Harry’s Handicap

Forty years ago, our Club founder, Harry Murphy decided he would like to see less drinking by Club members on New Year’s Eve. So he instituted a special New Year’s Day race with an added incentive: runners would be handicapped according to their ability. He assigned handicaps on one minute intervals from 12 minutes or so to zero or “scratch”. This was a race where you had an opportunity to beat runners whom you would never catch or even see after the gun went off all year long.

The race was for members and their guests, and guests were encouraged.Harry knew how to handicap runners, mostly because he kept track of us all year and over the years and also because he had a gift, which was never passed down to his successors. Now some members believed they could play on Harry’s warm sympathetic side, except on this day he was Ming The Merciless. I remember Bob Muller showing up with a leg bandaged and on crutches, all to no avail. And sometimes some of us were genuinely under the weather or injured, somehow Harry discerned the truth in assigning you a handicap or you were screwed.

Registration was held at the Caton Inn on Coney Island Ave., across from the Parade Grounds and later in a Park’s office in the ball field building across the street. The race was originally held at 8:30 A.M.! Harry was a sign maker so we had hand painted oilcloth reusable numbers. They were white five-inch swatches with green numerals. The pinholes were encircled with rust. Later we used a community room in the basement of Bobby Fisher’s building.Harry would take all the runners to the start and line runners horizontally across the road according handicap time. There would be 60 of us regardless of weather. This was before tights and Gore-Tex, most wore shorts. I remember races with temps in the high 30’s and rain blowing horizontally and Harry would go through the whole lineup twice before the actual start. Kurt Steiner, Harry’s sidekick would be there dressed in a high hat & tails. He had usually officiated at the midnight run in Central Park the night before. There were usually medals for the first 25 and those were treasured awards. Harry kept the results in a green hardcover book. We also ran a handicap race at the June Club picnic until we switched over to a relay race.

None of us inherited Harry’s gift for handicapping, but in the past few years we developed a handicapping methodology. Ralph Yozzo compiled a database for all Club members using the most recent race results beforehand. We used this to assess a runner’s ability prior to race day, according to minute/mile pace for a 5K distance. The range went from the fastest 6:15/mile pace to the slowest 14:45/ mile pace.We had time slots at 30-second intervals giving us 18 time slots. We then calculated the actual finish time for each of the slots and assigned handicap times based on the finish time. So the first runner went off at gun time and 31 minutes the last runner took off.The advantages of our system are that you know your exact starting time to the second upon registering. It minimizes time spent standing out in the cold. The race is scored in a short period of time and we can use the same system each year.So how did we do? Out of 41 runners, we had all finish within 7 minutes and of those, 17 finished within 3 minutes of each other. Our average prediction was within 25 seconds of their actual pace (min/mile).

The other part of Harry’s race is the reception after. It’s a potluck feast with everyone bringing something to eat or drink to feast on. And a new tradition has been added, a kind of biathlon, where some finishers bring their bathing suits and head for Coney Island after the race to participate in the annual Polar Bear swimming event.  The Turkey Trot is the best way to start your Thanksgiving Day, and Harry’s Handicap is the best way to celebrate and start the New Year with your running family.