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Spanaway company changing the way races are timed

Orbiter Newspaper Article. Spanaway-based Orbiter is making it easier and less expensice to time everything from school P.E. classes to organized races, says company president and CEO Gregory Stewart. Orbiter Courtesy

Answers to important questions nobody has asked me yet:

Q: How hard is it to time a race?

A: When Greg Stewart was a kid attending school in Lakewood, his classmates used to call him “Gordo.”

He was overweight, but then he discovered running. “I peeled the weight off and my self-esteem went up,” Stewart said.

Four decades later, he still believes in the power of running, and now his company produces technology to help make running events easier to stage.

Stewart is president and CEO of Spanaway-based Orbiter, a 9-year-old company devising ways to make timing races less expensive and less cumbersome.

The company, which started in 2006 at the William Factory Small Business Incubator, has developed technology that allows races to be timed by one person instead of a small crew. They’ve also developed a machine called the side-antenna for timing running events. The military and several schools are using the side-antenna, which uses radio frequency identification, to administer training, physical education classes and events.

Orbiter has been awarded four patents.

The race-timing technology has been used mostly by small events, including Seattle’s annual Big Climb, but Stewart says the devices are capable of timing larger events with thousands of participants.

Instead of needing a crew of people to set up overhead structures and mats at the start and finish of races, Stewart says the Orbiter device allows one person wearing an RFID reader sling to record runner’s times as they pass. Software computes the results in real time.

No experience is needed to work the equipment, Stewart said. Races can rent the technology for $295 per event, plus the cost of RFID-embedded bibs for the runners ($1.95 each). Stewart says the technology saves organizers about $1 per runner.

Stewart seems particularly excited about the side-antenna technology. Users set up the orange bollard at the finish area and give RFID wrist tags to participants.

Stewart says 30 military bases have purchased the devices for fitness assessments and timing recreational events. Numerous schools also use the devices to administer their fitness tests, eliminating the need for teachers to mark students’ hands (a tracking method used by some to track laps), tally laps or even hold a stopwatch.

Stewart’s goal is to get the technology in every school. It’s already being used by schools in Los Angeles, where he hears stories about how the device helps make an impact more important than making run days easier on the teacher.

“I talked to a PE teacher who said when he started using the Orbiter there was a gang kid who was totally turned off, who was flunking out of school and flunking out of PE,” Stewart said. “But when he started running he realized his grade was just between him and the machine. It was like a game. The teacher said it was like night and day … and the kid started to excel. He got an A and then it bled over to the academic side.

“There are so many people that think athletics are worthless, but in reality they are probably one of the most important areas of education.”

Q: How much did nasty fall weather slow down OAR Northwest’s Columbia River rowing expedition?

A: After a run earlier this week, Rachael Mallon was surprised by how sore she felt.

“I guess you use different muscle rowing than you do running,” Mallon said.

Mallon and Leah Shamlian, graduates of the University of Puget Sound, hadn’t had much time to run over the past few months. They were busy rowing a 750-mile section of the Columbia River from just north of the Canadian border to Astoria.

They’d hoped to finish by Nov. 4, but relentless rain and wind threatened to blow them off schedule.

One frigid, wet night they pulled into County Line Park near Kelso to camp only to find the showers closed. A camp worker drove to the park to open the showers and offered to give the women a warm meal. “She was such a sweet woman,” Mallon said.

Mallon and Shamlian, were rowing for OAR Northwest and making presentations at local schools along the way. They’d hoped to end the trip at the Columbia River bar, but wicked weather and a small-craft warning changed their mind.

They declared the Astoria Bridge, close enough to the Pacific Ocean to taste salt water, to be their finish line.

Not only did the conditions not slow them down, Mallon and Shamlian finished Nov. 3, a day early.


University of Puget Sound graduates Leah Shamlian, left, and Rachael Mallon recently completed their 750-mile rowing adventure on the Columbia River. OAR NorthwestCourtesy
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