Given a circular linked list, implement an algorithm that returns the node at the beginning of the loop


Loop Detection: Given a circular linked list, implement an algorithm that returns the node at the
beginning of the loop.

Circular linked list: A (corrupt) linked list in which a node’s next pointer points to an earlier node, so
as to make a loop in the linked list.

Input: A -> B -> C -> D -> E -> C [the same C as earlier]
Output: C


This is a modification of a classic interview problem: detect if a linked list has a loop. Let’s apply the Pattern Matching approach.

Part 1: Detect If Linked List Has A Loop

  • An easy way to detect if a linked list has a loop is through the FastRunner / SlowRunner approach.
  • FastRunner moves two steps at a time, while SlowRunner moves one step. Much like two cars racing around a track at different steps, they must eventually meet.
  • An astute reader may wonder if FastRunner might “hop over” SlowRunner completely, without ever colliding.
  • That’s not possible. Suppose that FastRunner did hop over SlowRunner, such that SlowRunner is at spot i and FastRunner is at spot i + 1.
  • In the previous step, SlowRunner would be at spot i – 1 and FastRunner would at spot ( ( i + 1) – 2), or spot i – 1.
  • That is, they would have collided.

Part 2: When Do They Collide?

Let’s assume that the linked list has a “non-looped” part of size k.

  • If we apply our algorithm from part l, when will FastRunner and SlowRunner collide?
  • We know that for every p steps that SlowRunner takes, FastRunner has taken 2p steps.
  • Therefore, when SlowRunner enters the looped portion after k steps, FastRunner has taken 2k steps total and must be 2k – k steps, or k steps, into the looped portion. Since k might be much larger than the loop length, we should actually write this as mod ( k, LOOP _SIZE) steps, which we will denote as K.
  • At each subsequent step, FastRunner and SlowRunner get either one step farther away or one step closer, depending on your perspective. That is, because we are in a circle, when A moves q steps away from B, it is also moving q steps closer to B

So now we know the following facts:

  1. SlowRunner is O steps into the loop.
  2. FastRunner is K steps into the loop.
  3. SlowRunner is K steps behind FastRunner.
  4. FastRunner is LOOP _SIZE – K steps behind SlowRunner.
  5. FastRunner catches up to SlowRunner at a rate of 1 step per unit of time.

So, when do they meet? Well, if FastRunner is LOOP _SIZE – K steps behind SlowRunner, and FastRunner catches up at a rate of 1 step per unit of time, then they meet after LOOP _SIZE – K steps. At this point, they will be K steps before the head of the loop. Let’s call this point CollisionSpot.

Part 3: How Do You Find The Start of the Loop?

  • We now know that CollisionSpot is K nodes before the start of the loop. Because K = mod (k, LOOP_SIZE) (or, in other words, k = K + M * LOOP _SIZE, for any integer M), it is also correct to say that it is k nodes from the loop start.
  • For example, if node N is 2 nodes into a 5 node loop, it is also correct to say that it is 7, 12, or even 397 nodes into the loop.
  • Therefore, both CollisionSpot and LinkedlistHead are k nodes from the start of the loop.
  • Now, if we keep one pointer at CollisionSpot and move the other one to LinkedListHead, they will each be k nodes from LoopSta rt. Moving the two pointers at the same speed will cause them to collide again-this time after k steps, at which point they will both be at LoopStart. All we have to do is return this node.

Part 4: Putting It All Together

  • To summarize, we move FastPointer twice as fast as SlowPointer. When SlowPointer enters the loop, after k nodes, FastPointer is k nodes into the loop. This means that FastPointer and SlowPointer are LOOP _SIZE – k nodes away from each other.
  • Next, if FastPointer moves two nodes for each node that SlowPointer moves, they move one node closer to each other on each turn. Therefore, they will meet after LOOP _SIZE – k turns. Both will be k nodes from the front of the loop.
  • The head of the linked list is also k nodes from the front of the loop. So, if we keep one pointer where it is, and move the other pointer to the head of the linked list, then they will meet at the front of the loop.

Our algorithm is derived directly from parts 1, 2 and 3.

  1. Create two pointers, FastPointer and SlowPointer.
  2. Move FastPointer at a rate of 2 steps and SlowPointer at a rate of 1 step.
  3. When they collide, move SlowPointer to LinkedListHead. Keep FastPointer where it is.
  4. Move SlowPointer and FastPointer at a rate of one step. Return the new collision point.

The code below implements this algorithm.

LinkedListNode FindBeginning(LinkedlistNode head) {
LinkedListNode slow head;
LinkedlistNode fast = head;

/* Find meeting point. This will be LOOP_SIZE - k steps into the linked list. */
while (fast != null && != null) {
slow =;
fast =;
if (slow == fast) {//Collision

/* Error check - no meeting point, and therefore no loop*/
if (fast == null I I == null) {
return null;

/* Move slow to Head. Keep fast at Meeting Point. Each are k steps from the
 * Loop Start. If they move at the same pace, they must meet at Loop Start. */
slow = head;
while (slow!= fast) {

/* Both now point to the start of the loop. */
return fast;

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