Serpentine Handicap – Heart of the Club

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Illustration credit: Grace Sim (www.swimbikerunart.co.uk)

The monthly Handicap has been running since the month of the Editor’s birth in 1982. Diana Valk looks at the race at the heart of Serpentine.

Soon after joining the Serpentine Running Club, I heard about the Handicap, a race with an intimidating aura to a newbie like me. It took me several months to pluck up the courage to run, but since that race I can’t imagine a first Saturday of the month without being involved in the Handicap as a runner, a volunteer, or simply a supporter. April 2017 saw our first Serpie complete a staggering 300th Handicap. So what better time to revisit the race to find out a bit more about its history and what it means to the Serpies involved?

Handicap basics

For those unfamiliar with it, the Handicap is a 4.334 mile (6.975 km) race, which comprises two laps of the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park. Unlike standard races where everyone starts at the same time, the goal of this race is for everyone to finish approximately at the same time. Therefore, start times are staggered and slower runners start earlier than faster runners. The winner of the race isn’t the fastest runner, but the runner who has improved the most compared to his or her previous Handicap performances, and points are awarded depending on how well runners perform in each race.

There are three major awards that can be won: the Hogshead Trophy, the Egg, and the Stratford Cup. The latter is the newest addition, and awards the runner who achieves the highest average age-grading in the Handicap over six races.

Early Days

The Handicap was first run in August 1982. As described in Hazel Paterson’s “Serpentine Running Club: The First Ten Years”, the Handicap was established to “provide a regular race over an accurate course, which gives all who participate a fair chance of winning.” Thirty-two runners finished the inaugural race, which at the time was run along a slightly shorter course starting near the lido on the south side of the lake.

In the early years, start times materialised from the brain of Jim Coburn, a founding member. Keith Evans remembers that Jim based his assessments on “everyone’s form, rather like a horse race.” Unfortunately, Jim wasn’t always prompt and often the runners were ready and waiting, with no Jim in sight. “Then at the last second he would appear on his bike, Jacques Tati-style, clutching pages of hand-written notes with the vital information.” This all changed in 1985 when James Godber revolutionised the world of Handicap setting by writing the first computer program that would determine runners’ start times.

Hogshead

Winning or placing in an individual race is exciting in itself, but the most celebrated Handicap award is the Tom Hogshead Trophy. This is presented to the person who accumulates the most points in a year, with a runner’s best eight races being counted. It takes consistent strength and improvement in your running to amass the number of points needed to capture this award.

It’s ironic that The Hogshead Trophy was donated by a man who only ran one Handicap: Tom Hogshead was an American who had the good fortune to run into Serpie members James Godber and Wendy Wood in the local pub The Churchill Arms. Like all good Serpies, James and Wendy skilfully cajoled Tom into joining the club and later convinced him to give the Handicap a go. Before returning to the States, Tom offered to sponsor a trophy for the series – given that that was the only race he had ever run whilst a Serpie. The Tom Hogshead trophy has been given out every year since 1983, with the first winner being Bobbie Randall.

The Egg

Whilst the Hogshead Trophy is bestowed on a Serpie who improves significantly over the year, the Egg Trophy rewards perseverance in the face of a plateau in your running ability. The Egg is a lovely ovoid-shaped trophy made from the aptly named Serpentine rock, awarded to the runner who has the lowest score after completing eight or more Handicaps in a year. There is certainly no shame in getting the Egg – indeed, three former Hogshead winners have ended up being awarded the Egg in following years too.

Val Metcalf has earned the Egg three times, and one of those years she shared the prize with Hilary Walker, ultra-runner and president of the club. Val explains, “I said it so often that it’s now a stale joke, but on winning the Egg, again, I reminded people not to underestimate my achievements, given I was sharing a trophy with a world record holder. It wasn’t just a joke – I’m honoured to be competing against and with people of her calibre.”

300

It’s also no joke that Eamonn Richardson completed his 300th Handicap on April Fool’s day this year. You don’t get to 300 without serious dedication: Eamonn’s first Handicap was run in March of 1986, in weather that would discourage many runners from ever showing up for a Handicap again. There was snow on the ground, ice on the lake, and Eamonn was forced to run in an anorak. Despite these unwelcoming conditions, he returned race after race – running through hangovers, severe lack of sleep, and even surgery recovery. One day that Eamonn specifically remembers not running was the September 1997 race. No one ran. Lady Di was being buried, and the race was cancelled.

