Almost Athletes Handicap

Date: May 8, 2017 19:00:00

If you’re a regular visitor to the club website, or facebook page, you will have almost certainly come across this event. It’s a series of four races, held between May and September, generally on a Monday evening. Designed to put everybody on a level playing field, by staggering start times according to expected race pace, it rewards the consistently improving runner.

How does it work? You submit a recent race time (or anticipated time / pace) and this is converted to an expected time over the 4½-mile, 3-lap, course which is run from the Old Pats rugby club. The start times, as stated, are staggered accordingly (e.g. a 40-minute runner will start 5 minutes before a 35-minute runner) so that, in theory, everyone will finish at the same time.

How you perform against your baseline, coupled with how others perform against theirs, determines your finish position, which is converted to points. Those, along with your actual time, are carried forward: the points being accumulated (final tally is the sum of the best three performances in this respect) and the time used as the new baseline / target. To add interest to it, the top three finishers in each event win a prize (usually a bottle of fizz) but the top five carry forward a time penalty (think of it as performance ballast).

How will it reward the improving runner? As long as you keep improving, and beating your baseline times, you’ll generally finish – and score – fairly high up. Those on a steep improvement curve will fare better than those who are already at / near their peak. In this respect, the novice runner may well hold an advantage over the experienced racing snake! This makes for a very inclusive event series.

Personally I feel that it also pushes you to perform well – in general, not only are you chasing a ‘slower’ runner ahead of you but also hoping to keep off the ‘faster’ runner behind. A fine balance of optimism and fear!

This month’s race was the first of the year and hosted a great turnout, of over 40 club runners (I should mention that this is a club-specific event). From my perspective I was leaning more towards the fear side of the aforementioned balance than optimism. My expected time was based on the last Handicap race I had taken part in, in 2016; not only had I lost some pace (due to various niggles and loss of condition) but I’d also completed a marathon the day prior to this.

As the early runners set off I attempted some form of warm-up. It seemed to be an awfully long time before I was called to prepare for my turn and, as I waited, the first runner completed her first lap. Yup, lapped before I even start. I was counted down, and off I went.

I was conscious that I did not want to set off too quickly, a difficult discipline when you know that others will be hunting you down – and that you are chasing also! I was also conscious that my legs, though largely recovered from the day before, were not totally up to what I’ll terms as ‘short-race-pace.’

The lap itself (three of these, remember) is largely downhill for the first portion and largely uphill for the second. I should stress that these are far from severe elevations – but, when you are pushing yourself and trying to hang on to a quick pace, every little thing is noticeable.

I survived the first lap in reasonable condition but was feeling the effects of the previous day after the second. At this point I had passed one or two runners but also had been passed, for a net gain of zero. More worryingly I didn’t see any others immediately ahead of me but could hear one or two more behind… and gaining.

I really had to dig in for the final lap and, on the incline in the final mile, was rewarded with the view of a runner I was making ground on. However, I the gap was reduced all too slowly and, as we approached the finish, she put on a bit of a kick – which decided the matter in that respect.

I’d finished about two minutes down on my target, and well down the order. On the plus side, a chance to gain some speed over the next month and, all being well, score better next time out. Out of interest, the winner was an anticipated 42-minute runner who ‘beat’ her target by over three minutes – very impressive!

A big thanks to Nick Lewis, who organises the series, calculates the handicaps and ensures that it all runs like clockwork on the night. There are still three races to run so if you’ve not already given this a go, come along next time – you’ll still feature in the final standings if you complete the remainder!

Distance: 4.5k
Reviewer: Phil Jeyes
Venue: Old Pats