Our Daily Bleg: How to Handicap a Multi-Race Challenge?

From a reader named Kevin O’Toole comes a bleg that needs input from people with experience in the realms of running, races, and maybe Olympic competition. (We tussled with Olympic medal counts here; and Justin Wolfers harnessed your collective wisdom when he ran the Stockholm Marathon.) Here’s Kevin’s story:

For the past few years, I’ve had some ongoing bets with friends at work (a supply-chain management company in Atlanta) around weight loss and fitness — just to stay in shape and keep it interesting. We’ve refined things based on the concept we liked at StickK.com (haven’t been there in a while, but I heard about it on Freakonomics).

Last fall we had a bet around a 5K race, which my team lost. We want an opportunity to redeem ourselves, and being the engineering types we are (you should see our 5MB college-football pool spreadsheet), we’ve decided to complicate things a little and do four races with two teams of two.

The races will be run in the following order: 10K, 1 mile, 5K, and half-marathon (at least 12 weeks after the 5K). This is a good mix of speed and endurance, with spacing to minimize risk of injury and optimize training.

The challenge is this: we don’t think we should pick the winner based on total time. We want to reward the speed runners if they can win big at those races and reward the distance runners if they can put in time on the long races. If you just go by time, then 30 seconds in the mile or 1 minute in the 5K won’t count as much as 90 seconds in the half-marathon (or, conversely, the distance runner would have an advantage there).

Both teams are a mix of running experience: Andrew (five marathons and many 5K’s and 10K’s) paired with David (one 5K and one 10K), versus Kevin (a few 10K’s and 5K’s, and two half-marathons) and Eric (four marathons and many 5K and 10K races).

We want all four times to count toward the total for each race and for the overall, but straight-up time puts the emphasis too heavily on the 10K and half-marathon. What do people think would be a good handicap system? Some point system with a points-per-second factor based on race length? Some combination of total time with a factor based on the length of the race?

Please help Kevin as best as you can. Send you own future blegs here.

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  1. Rebecca says:

    Are the races being run officially timed and reported on? Are the races being run the same? What about offering points based on their standing (you can further handicap them based on age group.) So, if someone finishes 10th out of 20 people they would get a score of .5, but if they scored 1st they would only have a .05.

    If they are running different races, then maybe award based on decile or performance relative to the winning time? I always consider it a good race if I finished no more than 1.5 times the winning female time.

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  2. C. Larity says:

    Since you’re clearly college football fans, why reinvent the wheel? Steal the old BCS formula that factored in strength of schedule and victory margin. In other words, use a point system to give additional points to those who do exceptionally well in a certain event (i.e. breaking your PR in a mile by :05, or beating your 5K best by :15).

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  3. Nerf says:

    Without putting much thought into it:

    For each race, each runner gets points according to how far their time is form the average time of the four runners. So the winner might be 5% better than the average time, so get 5 points. The other three runners might get positive or negative points depending on how people finish.

    Repeat for each race.

    Add 100 to the final score if people care about being negative.

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  4. travis ormsby says:

    You could convert the times into z-scores based on a population whose times are representative of each runner.

    Whover is the most standard deviations ahead would be the winner.

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  5. Adam says:

    Can’t you normalize the times to a standard time– say 1 hour is the winner’s time for each race– and then scale all the other times accordingly?

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  6. Levi Funk says:

    Divide the individual’s time by the distance of the race. Do this for all 4 races and add up the total number. This should be a fair index.

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  7. Matt Kromer says:

    The following link has a tool that projects what your time would be for races of different distances based on your time for a single distance.

    This tool attempts to account for the fact that you cannot hold the same pace over longer distances. (For example, a 5:00 mile is a 2:49 marathon).

    My recommendation would be to use this calculator to calculate equivalent race 1-mile race paces, and take the average of the four.

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  8. Michael says:

    Peg the winner’s time on each race as 100(%) and give them 100 points. Give points to the other three on each race based on where they finished (105%, 107.2%, etc.). After all four races everyone will probably have between 400 and 450 points, lowest score wins.

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