One of my wife Suzanne's favorite short stories was written by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: Our society has been granted equality, meaning that nobody is stronger, smarter, better-looking, more-talented...or faster...than anyone else. The persons who are found to have those traits are handicapped by a variety of technologies and modalities. Think the exact opposite of braces, specialized shoes and all that. Every so often we jokingly use the name of the person in charge of handicapping everyone, Diana Glampers, to speak about situations where we've felt unduly hindered.
Over the past month we - mostly my wife, with the addition of a handful of other persons, and me to a lesser degree - have been working to put a race together. The event, an age-graded pursuit race, has runners starting times based on the World Masters' Athletics best times for age and sex. That means a runner in an age group with a world best time of 18 minutes would have a five-minute head start over a runner in the open male (18-34) division. In theory, the concept of an age-graded race isn't that far out of the box. The practice of having runners pursue one another...where in a perfect world if every runner ran at the upper limits of their performance, the entire field would be leaning at the tape...what a concept. Sure, there are running events which, based on the assumption we suffer from diminished performance as we age, award those persons who suffer the least diminution over time, based on mathematical formulas and number-crunching.
And in a perfect world we'd all be able to stay fit, healthy and (at least in our mind) fleet until the day we decide to not wake up in the morning. The best older runners have somehow learned to injure themselves least, recover most efficiently, train effectively, and choose their racing schedule wisely.
But what about other handicapping systems? What other ways could we, in our deepest "Diana Glampers" mindset, make all runners "equal" on race day? Some of the possibilities seemed common-sense; others a little less so.
Weight - I'm not necessarily talking about the seriously-flawed "Clydesdale" and "Athena" system in triathlon, where weights of 200 and 150 pounds, respectively, are used without regard to the height of the athlete. I always wanted to ask race director Chuck George about his "Fat Boy 5K" event; I never got to the point of asking about specifics because I was too busy laughing at the event name. Several coaches have written, or have been quoted in books, about the correlation between excess weight in pounds and pace per mile in seconds during a race. A race director, given the height and weight of a participant, could use an actuarial chart and do their own adjustments based on the number of pounds an athlete weighed above an insurance company's definition of "is." What would a weight-based handicap take into account? A couple of researchers from the University of Dayton developed a model based on weight (to include the effect of aging on a person's body composition) and run time, the results of which ideally provide a weight-age-graded performance.
The calculator (http://academic.udayton.edu/PaulVanderburgh/weight_age_grading_calculator.htm) is most likely the first of its kind: No other calculator can make a 165-pound, 50-year-old male lose 20 pounds and half his age, at the cost of a 5K performance.
Inseam - My buddy Charley said, "there should be a performance handicapping system based on a runner's inseam. Guys and gals with short legs have to take more strides than tall runners; they're woking harder to cover the same distance." I come from a family with some serious height variations; my mother (on a tall day) is 4'11", my dad is a solid six-feet. I'm a little taller than average at 5'10, but I am a little less flexibile than the average bear, especially notable in the past couple of years when I try to throw my leg over the top tube of my triathlon bike. But where I lack in long strides I tend to make up for in a certain degree of efficiency; a footstrike of about 160 per minute, good endurance, and mental toughness...things which aren't easily measured in a runner.
Running is an egalitarian activity; anyone with the time, the physical desire and (in most cases) a pair of shoes can engage in the activity. Racing, on the other hand, was never meant to be normed. We have the choice of either calculating a lot of "all-things-being-equal" factors and spending a lot of time in the world of "what-ifs," or we can realize that the ultimate competition when we toe the line is not the person/s surrounding us, but the course.