meet. From then on, I kept getting more and more requests to time meets and a few years later was told to form an actual business by my "tax guy".

The long story is, back when I started coaching in the late 80's early 90's, officials were starting to become sparse and coaches were asked to be in charge of an event. The California JC's at the time had moved away from dual meets and went to Friday 3-5-way rotational meets and with officials starting to become sparse, naturally we all had to pitch in -- which usually meant officiating a field event -- which I really didn't mind doing since I was a field event coach but at the same time I surprisingly already had an aptitude for computers even though I was a PE teacher (football and track in college) and had a Masters in PE/Athletics Administration. I was actually one of the few on our campus that could remote in and run eligibility checks on our Unix main frame at the college.  Interestingly, I could actually RAS in from home over a phone line with a $3000 DOS laptop and a $300 2400 baud modem! Remember this was 1990 -- no internet and no email.

Anyway, the big problem at this time was that getting any type of results from these meets in a timely manner would take days -- sometimes a week later since being that when we moved away from dual meets we also had to move away from the old results scoring charts on NCR paper since the scorers were not able to keep track of everything on one page. I just knew there had to be a better way. To make matters "worse" was that the JC's had started officially keeping track of weekly Best Mark Lists and we actually had deadlines to get updated marks in or they would not count. It was stressful, ha ha.

In the late 1980's early 1990's, Clerk of the Course, had just come on the market and it literally was the beginning of a revolution in track and cross country meet management. Hand timing was still the norm, Accutrack (mechanical Polaroid photo finish) was a luxury but digital computerized photo finish was just around the corner. FinishLynx was born in the early to mid 1990's and after getting a Lynx system, our team's officiating responsibility was timing and results. From there, things just took off.

Q: Tell us about the evolution of the company?

After obtaining one of the early Lynx systems, timing some meets -- and coincidently with our college getting a new track and hosting meets -- I was able to start networking with some pretty higher ups in the officiating world. At the same time, Stanford had just reached out to time their meets since they had moved out of Stanford Stadium and started hosting over at their "practice" track which is now Cobb Track/Angell Field. I was then asked, by Bob Podkaminer (who wrote the very first track and xc scoring program, Clerk of the Course, as well as Lynx system #2 owner, world renowned official, USATF and NCAA rules secretary) to time the USATF Masters Championships which were held locally that year and was introduced to another Lynx timer from Texas. Two weeks later I was timing a USA vs. Germany Decathlon in Texas via my new Texas connection and just like that, I had a semi-national connection. Additionally, during that time, we were contracted to start timing the world famous Modesto Relays. So, by 2000, I was timing as many events as I could fit in, whether youth, high school, junior college, college and open, I would do it if I could fit it in. I figured it was better to use the equipment than let it sit a week or two in between meets. I also know that practice made perfect and the more reps that I could get under my belt the better.

Q: What can you share about Bob Rush?

Bob Rush is THE main reason where I am at today. He and I were actually rival coaches more or less. I was the youngster hired at (San Francisco City College) and Bob was the long-time coach at College of San Mateo. Bob probably doesn't know that I know this but he called my AD to complain about me as a young coach for something I can't remember. But those who know Bob know that's just how he is. Anyway, as a young coach, I didn't let that bother me. As previously stated, around that time, technology was just starting to break into the track world and Bob had just started compiling our conference's best marks list and thus he did the database work for our conference and NorCal JC Regional Championships. Bob actually came up with the design/idea for the Chronomix manual print timer box used for many years in the XC and road race world. So with Bob doing the database, I started doing the Lynx timing. We did a lot of the JC stuff together and Bob actually was doing the CIF-State Cross Country Championships prior to my involvement. We both kind of did our own thing for some stuff but also worked together for many events as well.

Q: How much time goes into preparing for a meet? How long does it take to set up for a meet as well as the break down?

I am a visual person who thinks out every little detail of an event prior to meet day.  Whether it is a grammar school jog-a-thon or state/national championship, every event gets the same detailed thought process. From vehicle access to cable runs, power, set-up area, number of finish lines, display boards, the list goes on and on. Depending on the client's needs, I will have everything mapped out and then put into a sort of "game plan" along with a plan "B" and of course I have occasionally gone to a plan "C".  All of these details are important in ensuring a smooth and timely set up and operation.  Then of course there is the pre-meet physical prep that goes into each meet, such as downloading entries, dealing with late or missed entries then prepping the necessary paper work, and of course building the live web results. This can take anywhere from 30-40 minutes for a weekday meet -- if the meet director has their act together -- to two weeks if it's a super large event like the Stanford Invitational where 6,000 athletes need to be moved around into their respective seeded events. 

As for actual site set up, I give myself 1.5 hours for a single finish line set up and an additional 45 minutes per added finish line (or split point for XC) for wind reversal and such. I have found that this time allotment normally gives me enough time to set up the two minimum cameras needed per finish line as well as any additional display boards and also allows for a bit of trouble shooting if need be. It also allows me a bit of decompression time before the meet actually starts where I "like" to then mentally prepare for the needed day's processes. It is funny, but it is as if I am mentally preparing as if I were getting ready for a race or game myself. Of course this buffer time is ideal but there are times when for whatever reason I am pushing the set-up right up to the last minute before the first gun.

