The Annual Black Cap Handicap Race

Each June we hold our annual Black Cap Handicap Race.

Here are a few musings from your Race Director, Mr. James Sorbie:

The Blackcap Handicap is one of the more unique races you’ll get the chance to run each year with your fellow Burgess Hill Runners. Over the last few weeks my brain has been ticking over with the organisation of this race and trying to put on something brilliant for the club. I think you’ll agree that the true measure of a successful Blackcap race is everybody finishing together. For me I get a huge buzz seeing a big crowd of runners descend towards the finish because it means I’ve done a decent job of predicting your times. For the runners it means that the competitive element is truly fair and that’s what I honestly strive for when I slave away at your handicaps.

As your race director I have to confess I have only ever run the race once myself, I think it was 2012 and I was lucky enough to work my way up to 3rd. As a pretty competitive chap I loved the concept and wanted to get involved more in it and as I thought 3rd place would probably mean a big old handicap the next year it made sense to me to take some time off of running it. Keith Delderfield had previously done the handicapping (and many before him) and I think he was looking to hand it over so I was straight on the email asking if I could take it on. Keith gave me a handover year where we both handicapped you all. A lot of our handicaps were similar and I have to hand it to Keith that whilst I spent a lot of time on the scientific approach, he used quite a simple method of ranking the runners in order based on things such as the WSFRL results….you can probably guess, Keith’s methods turned out to be more accurate (we did actually check after the dust had settled!).

Since taking over the the sole responsibility of handicapping I haven’t been deterred from persisting with my ‘scientific’ approach and in the last few weeks a lot of runners have asked me “how do you decide what the handicaps should be?”. I think a few people have regretted asking the question, I’ve seen their eyes glaze over after the first few seconds of something I could talk about for an hour or so. However, I am a bit of an excited little puppy when it comes to this race so I have written a little guide on how I do it. If you’re not really into reading about spreadsheets or strange mathematical formulae I warn you that this article is heading that way.

The first thing I do is collect a list of runners names. That bit was probably obvious, but it’s not always easy. Last year Indiana Jones entered (I suspect one of the coaching team was responsible for this) and some runners entered more than once (I think 5 times was the record, good on you for being so eager!). These things actually brought a smile to my face when up at midnight staring at the Blackcap spreadsheet but I am thankful no one particularly abused our the online entry system. In 2016 I tried to make it simpler using Facebook and email (back to the old system).

The next thing I do is collect a list of races that BHR attend. The fun run league is a godsend for me because we have such a great turn out and it’s easy for me to grab the results from a central repository. The parkrun website is another source for good race info. Before I do anything with these results though, I rank them in order based on 3 (very nerdy) criteria. I score each race based on how similar the distance and course profile are to that of Blackcap. I also score it based on how close to the Blackcap race date these are because if there is any change in a runner’s ability then the nearer the better. This year 38 races are on the list and just for interest, the top 3 races for ‘relevance’ were Hedgehoppers 5, Trundle Hill and the Burgess Hill 10k (although I have had to be careful with that one due to stye course distance lacking accuracy).

Next up, for each runner I take their 3 highest ranked races from the list. If they have any obvious outliers, for example they consistently seem to be running 10k in 50 minutes but have one that is over 60 minutes, I consider looking at their next one on the list. Now obviously none of the races are exact same length as Blackcap, so this is where it gets exciting (or boring if you like). There’s a commonly known formula for predicting race times when the distances differ from the race with the known time. It was created by an engineer and marathon runner called Pete Riegel and Runner’s World first published it in 1997. This is the formula I also use. Time 2 = Time 1 x (Distance 2 / Distance 1) ^ 1.06

Essentially this is saying that you don’t run 10k in exactly twice your 5k time, the “to the power of 1.06” takes care of that. So when I’ve applied that to all the times it’s converted into a predicted time for the Blackcap course.

But that’s not the end. For the first time in 2015 I made a minor adjustment to try to give the really fast boys and girls a little bit more chance. The race winner at Blackcap usually beats their handicap by about 3-5 minutes. For the likes of Paul Sargent (currently the course record holder) to beat his predicted time he’d have to be running it in around 26 minutes to stand a chance. Whilst some of those faster people may not be that bothered about winning, my aim is to make it fair, so I have written a little coefficient this year which I hope makes it even fairer than usual. This doesn’t mean these folks will have an easy ride, they are still going to have to seriously out-run their predicted times, but I am hoping it’ll close up that finishing pack even more.

Finally, I go back to Keith’s proven methods and validate everything by looking at the rankings in the league races etc. After all this ‘science’, sometimes you can end up giving somebody a much bigger handicap than someone who has consistently beaten them in every race so there has to be some room for adjustment.

In order to start everyone in groups at the start without total chaos I also round up or down everyone’s handicaps to the nearest 15 seconds.

As you can appreciate, if you haven’t done a lot of races for me to work on, it’s harder for me to handicap you and if I’m honest I tend to over handicap rather than under handicap if I’m short of info, as Indiana Jones…oops, I mean Ian Jones….will testify to after last year. I imagine this article will be published after the 2016 Blackcap race has been run and I am hopeful everyone is reading it thinking “wow, that’s how he got my handicap spot on” rather than “so this is how he made such a mess of it”!

Thanks, James (Race Director)

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