How the Serpentine handicap works


How the Serpentine handicap works

The first Serpentine handicap was first run in August, 1982, over a course comprising two laps of the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park. The original course was measured at 4.12 miles and, following a minor realignment of the paths in 1998, it was re-measured at 4.080 miles (6,565 metres) which is how it stayed until September 2004. In October 2004 the Park Authorities asked us to start and finish the race at the bandstand which resulted in the course being extended to 4.335 miles (6.975 km).

Since January 1984 the race had only been cancelled once… until the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The race has been suspended since April 2020, but we anticipate we should be able to restart mid-2021.

The basic idea is for all runners to finish at the same time, (48 minutes after the watch has been started!) and, after the first (scratch) run, start times are adjusted accordingly.

Awards are given for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in each race, but the main trophies and awards are for the annual Tom Hogshead series. Here, total points scored (position plus bonus) from the best eight out of a possible 12 races are aggregated, and the highest scoring first claim member wins.

The race is open only to club members. If you are not a member, you will need to join the club before you can take part.

So, how does it work?

The basic handicap start time is a runner’s best time from his or her last six runs, and subtracted from 48 minutes and rounded up or down to the nearest 15 second start interval.

The bells and whistles are:

New runner loading

After a scratch run, a new runner’s handicap is weighted for the first 6 runs, as follows

Race No. % Load
1 10
2 8
3 6
4 4
5 2
6 1

The reasoning is that a new runner improves significantly in the first few months of running, without undue effort. These loadings are designed to prevent someone who is going through this natural process from coming too high in the finishing order, ahead of those who are training hard. It doesn’t always work: Jacky Booth won her second race in September, 1998, having improved from 44.49 to 40.21!

Place loading

Anyone who places 1st, 2nd, or 3rd is receives a loading in accordance with the following table:

Place % Loading
1st 1.00%
2nd 0.5%
3rd 0.25%

These loadings are aggregated, so that after one win and one 2nd place in any one year, a runner will be receiving a loading of 1.50%. The reasoning for this to make it harder for these runners to keep placing, and to spread the opportunities for placing 1st, 2nd or 3rd around a bit. Again, it doesn’t always work: witness the performance of Keith Morris during 1998. By the end of the year, Keith’s loading was 2.5%: he was still scoring well, and thoroughly deserved his trophy win.

Handicap data

Click here to go to the results database and then click on my handicap for a detailed explanation of your handicap data.

Points scoring

Points are awarded in two categories: position and bonus.

Position points start at 20 for a win, 19 for second, down to the minimum which everyone scores for completing a race.

Bonus points depend on how close a runner gets to his or her pb: 100% (ie, equalling or improving a pb, OR an age-graded pb) scores 12: over 99% scores 11, and so on, down to 90%, which scores 2.

When Ros Young took over from James Godber in January 1998 she made one change to the system he had operated, which was to discontinue the discount which rewarded the number of races run, effectively a negative percentage loading on the handicap. The table for this had evolved over the years, and to an extent, compensated for the ageing profile of the race participants. The variation in number of races run was substantial: Alan Woodward, at 65+ had done almost 160, whereas Eamonn Richardson and Phill Harris, still (then) under 40, were approaching 100 races.

Age-graded tables had by then become available, and she used the 5 K road factors to age-grade pbs instead, to allow older runners, those over 40, to score more bonus points, and to compensate for a natural reduction over time in position points.

In January 1999 she introduced one further change, which was to treat those returning after a very long absence from the race (more than 7 years) as new runners: previously, after their first run, they were handicapped on the best of their last six runs.

To keep start lists manageable only those who have run within the last 12 months are included. Anyone else has to run scratch, because no start time is immediately available.

And that’s all there is to it at the moment.

We don’t think there is a right or wrong way of calculating handicaps: there will always be lively debate, and this is healthy. There is scope to change things at the start of each year but the effects of any changes have to be carefully considered first. The handicap is a Serpentine tradition, and all participants do have to perceive the results as fair. By encouraging newer, faster runners, you may discourage long-standing or slower runners. The larger the number of particpants, the smaller the percentage of runners scoring position points…. and so on. The objective is the fairest balance between (apparently) opposing ends.

The website has all the results since August 1982.