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Running Club Handicap Races
Handicap racing was particularly appealing to me for the simple reason that I am no longer young and even if I were, my racing success would be limited by an obvious lack of talent. Over the past few years I have raced in series of handicap races organized by different clubs and I have been amazed both by the popularity of these races and by the anger and venom you feel when people felt unfairly treated.
Among the parodies I witnessed were a few five-mile races where the winner of the first beat his handicap time by four minutes and followed it two weeks later by beating the target by five minutes. Several people who ran significant PBs in race two were, understandably, unimpressed with the handicap goals. Worse still, a series of twelve races (handicapped) where 10 consecutive races were won by the same person. No adjustments to runners’ goals had been made at any point in the series, although it was clear that some were easy to beat while others struggled to close in range.
My current club secretary (Beverley AC) has asked me to investigate ways to improve the means of calculating handicap targets. In these days when you can find just about anything on the internet, I was amazed to find that a Google search for “running disability” turned up next to nothing. No software. No discussion forum. No method. There was plenty of material relating to horse racing and equal amounts for maintaining and recording golf handicaps. But to execute it was a wasteland of information.
It seemed to me that any viable method of achieving goals had to meet a number of criteria…
1. Riders must be able to understand how their goal was achieved
2. The method must apply in the same way to all
3. Goals must be verifiable
4. Goals should reflect the rider’s current skill level
And that if these criteria could be met, we would at least have a chance of pleasing most people most of the time.
I had heard of a number of “methods” used to arrive at goals, some involving little more than a bunch of guys in a huddle (the handicap committee) trying to estimate (guess?) the people’s finish times and others based on runners’ PBs for an arbitrary distance – usually 10K. The problem with the BP approach is not the least when do you consider that an individual time is no longer relevant? What are you replacing it with then?
Most handicapping methods also used the Riegel formula as a means of adjusting the times of a race from one distance to another distance. This is a formula devised by Peter Riegel based on research on the performance of elite and semi-elite athletes. It takes the form t2 = t1 * (d2 / d1) ^ 1.06 and, in plain language, says that if the distance traveled is doubled, the speed decreases by 6%. This formula is widely used by the various race calculators available on the Internet. A much more complex formula (Cameron’s formula) tends to give quite similar results even though the reasoning is very different. Predictions only start to deviate from Riegel’s formula when you predict, say, a marathon time using a much shorter race, like 10k, as your base time. Under these circumstances, Cameron’s formula predicts slower times.
Another problem with using PBs as the basis for calculating future goals is that you can guarantee that they would have been performed under a variety of different conditions. Some hot, some cold. Some windy, others still. Some laps in a circuit, others point-to-point where the effects of wind and elevation change would be even more pronounced (namely the Boston Marathon which loses almost 900 feet between start and finish)
I made a simple assumption – and if we took into account, for each runner, their last 3 recent runs then we used the Riegel formula (or a variant) to adjust each run to an equivalent distance of 10K. Then if there was a way to also account for the effects of elevation changes on the course, actually producing a “10k flat” time, we would have all runners on roughly the same basis . Taking the average of the most recent 3 runs as the base time for the next run target, you will then adjust the base time first for distance and then for any known elevation of the course for the target run.
The hypothesis was easily tested using sample data from previous seasons and initial calculations with a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet were encouraging. The elevation change calculations were based on work reported by Dr. Tim Noakes (the author of the monster book Lore of Running) which proved the idea that, on a course that climbs as much as it descends, most riders definitely lose time when compared to a completely flat course (i.e. you don’t come back on the downhill all the time lost on the uphill). So, for meaningful time comparisons, you need to have some compensation when not all riders’ base times are from the exact same races.
In trying to apply the system to a real situation, several things became apparent…
1. For many runners, the system worked well
2. A spreadsheet could work, but it was very easy to make big mistakes that affected the accuracy of the results and were hard to prevent or even spot. This is a common feature of many spreadsheets.
3. Even with a spreadsheet, the system was a lot of work to maintain once you had more than a few runners. Beverley AC had 160 members of which at least half were active in a 10-race handicap series.
4. You can’t just take handicap series races into account – if you want an accurate assessment of a rider’s performance fluent capacity you need to record all the races organized by each individual
5. There have been riders and circumstances where, to be fair to everyone, you had to make adjustments. The challenge is to find a way of doing things that is not arbitrary or open to criticism if someone questions what you have done.
The special circumstances that required another look were…
Runners who hadn’t run a race for a while, say six months or more.
Runners injuring themselves or suffering from a short-term illness
Runners achieving an exceptional performance
New runners with no running history
Most clubs running a series of handicap races calculate the results of the series with some sort of point system. We used to use a sliding scale that went something like 4 minutes under got you 10 points, three minutes under 9 points and so on. Using the program to do the work, we’ve now changed this so the score is better that 4% lower gets you 10 points, 3% lower gets you 9 points, etc. This percentage system balances much better between long and short runs and also between high flyers and medium runners. In the past, it was harder for fast guys to succeed in handicap competition, partly because they tend to be very consistent (so it’s harder to beat the target of many) and also because It’s easier to be 2 mins under if you run 10k in 55 mins than if you’re a regular 35 min finisher.
We have proposed the following solutions…
1. When a runner is new or hasn’t run a race for a while, we don’t try to predict a time. For the first race, we simply assume that the target time is equal to the time run and we award points from the middle of the table (ie six points with our system). If the next race they run isn’t far off the target based on a single race we let the target stand, otherwise it’s six points again until a base time reasonable means is established.
2. For runners suffering from a short term injury or illness, it is normally easier to rule out the bad result if the race they are running is true to previous form.
3. If the drop in performance is greater and seems to last longer, we treat the runner as a newcomer and set a new performance standard for that runner.
Sometimes runners achieve a performance that is far from what is expected. If it’s much better, it carries over 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 running a race but not trying to put in a good time. “Who would do such a thing? you might ask. Well, someone training for a big event and just using the run as another practice run – that happens quite often. In these circumstances, simply ask the runner why the time was so slow and then exclude it from the next calculation on the grounds that it is not representative of the current form.
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