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 you would never catch or even see after the gun went off all year long.
Harry knew how to handicap runners, mostly because he kept track of us all year over several years and also because he had a gift, which was never we passed on to his successors. Some members believed they could play on Harry’s warm sympathetic side, except on this day when 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. Most recently, we have found a home at the Knights of Columbus Hall on 10th Avenue between Prospect Park Southwest and 16th Street.
Back in the day, Harry would take all the runners to the start and line them up 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 officiated at the midnight run in Central Park the night before.
There were medals for the first 25 and those were treasured awards. Harry kept the results in a green hardcover book. Using the database, we are able to assess the runner’s ability prior to race day based on the minute/mile pace for a 5K distance. The advantages of the computer based 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.
The other part of Harry’s race is the party afterwards. One thing PPTC does well is party! Harry’s is a potluck feast with everyone bringing something to eat or drink. There’s lot of kibitzing and laughs as people toast the new year, among other notable events (and even some not-so-notable- events). Some finishers bring their bathing suits and head for Coney Island after the race to participate in the annual Polar Bear swimming event. Definitely optional. Most stay behind, keeping the fun going. Harry’s has also been an event that brings many long term members out, not to run but to renew old ties. It is a great way for new members to meet and greet in an informal way, put a face to a name and grab some of that team feeling.
I have been quoted as saying the Turkey Trot is the best way to start your Thanksgiving Day. Harry’s Handicap is the best way to celebrate and start the New Year with your running family. See you there! (Details regarding registration are being finalized so stay tuned. In the meantime, mark your calendar for Harry’s Handicap on January 1.)