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Running Club Handicap Races

Handicap races were particularly attractive to me for the simple reason that I am no longer young and, even if I were, my running success would be limited by a certain lack of ability. Over the past few years I’ve run in a series of handicap races organized by various clubs and I’ve seen both the popularity of these races and the anger and venom you get when people feel they’ve been unfairly treated. I was surprised.

Among the travesties I witnessed were several five-mile races in which the winner beat his time limit by four minutes in the first race and then hit the target by five minutes a week later. Many who managed significant PBs in the second race were understandably unimpressed by the handicap targets. Even worse was a twelve game (lackluster) streak where 10 consecutive games were won by the same person. No adjustments were made to the runners’ goals during the series although it was clear that some were easy to hit while other people had a hard time getting close.

My current club secretary (Beverley AC) asked me to look into ways to improve the way handicap goals are calculated. In these days where you can find almost anything on the internet, I was surprised to find that a Google search for “flowing defects” turned up almost nothing. No software. No discussion forum. There is no method. There was plenty of material on horse racing and an equal amount on golf handicap maintenance and registration. But it was a waste of information to manage.

It seemed to me that any suitable method for reaching the goals must meet several criteria…

1. They must be able to run access to how did they reach their goal?

2. The method should be equally valid for all

3. Objectives must be verified

4. Goals should reflect the current level of running ability

And if these criteria were met, we would have a chance to at least make most of the people happy.

I had heard of several “methods” used to achieve goals, some involving more than a bunch of guys (handicap committee) trying to guess (guess?) people’s finish times and others on base running PB for an arbitrary distance – usually 10K. The problem with the minimal PB approach is when you consider a personal moment as no longer relevant? So what do you replace it with?

Most blocking methods also use Riegel’s formula as a means of adjusting times from one race distance to another. This is a formula developed by Peter Riegel from research on the performance of elite and semi-elite athletes. It takes the form t2 = t1 * (d2 / d1) ^ 1.06 and, in plain English, says that if the distance traveled doubles then the speed decreases by 6%. This formula is widely used by various running calculators on the internet. A more complex formula (Cameron’s formula) tends to produce very similar results even though the causes are very different. Predictions only start from Riegel’s formula when you’re predicting, say, a marathon time using a much shorter race, like a 10K, as the base time. In these conditions the Cameron formula predicts slower times.

Another problem with trying to use PB as a basis for calculating future goals is that you can guarantee that they will work under different conditions. Some hot, some cold. Some wind, others still. Some around the world suggest that the effects of wind and elevation change will be even more pronounced (like the Boston Marathon, which loses about 900 feet between start and finish).

I came up with a simple hypothesis – what if, for each race, we considered their last 3 races, then used Riegel’s formula (or a variation) to adjust each race to an equal distance of 10K. Then again, if there was a way to even out the effects of elevation changes on the course, resulting in a “10 K” time we would have all runners on the same footing. Taking the average time of the last 3 races as the base time for the target in the next race you will then adjust the base time first for the distance and then for any known elevation in the course for the target race.

The hypothesis was easily tested using sample data from previous seasons and the initial calculations were facilitated with a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. The elevation change calculations are based on some work reported by Dr Tim Noakes (author of the monstrous work Lore of Running), which proved the concept that, on an increasingly downhill course, most runners will inevitably lose time. they do compared to a course that is completely flat (ie you don’t get back on the descent all the time you lost on the climb). So, for meaningful time comparisons when not all base race times are from exactly the same racers, you have to make some allowances.

Trying to implement the system in a live situation revealed many things…

1. The system worked well for many runs

2. A spreadsheet could be created but it was very easy to make significant errors that affected the accuracy of the results and were difficult to prevent or detect. This is a common feature on many spreadsheets.

3. Even with an option folder the system needs a lot of work to maintain once you’ve had more than a few runs. Beverley AC had 160 members of which at least half were active in a 10 race handicap series.

4. You can’t just consider races in the handicap range – if you want an accurate evaluation of a runner so the capacity you need to record all races run by anyone

5. There were some runs and situations where, to be fair to everyone, you had to make adjustments. The challenge is to find a way to do it that isn’t arbitrary or open to criticism if someone objects to what you’ve done.

There were special circumstances that required another view…

Runners who haven’t run in a while say six months or more.

Runners pick up an injury or short-term illness

Runners deviate from the norm in some form of performance

New runners with no racing history

Most clubs that run a series of handicap competitions settle the results of the series on some sort of points system. We were running a sliding scale where about 4 minutes under the target got you 10 points, three minutes under 9 points and so on. Using the program to do the work we have now changed so that the score improves from under 4% to 10 points, 3% under 9 points and so on. high flyers and middle runners. It used to be harder for fast guys to do well overall in a handicap race, partly because they are so consistent (so it’s very hard to hit the target) and also because it’s easier to break 2 minutes in be under the target. you run 10K in 55 minutes which is a 35 minute routine.

We came up with the following solutions…

1. Where a runner is new or has not run 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 running time and the award points from the middle of the table (ie six points using our system). If the next race they run just doesn’t hit the target based on one race, then we let the target stand, otherwise it’s six points again until a reasonable average base time is met.

2. For runners with an injury or short-term illness, it’s usually easiest to just avoid bad results if the race they’re running is true to previous form.

3. If the drop in performance is greater and seems to last longer then we treat the runner as a new participant and set a new performance standard for that runner.

Sometimes a run results in a performance that is far from what is expected. If it’s much better then it goes back to their average for the next race and they, effectively, pay a penalty of about a third of the improvement (assuming the average is over 3 races). Conversely sometimes you will have someone who is running a race but not trying to run a good time. “Who would do such a thing?” you might ask. Well someone who is training for an important event and just uses the race as another training run – that happens a lot. In these circumstances it is simply a matter of asking the runner why the time was so slow and then excluding it from further calculations on the basis that it is not representative of current form.

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