With 25 years’ worth of Handicaps under his belt, it’s fitting that Eamonn’s Handicap number is “1”. I was surprised to hear that this wasn’t always the case. During the 1998 Serpie Christmas dinner, numbers 1, 2, and 3 were auctioned off to pay for the band. Eamonn recalls: “in a burst of extravagance, I bid £65 for number 1 when it was being auctioned off at a Serpentine Christmas Dinner. I reckoned I would never be the best runner in the club, but I could get to wear number 1.”

For a copy of the poem that Eamonn penned and read out at his 300th Handicap on 1st April, see the end of the article.

The Story of the Scratch Runner X

When you first run the Handicap or if you haven’t run the race in over a year, you are deemed to be a “scratch runner”. As a scratch runner, you can’t compete or win in your first two races, because the times you achieve in these are used to calibrate your correct start time and act as a ‘baseline’ for future races. You are required to wear an “X” on your back, which lets the other runners know that you aren’t a threat when it comes to placing.

The “X” seems like a logical idea, but unfortunately for Keith Evans, it wasn’t always this way. In 1986 Keith won the Tom Hogshead trophy, but not before one of the toughest Handicap races of his career. He remembers: “the final race was tight, and in order to win, I had to overtake one other runner on equal points, and finish second. About 100m to go, having overtaken my rival, I thought all I had to do was head for home, but was amazed to see an extra runner. He was a relatively new member of the club, a good runner and also a Chelsea Pensioner. Not knowing if he was a scratch runner or not, I had to catch him, and almost did a Brownlee [Jonny Brownlee – the triathlete who collapsed meters from the finish at the 2016 Triathlon World Series in Mexico] at the end, but I was not going to be beaten by a Chelsea Pensioner. He was indeed scratch, which is why now scratch runners wear a cross on their back.”

The significance of the Handicap

In researching this article, I found that the Handicap is so much more than an early morning 4.3-mile race, which you run to justify consuming a latte or Eggs Benedict afterwards. It is an event that brings together Serpies both new and old. As Val says, “it’s the whole history of the club consolidated in one place each month.”

It takes a small army of volunteers to keep a race like the Handicap running (pardon the pun) month after month, and as a volunteer you’re often well situated to see the drama of the race unfold. Bev Thomas has run well over 100 Handicaps in her running career and is now a permanent volunteer fixture at the finish line. She underlines what makes the Handicap so fun for runners of all skill levels: “It is the major event which sees all ages mixing together and everyone being in with a chance of taking a podium place. This, to me, never an ultra-speedy runner, has always been great incentive. Crossing the line first to a slower runner is one of the best feelings! There’s no friendlier place to be at 8.45am on the first Saturday of the month. Long live Serpie Handicaps!”

Sid Wills, a life member and the beginner runners’ coach, credits the Handicap for getting him involved with the club in the first place. Like many of us, he was hesitant to go to his first Handicap, but after doing so he ended up getting embedded in the Serpie community.

If you’re on the fence about trying the Handicap, I hope this article has served to convince you to give it a go. You may start the race wishing you had stayed in bed after a Friday night out, but I guarantee you’ll finish awash with feelings of accomplishment, relief, and club pride. And of course there’s always that fuming latte and those delicious Eggs Benedict waiting for you at the end.

Big thanks to Keith Evans, Val Metcalf, Eamonn Richardson, Bev Thomas, Sid Wills, and Ros Young for sharing their Handicap memories with me. I wish I’d had room to include all the stories people shared! Special thanks to James Godber for not only walking down Handicap memory lane with me, but also for sending me Hazel Paterson’s fascinating Serpentine Running Club: The First Ten Years.

TO SERPENTINE WITH LOVE
By Eamonn Richardson

CHORUS
Oh Serpentine, I love you lots
I think for you I have the hots

On the first Saturday of every month
I like to race against Esteemed Running Club Colleagues

I register at 5 to 9
My start time’s lousy, I begin to whine

Then James he calls me to the start
I’m so excited, I start to hyperventilate

So off we go, ‘tis now the race
I’m feeling good, I like this pace

But on the second lap I find
The fast guys (and gals) leave me far behind

My luck is out, I rarely win
Too many years of too much gin

But maybe in the months to come
I’ll medal, and won’t feel so glum

To win I know I’ve got to train
But bugger that, I’m off to Spain

300 done, now that’s just grand
And even now, many more are planned

400 tee-shirt will be mine
Sweeter than any Valentine

So there you are I’ve said my lot
I think I need another tot

When all is really said and done
There’s only one, Number 1

(Repeat Chorus)

Diana Valk has been a card carrying Serpie since she moved to London from the U.S. three years ago. When she is not running she is thinking about archaeology, forensic anthropology, or her next knitting project.

Grace Sim did the illustration for this article. Go and see her artwork in person - she has an Open Art Studio event in Oxfordshire in May, 13th-21st. See her website (link below) for more details.