As for tear down, it is usually half of the amount of time that it took me to set up. I like to pack up things myself since I will need to find it the next time out and of course I need to make sure that everything fits whether in its case or back in the trailer or vehicle. It sort of turns into a puzzle that only I know the code to getting it all packed up. If I can keep the pack-up consistent, it will make things that much easier on the next event's set up.

Q: How many meets - XC & TF - does RT time in a normal year?

Probably around 80 or so events per year with a road race here and there. Since I am a control freak, I don't want to spread myself too thin since I have this need to be involved in some form for each event that I commit to. I want to make sure that the level of service we provide is equal for all events on the same day.  I am not into having many crews to cover four or five events in a single day. It is not a knock on those companies that do do that. It is just how I am wired since I want to be involved in each event. Even though a few of my crew are much smarter than I am, and fully capable of handling things, I also am concerned about the event not being a royal mess for them due to things out of their control, so I also worry about burning them out.

Q: How many dual meets does RT time in a normal week? How many invites on a normal weekend? What is the most meets RT has timed on any one day?

During peak high school season, I personally can be timing six days per week and even on a "day off" I am either cleaning up equipment from the previous events or prepping equipment and vehicles for the next. I will never book more than say three meets per day during the week and say no more than two for an invitational just because of my control issues (ha, ha). There is a fine line between not wanting to leave a potential client hanging but also burning my crews out.

Q: What are the largest meets you time in terms of both volume of athletes and prestige?

Stanford Invitational and previously Mt. SAC Relays and Arcadia Invitational for track are huge in both numbers and level of prestige. Arcadia is a fun challenge because that meet requires 11 cameras between wind reverse finish lines and en route FAT splits and times. 

I have also been timing the (Team Cross Country Nationals in Portland) since its second year onward. NXN was actually the first XC meet where true live XC split team scoring was introduced. It was a project that Lynx built for Nike using AMB battery activated ankle chips which were extremely expensive.

Then of course CIF State Championships for both track and XC, Capital Cross Challenge with over 6,000 runners and overlapping races with a few hundred race day registrations! Then of course my collegiate clients of Mountain West Conference, Pac 12 Conference and NCAA D1 Championships consisting of usually timing a regional XC meet as well as being the Data Specialist for both the NCAA D1 Indoor and Outdoor Championships.

As a "data specialist" I change gears a bit in that I am solely working with the D1 Committee with the seeding, data processing and results verification leading up to and during the D1 Championships.

Q: How has technology made his job easier? Maybe more difficult?

The funny thing with technology and making things easier is that in reality, the advancements in the timing and results aspects have not changed much in the past 25 years. Overnight, we went from popsicle sticks, handwritten results and hand timing to computerized seeding, results production and digital photo finish timing. So, that aspect hasn't changed that much. It still requires a human to input or mark in some way.

For XC, RFID (chip) timing did help immensely since we had to rely on pull tags and spindles to keep track of order of finish -- which for XC being a team sport, accurate placing is critical. So, with XC we went from volunteers and parents doing the most important job for each race of collecting, in order, hundreds of tags per race to letting the chips keep track of the order. HOWEVER, even with chips, they don't always get it right, so having a proper verification process is still very important. For me, I find it easier to read every runner with the camera -- with the help of the chip placement -- and then I know that the results are correct the first time out. 

That said, most of the technological advancements have drastically improved the spectator experience. From display boards and live web results along with web streaming, to live splits and live team split scoring, technology has really played an important role. 

But of course, with all of these advancements in the fan experience comes more equipment to purchase, set up and support. It has in some respects made things more difficult, especially when trouble shooting and of course in having to deal with the occasional "technically challenged" parent who is irate that their child's result has not posted yet, when in fact their child hasn't competed yet, or in some cases, the kid was still out on the course!

Q: Are there any new gadgets or elements you would like to add to your timing service?

Being an early adopter, always thinking outside of the box and occasionally "stealing" some good ideas from others, I am pretty well covered technology-wise. But one thing I would really like to see an advancement in is remote internet connectivity -- whether satellite or perhaps just better cellular coverage. Our weakest link here in the U.S. is relying on cellular internet, especially at events where connections can be saturated with heavy use or are out in remote areas where cell coverage can be spotty, like at some XC venues.  Not only is this important and expected from fans regarding the live results that people have gotten used to but in some instances remote web connectivity is critical in getting that data from those remote locations back to us and/or out to the web. Nothing throws me off of my game more than a lousy internet connection.

Q: Aside from timing, what else pays the bills?

