Sunday, May 6, 2018

Keep the P in PR

Personal Record. Or, Personal Best if you are in most places outside of the United States. This concept of a PR or PB (we'll use PR for the sake of this blog post) is what motivates many runners to do what they do. We want to see progress. We want that feeling of knowing that we're fittest and faster than we ever have been before. The feeling that all those early mornings and hard workouts somehow "paid off" and we have proof of it.

Now that social media is intertwined so heavily into our lives as runners, and real-life running communities are developing and growing, I think we've lost the P in PR. A personal record is just that, personal.

When I was working with a sports psychologist and heavily frustrated over my lack of PRs, he encouraged me to be less rigid in what I define as a PR. He told me I could have as many PRs as I wanted:
  • Hot weather PRs
  • Hilly course PRs
  • Windy weather PRs
  • Garmin PRs
  • Training PRs
When you've run over 100 races like I have, and have been doing it for 12+ years, you'll probably only set a distance PR when the race has ideal weather, the course is relatively flat, and you're able to run the tangents (26.2 miles instead of 26.4, for example). Should you be robbed of all the PR glory I talked about above just because the weather sucked? Or the course was difficult?

The great thing about a truly personal record is that you define the criteria. I'm a data junkie so I like to track pretty much everything. I have a list of official records (if you're on a desktop PC you can see it in the right column) but I also track personal records for varying circumstances. Let's take the recent Boston Marathon for example.

Comparing last month's Boston to my official PR marathon of Myrtle Beach, I quickly realize this is a case of apples and oranges. I ran Boston in 3:26:53 and Myrtle Beach in 3:21:54. Let's break it down:

Myrtle Beach
 Hills  4 large uphills late in the race  Flat
 Wind  20-25 sustained headwind the whole way  10-15 mph headwind for miles 8-20 
 Air Temp  High 30s Low 40s
 Precipitation   Heavy downpours throughout None
 Logistics  55-min bus ride + 90-min wait outside Leave hotel 30 mins before race start
 Tangents   Curvy road, a few turns (26.48) Straight road, a few turns (26.23)

Officially, my record for fastest marathon is 3:21:54 at Myrtle Beach. What do I consider my personal record for best marathon performance? Boston. There were so many more obstacles and the race was less about fitness and more about strategy. I had a strategy for what I would do in athletes village. I had a strategy for my outfit and for changing my shoes before the race start. I had a pacing strategy that was specific to the course and the windy conditions. Boston was also more about attitude. It's easy to run fast when you leave your hotel room 30 minutes prior to race start with near perfect weather and the course is flat. I didn't need my mental toughness skills as much on that day.

Personally, I think my best marathon accomplishment is Boston. And, it's actually my fastest BQ margin, considering I am aging up for the 2019 race. My former self would have speculated on what I could have done if the weather weren't so horrible. But the time for that speculation was when I was training and setting goals; before the forecast came out. I had been targeting a 3:15-3:17, but I was able to accept my new reality once I learned what I would be facing. I got over it pretty quickly.

Army Ten-Miler 2017
Another example is the 10-mile distance. My official 10-mile race PR is 1:10:24 and when I ran that I was slightly disappointed. I had been trying to break 1:10:00, and I believed I had the fitness to do so. Weather conditions had been perfect but for whatever reason I just wasn't able to run what I believed I could have. On the other hand, when I ran a 1:13 at the Army 10-Miler in 74-degree, humid weather, I was elated with my performance. I typically don't run well in the heat, but I started out really conservatively and was able to run a huge negative split, passing loads of people in the second half.

Another great thing about personal records is that you can have them for training runs. I used to get frustrated when I would run really fast paces in training and then my official results wouldn't line up. I needed to learn to embrace the training PRs, and to have patience that the fast race times would naturally follow. I was really excited when I ran 19 miles with 15 at marathon pace, and marathon pace averaged 7:21. I didn't feel like I was straining at all! I felt like that run showed me that I had brought my fitness to a new level.

My former self would have been really upset that my actual marathon pace was much slower, but I'm not upset at all. I know what I am capable of and that's super rewarding. Would I like an official race pace of 7:21? Sure! But I need good weather, a flat course and easy logistics. Only 2 of those 3 are in my control.

As the summer approaches, I am gearing up to run a bunch of 5Ks. Most will be hot. Some will be flat, others will be hilly. I'll be able to run the tangents at some of them, for others, I won't. The coolest, flattest, and most direct 5K is going to be the first one, when I am least conditioned to race that distance. And the hilliest, curviest, hottest and humid 5Ks will come once I've had a few months of 5K training behind me. So, as I embark on this journey I need to keep the personal in personal record. I define the criteria. What I'm trying to accomplish might be completely different from what someone else is trying to accomplish. I may technically be racing hundreds of other women, but I know that each of us has our own purpose.


  1. Some great thoughts here--my former coach told me that I needed to erase all my PRs from memory and make everything an "RA PR". I don't know about that...I'm running as well as I was before my diagnosis. The one thing that has changed for me is that I've gotten older and gone through menopause. I'm happy with where I'm at but I'd still love one more sub-2 half marathon. I guess that's what keeps us going!

  2. I don’t take running for granted and each run, each day is a gift. That said, I could TRY to be better than I used to be, but being 1 month shy of turning 51, that’s difficult.....not impossible, but difficult. I’m enjoying a balanced life and often tell my runners this: Just focus on being the BEST “you” that you can be for who you are and where you are TODAY! ....and I’m OK with whatever PR that might be. ����. GREAT blog, Elizabeth!

  3. Great perspective! Great work.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this, especially with what happened in my half-marathon on Saturday. I ran the Indy Mini and knew if I maintained my training pace of 6:35, I would beat my PR from 2017 by about 3 minutes. However, I ended up running a 1:31.10 and was disappointed. It was around 60-62 by the time the race started (with the temp rising quickly) and I let that get into my head thinking I couldn't PR being that warm. I prefer 40-55 but I've done reasonably well with 55-63 before. I'm able to stay very consistent with my miles in a race, which typically is a good thing. I decided to start a little slower (around a 6:55 mile) to make sure I didn't overheat and while the conditions weren't ideal, I realized I was going to be ok. By the time I figured this out, I had already churned out a few miles at 6:55 and couldn't turn it up. It seems like whatever pace I start out with ends up being my pace for the entire race. That's certainly something I need to work on.

    I went from wanting to maintain my training pace to "just" PR'ing to breaking 1:30 again. I ended up not accomplishing any of those. When I finished and wasn't near exhaustion, I knew I had blown this race. Mentally, I think I gave myself an out with the warmer temp and I foolishly took it. At the end of the day, it's my second fastest half-marathon and I still earned a top 500 club medal but I can't wait for the next race to redeem myself.

  5. I think this is a really good perspective to have. I personally don't focus too much on times (and this is both good and bad I find as I can often just float through races and never really motivate myself to try...). I find it loses some of the enjoyment for me if I do get too hung up. But I like this idea of different scenarios and different ways to compare races because really not two events will be the same. Even the same events won't be because of weather and how you feel etc.

  6. Great post! Like you, I have run several hundred of races over the years and PRs are VERY hard to come by. I always do "course" PRs as well and love to measure my progress year by year on the same course. Of course the weather could still be drastically different each year. We road runners should likely take the ultra mindset sometimes and just say that no two courses are similar and not compare our times at all! But then again, our nerdiness will likely not allow for that.