Working: Marking time for mountain races

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AUBURN — Tom Kendall never planned to keep time.

Rather, as the parent of high school competitors who’d wait hours to hear the results of ski races, he wanted to make better use of his time.

So, in the mid-1980s, the Auburn computer salesman wrote a program that collected the handwritten, stopwatch scribbles of volunteers on Rumford’s Black Mountain. The custom-made program took in the numbers and spit out results, including the hard-to-calculate team scores.

“It was just minutes instead of hours, so I could pack up and come home,” Kendall said. “It was a way of solving what I considered to be a problem.”

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Thirty years later, he’s still solving the timekeeping problem on Black Mountain and on some of the biggest ski and mountain bike mountains in the country.

Kendall routinely times college ski championships and even served as the chief of race for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, overseeing the timing of skiing and biathlon events.

“It was wonderful. It was unbelievable,” Kendall said of his Olympic experience. “You got exposed to international companies that were doing stuff at the very highest level.”

He also saw what happens when something glitches at the highest level.

Time stops, he said.

Kendall, now 64, grew up in racing. He skied as a kid and as a student at Dartmouth College. He first kept time while working for the U.S. Ski Association after college.

Like everyone else, he used a stopwatch and a pencil. Everything was manual.

It was the same in the mid-’80s, when his children were racing. The fancy technology — electronic eyes, lasers, midrace comparison numbers and computer chips would all come later.

When he devised his own system — first using a Decmate computer — it was purely as a parent and volunteer.

“I had a full-time job,” he said. “This was weekend work. It was just a love of the sport and giving back to the sport.”

But after it caught on — “They didn’t accept it at first. Coaches would take it and do all their own calculations” — he began hearing requests for more events. More high schools wanted his help. And by the early 1990s, colleges began asking.

“The colleges liked that because it was very quick,” he said.

Soon he was working throughout New England.

It was still a part-time gig until he got the call for the Olympics.

His job was coordinating a vast, multinational, multilingual team.

“I wasn’t responsible for any of the technology,” he said. “Basically, I was in charge of getting the volunteers together, getting them into positions and making sure they were knowledgeable about the tasks they were going to do.”

He also oversaw the professionals from a half dozen countries: Italy, Germany, Japan, Spain, the U.S. and Norway.

They ran state-of-the-art systems that included electric eyes, ultrafast, time-stamped cameras and Norwegian computer technology that recorded skiers passing over the finish line with a chip system similar to the EZ Pass on the Maine Turnpike.

Everything worked flawlessly until it didn’t.

During a race of top-seeded skiers, the Olympic system hiccuped, Kendall said.

A racer crossed the finish line and the Norwegian system didn’t capture the time.

“We’re live on TV, worldwide,” Kendall said. “We have his time five different ways, but the system that was recording the time from the chip and sending it out to the TV world didn’t work at the finish line. “

Redundant systems would record the skiers, but they were not being shared.

“It isn’t going out of my timing building,” he said. “There’s no time going up on the scoreboard. There’s no time going up on the TV.

“There’s just no time,” he said.

Kendall watched seconds passed.

“The Norwegians just erupted in that timing building,” he said. “All six of them just descended on this one computer. And of course, they’re all talking Norwegian, so I haven’t got a clue what they’re saying.”

More time passed.

“The second competitor comes in,” he said. “No time.”

Seventy-three seconds passed. Finally, Kendall pleaded with the Norwegians to hit a single “B” button, switching the timekeeping to the first backup.

The switch sent the numbers up on every board and TV screen.

Time resumed.

“I would love to have heard what the TV commentators were saying,” he said.

The timing glitch spoiled none of Kendall’s Olympic experience.

“I loved it,” he said. “It was a compliment. It was a lot of things.”

After the games, he became a full-time timekeeper.

He works more than 40 weekends a year, still using his own, often-updated software to time races.

He works mostly alone, packing only what will fit in his van, and drives to the mountain.

And, as is appropriate for a timekeeper, he tends to be prompt.

“I pride myself in knowing how long it takes to get somewhere,” he said.

dhartill@sunjournal.com

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