The Wednesday Night Running Club’s handicap series is one of those quirky events that a casual observer would not expect to become a popular fixture on the sporting calendar, yet it has.
Steve Baker was a 24 minute runner in two of the three runs over the three-mile course that started in a loop from Lawrence Boulevard. A modest speed even for a club runner, yet Baker was the seventh WNRC Handicap Series champion a fortnight ago, receiving the Jim Kelly Trophy at the awards ceremony at Sunset House last week.
Jacqueline Thomson was second and the third place spot was tied between Jalene Cruz and Mark O’Keeffe. Thomson only joined the club a few months ago and in the handicap points system she was not far behind Baker.
The club was started by Englishman Tony “Duffer” Watts soon after he arrived here from the U.K. a decade ago and meets for a three-mile run every Wednesday night at 6 p.m. outside World Gym in Queen’s Gate.
Such is the club’s growing reputation, members include David Laskow-Pooley, an English businessman who spends some of the winter months in Cayman to escape the bracing English chill.
Established runners and triathlete like topping up their fitness levels with the club and networking. They include Joanna Mansi, Dave Bennett, Marco Miranda, Ronan O’Keeffe, Jo Bond, Stuart Bray, Neal Ainscow and Matthew Volkwyn.
No previous winner has successfully defended their handicap title, but Baker is intent on breaking that sequence. He received the Jim Kelly Trophy from last year’s champ Jo Bond.
Watts said that although there is a new name on the winners’ list, some of the previous champs also did well, confirming the event’s magnetism.
“The first two were really close and it was joint third place so I think we had a good winner in the end,” he said. “It was exciting and lots of people came along. Many said they got personal bests. “The format of chasing people and being chased seems to encourage them to run faster.”
Baker, an Englishman, has been with the club for most of the couple of years he has lived in Cayman since arriving from Toronto. Watts is pleased with Baker’s gradual improvement.
“Steve’s win is not like the times when there’s a brand new person you don’t know who wins out of the blue or when someone starts running for the first time and improves really quickly.
“His improvement was because he got into a little phase of training where he strung some good weeks together and actually improved.”
Watts added that the handicap series does what it’s designed for because it’s harder for the faster, more established runners to improve as much because they are already super-fit and pushing their bodies to their limits.
“This is a way of evening things up and giving people a bit of encouragement and ultimately a bit of fun.”
Thomson is a perfect example. To get her handicap second place she improved roughly three minutes from 30 minutes in her first race.
Watts gave the example of Jo Mansi, who is a 20 minute runner, only being able to shave off seconds from her best time.
He emphasized that the fast runners still enjoy it, even though they don’t win the trophy because they love chasing people down. Matthew Volkwyn did that in race one, overtaking for the first time everyone in the field to set a course record of 17 minutes, 33 seconds.
Baker has always been a runner and done many other sports wherever he lived, but in recent years has been plagued with back injuries. His handicap win is a reflection of an improvement in his back problems and confirmation that being active helps improve health. He did the sprint triathlon at the start of the month.
Initially, Baker joined World Gym, noticed the Wednesday night runners and joined them. His running improved to the extent that he was able to do the Cuba half-marathon in 2 hours, 11 minutes last week. The Cayman Islands half-marathon on Dec. 6 is his next challenge.
“I didn’t expect to win the handicap, I just turned up to join in,” said the 45-year-old electrical engineer. “I hope to be the first one to successfully defend my title though.”