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## Running Club Handicap Races

Handicap races were particularly attractive to me for the simple reason that I was no longer young and, even if I were, my racing success would be limited by a distinct lack of talent. Over the past few years I’ve been racing in handicap race series organized by various clubs and I’ve been amazed at both the popularity of these races and the anger and venom you get when people treat you unfairly.

Among the travesties I saw were two five-mile races where the winner in the first beat his handicap time by four minutes and two weeks later beat the target by five minutes. Many people who ran significant PBs in the second race, were unaffected by the handicap targets. Even worse was a series of twelve (handicap) races where 10 in a row were won by the same man. At no time during the series was there any adjustment made to the runners’ targets although it was clear that some were easy to beat while others were finding it difficult to get even remotely close.

The secretary of my current club (Beverley AC) asked me to look at ways of improving the means of calculating handicap goals. In these days where you can find anything on the internet I was surprised that a Google search for “running handicap” turned up almost nothing. No software. There is no discussion forum. There is no method. There was a lot of material on horse racing and an equal amount on maintaining and recording golf handicaps. But it was an information desert to navigate.

It seemed to me that any practical method to reach the goal must meet several criteria…

1. Runners must be able to ** understand** How did they reach their goal?

2. The method should be applied equally to all

3. Goals must be verifiable

4. Goals should reflect the runner’s current level of ability

And if these standards can be met we at least stand a chance of making most people happy.

I’ve heard of any “methods” used to reach the goal that involve a huddle (handicap committee) of people trying to estimate (estimate?) the finish time and do little more than a group of other people based on the runners’ PBs. For an arbitrary distance – usually 10K. Isn’t the problem with the PB approach not least when you consider personal time to be no longer relevant? So what do you replace it with?

Most handicapping methods also used the Rigel formula as a means of adjusting times from one distance race to another. This is a formula designed by Peter Riegel from research into the performance of elite and semi-elite athletes. This takes the form t2 = t1 * (d2 / d1)^1.06 and, in plain English, if the distance run is doubled the speed decreases by 6%. This formula is widely used by various running calculators available on the Internet. A more complicated formula (Cameron’s formula) gives very similar results, although the logic is very different. Predictions only start to differ from the Riegel formula when you predict a marathon time using, say, a very short race, such as a 10K, as the base time. Under these circumstances the Cameron formula predicts a lag time.

Another problem with trying to use PB’s as a basis for calculating future goals is that you can’t guarantee that they’ve been run under different conditions. Some hot, some cold. Some windy, others still. Some rounds in the circuit point to a point where the effects of wind and elevation change will be more marked than others (such as the Boston Marathon which loses about 900 feet between start and finish).

I came up with a simple hypothesis – if we used the Riegel formula (or a variant) for each runner, their last 3 most recent races to adjust each race to an equivalent 10K distance. So, if there were also a way to factor in the effect of elevation changes on the course, we would have all runners on roughly equal footing, producing in effect a “flat 10K” time. By taking the average of the 3 most recent runs as the base time for the target on the next run you would first adjust the base time for the distance then for any known elevation on the course for the target run.

The hypothesis was easily tested using sample data from past seasons and preliminary calculations with a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet were encouraging. Height Change Calculations Dr. It was based on some work reported by Tim Noakes (author of the monstrous work Lore of Running) that proved the notion that, as the bottom goes up, most runners definitely lose time. Compare that to a course that is completely flat (ie, you don’t come back downhill as you lose going up). So, for a meaningful time comparison you have to make some compensation when not all runners’ base times are obtained from exactly the same races.

While trying to implement the system in live situation several things became clear…

1. The system worked well for many runners

2. Spreadsheets were workable but it was very easy to make significant mistakes that affected the accuracy of the results and were difficult to prevent or detect. This is a common feature in many spreadsheets.

3. Even with spreadsheets it takes a lot of work to maintain the system after you have a few runners. Beverley AC had 160 members of which at least half were active in the 10 race handicap series.

4. You can’t just take races into account in a handicap series – if you want an accurate rating of a runner ** present** Ability You need to log all the races run by each person

5. There were some runners and situations where, to be fair to everyone, you had to make adjustments. The challenge was to come up with a way of doing it that wasn’t arbitrary or open to criticism if someone were to challenge what you did.

Special circumstances that required another look…

Runners who have not run for six months or more.

Runners picking up injuries or short-term illnesses

Runners moving in ways that are out of the ordinary

New runners with no running history

Most clubs run a series of handicap races to produce series results with some form of points system. We operated a sliding scale where 4 minutes under the target got you 10 points, under three minutes 9 points and so on. Using the program to work we have now modified it so that scoring less than 4% gets you 10 points, 3% less gets 9 points etc. This percentage system balances long and short runs very well and also in between. High flyers and average runners. In the past it has been difficult for fast guys to do well in a handicap competition partly because they are so consistent (so the target is hard to beat by many) and if it is easy to stay 2 minutes on target. You run the 10K in 55 minutes if you are a regular 35 minute finisher.

We have come up with the following solutions…

1. Where a runner is new or has not run a race for a while we do not attempt to predict a time. For the first race we simply assume that the target time is equal to the time run from the middle of the schedule and the award points (ie six points using our system). If the next race they run doesn’t go off target by just one run then we let the target stand otherwise it will be six points again until a sensible average base time is established.

2. For runners with a short-term injury or illness, it is usually easier to rule out a poor result if the race they ran previously is correct.

3. If the drop off in performance is large and appears to be prolonged we treat the runner as a new entrant and establish a new performance standard for that runner.

Sometimes runners perform beyond expectations. If this method is good, it feeds into their average for the next race and they, effectively, pay a penalty estimated at one-third of the improvement (assuming the average exceeds 3 races). Conversely, sometimes you’ll find someone who runs a race but doesn’t try to run a good time. “Who would do such a thing?” You may ask. Well someone who is training for an important event and is using the race as another training run – this often happens. In such cases it is simply a matter of asking the runner why the time is so slow and excluding it from the next calculation on the basis that it is not representative of the current form.

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