I have been teaching for over 30 years. Luckily, my role has evolved with the technology where I have been "working remotely" many years before the term became the norm in 2020. Being an early adopter in teaching online and putting my computer skills from timing meets to being our department's "tech guy," I have been able to do my job and more while affording the flexibility to still time meets in a very close proximity to home. Being a workaholic, my typical day goes from 7 a.m. until about 1 a.m. seven days a week but I am still able to sleep in my own bed most of the time.

Q: From timing meets, is there anything that you have learned that made you a better coach?

No! Coaching and timing is tough. It takes a special game plan in order to do it right. In the early days it was very doable and actually freed up our other coaches in that if we were to officiate a field event our entire staff would have to be involved. But if I was put in charge of timing and results, I along with one or two athletes could cover that and thus free up our other coaches. I actually learned this from the famous Arnie Robinson, former Olympian, JC coach and timer in Southern California. He was "the man" in So. Cal and I would always pick his brain as to how he did it. So, it was a bit of a sacrifice but it worked and at least we had results after the meet! As things progressed with timing, my coaching role changed along with my departmental responsibilities. Eventually, I got out of coaching but still stayed connected with home meet management and doing more biomechanical analysis of our technical events.

Q: Do you have any pet peeves in dealing with coaches and athletes? What can coaches and/or athletes do to make the job smoother?

Ha ha! Be aware of your surroundings and stay away from the finish line, press box and anything where there are cables! I have one team in particular that has no finish line etiquette. For some reason, they use my camera poles as stretching poles, find that ever-so-narrow gap between the timing tent and camera pole, and then like to take cover under my tent or use my equipment coverings if it rains. They just drive me nuts!

Also, coaches, please get your entries in on time and please read all meet information.  I have one small league where some coaches will email me the morning of a weekday meet a zillion changes -- of course well after entries have closed and everything has been downloaded, sent out for proofing and printed -- not to mention that the morning of a meet I am usually en route to and or setting up for the meet!

Q: We know you've had instances where you've really had to hustle from one meet to another. Tell us about one of those that you are most proud of meeting the challenge and crushing it.

I have a few crazy stories. My wife would call them idiotic. 

I have had many fly-ins where say I timed a meet in Kentucky, hustle to ship out equipment and catch a flight back West to pick up another shipment of equipment for a major event the next morning. Those scenarios require having multiple sets of equipment, contingency plans with personnel and many times I will double-book flights just to make sure I can make it.

One time I had a Friday twilight XC meet in Oregon (where I) Drove all night straight through to the Bay Area for a high school invitational the next morning. Got into town at 5 a.m. Went to Starbucks, changed my shirt, and was waiting at the gate for the park ranger to show up. Got set up and was ready to go for 10 races and a good 200 meet-day registrations because the meet director felt sorry for the teams that traveled a long way but "forgot" to enter.

Another time, I timed a D1 college meet with a full setup of three finish lines, packed up, drove all night hauling my trailer at 80 mph to SoCal. I actually got four hours of sleep, up at 5 a.m. for another full setup, four finish lines, field event boards and live TV setup. Nailed everything with that meet, then packed up and drove straight home back to the Bay Area.

(There was) a crazy week of timing high school XC meets that were rescheduled due to bad AQI with meets every day, Monday through Friday. The next morning, remotely run live splits for a friend in Texas. Then drive equipment from the Bay Area to Utah. Leave the vehicle at the airport, fly home, and time three high school meets in three days. Then, immediately after the third meet, fly back to Utah, pick up the vehicle, and drive to the venue. Wake up the next morning and it is snowing. Full XC setup in shorts and snow. The snow stopped but it was 18 degrees with full sun! 

Q: How is Record Timing managing during these times where all meets, high school and college, have been shut down since mid-March? 

Ugh. It has been tough mentally as well as financially. Unfortunately, I do business the "new school" way -- buy now and pay later. But I have been able to get a lot of projects done around the house. Some of them have been on hold for 10 years. I was also able to take care of my father, who coincidently went into the hospital in March and passed away in September. That whole ordeal was tough but sort of a blessing in a strange way since it would have been nearly impossible to deal with if we were on a regular schedule. So, yeah, I'm done with all of this and ready to get back into the swing of things.  

Q: What do you miss most about timing meets? 

Ironically, the stress and focus required. I love arriving at a facility, getting set up and everything operating and running smoothly, then repeating the whole thing the next day. It is also fun to try new equipment and the processes that may be involved with its operation and set up. It's fun to try new things yet at the same time keeping things consistent.

Q: Tell us about your partnership with MileSplit and what that means to Record Timing. 

This partnership is a win-win. I was very pleased with the ease and simplicity of the few times that I got to use MileSplit entry and results upload system. No headaches! It will also give my clients more national coverage since many other states have already been on MileSplit. So, thinking more like MileSplit for the high schools as Direct Athletics/TFRRS is for the colleges. And of course, the web content and coverage that MileSplit already does just adds to the positive promotion of our sport.

Contact Sean Laughlin at sean@recordtiming.comCheck out the Record Timing website

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Inserted photos courtesy of Sean Laughlin.