The Personal Record. That elusive, arbitrary time goal runners chase. It haunts us, often missed by seconds. But sometimes it is crushed, setting a new benchmark to attain. Most of us will never win a race, so we race ourselves instead. That number is a motivator, helping us dig just a little deeper when the wheels are about to come off late in a race.
What makes a PR? Well, the training, obviously. Stress, recover, repeat. The basic formula is simple, yet so easy to screw up. There are no magic workouts that will guarantee a faster time, but the most important thing you gain from proper training is confidence. You need to believe that running a PR is possible, because if you don’t, who will?
Let’s analyze two PRs I fought for this year. The first came at the Boston Marathon, where I dropped from a 3:07 to a 3:04, and the second is from the Humboldt Redwoods half marathon, where I knocked 6 minutes off my best to run a 1:24.
I wanted to run sub-3:00 at Boston. I think everyone who knows me knew that. It was an aggressive goal but I trained hard. I ran so many workouts practicing that 6:50 pace. I felt like I had it. I knew deep down I could do it. But I was scared of failing (obviously not a failure but that’s what it felt like to me) and since I had made my goal so public, everyone else would know I didn’t hit it. The pressure I put on myself was enormous. I had anxiety dreams (nightmares, really), I was stressed out, and I couldn’t find a way to calm myself down.
Leading up to the race I did everything by the book. I tapered well, I carb loaded, I slept 9 hours a night, I got massages and acupuncture, I was anal about my food choices (probably annoying everyone around me). I was feeling ready and I knew my anxiety would disappear the moment I reached the start line. Oh, except for that fun little storm that blew in and totally screwed things up. The rest is history: I raced hard, bonked, struggled, almost gave up, and ran a 3 minute PR. It was a PR, yes, but it didn’t feel as good as it should have because I wanted more out of myself. I was disappointed, and then I felt guilty about feeling disappointed. I ran a PR! At the Boston Marathon! I should have been thrilled but instead I went into a post-race funk that trail running finally brought me out of.
The Humboldt Redwoods half is a great little race up north. It’s small and as flat as they come, with the biggest hill being a highway overpass. I wanted to PR at this race, mostly because I haven’t raced a half in a few years; I always use them as marathon workouts. According to the McMillan calculator, based on my 3:01 SF Marathon, I could run a 1:27 half. That’s 6:35 pace for 13.1 miles. I was a little doubtful I had that in me, but the stakes were low and I didn’t actually care that much whether I hit it or not. I had been dealing with some minor injuries over the past month including mystery knee pain and a plantar fasciitis flare up. My easy runs felt like crap, but I was hitting all my paces in my speed workouts, which was a confidence boost.
On paper this should have been a horrible race for me. I did nothing “right” to get this PR. I had been stressed with trying to coordinate my move to Mill Valley and had been sleeping on a leaky air mattress all week. I ran a really hard workout with the Impalas just 5 days before the race and didn’t have much of a taper. I bought new shoes two days before the race and ran my first 4 miles in them on Saturday. I ate unfamiliar food the night before: soy sauce does bad things to my stomach so of course we went to a sushi restaurant where I inadvertently ate rice soaked in that salty goodness. (Cue Pepto chugging.) I even ate something new on race morning! How many ways could I screw this up?
Cut to the race: I went by feel because my GPS watch wasn’t giving me reliable pace readouts. I tucked in behind a group of guys aiming for a 1:25 and figured I’d hang on for as long as I could. My watch kept ticking off 6:20 miles, which was way faster than I had been planning for. I thought about slowing down, but since there wasn’t much at stake for this race I decided to just go for it. If the wheels came off, well, I wouldn’t have that far to go to make it to the finish line. I’d survive. The end result? I blew my PR out of the water. This was the best I’ve felt during a race in a long time. I never had to dig deep or mentally fight with myself to hold a pace. I truly enjoyed the experience and smiled, a lot.
Here’s the main difference between the two races: my mental status. You can see the difference in my facial expressions on the two race photos above. At Boston I was a total basket case because I HAD to run a sub-3:00. The specific training I did carried me to a PR, but the self-imposed pressure was my downfall. Call it a choke.
At Humboldt I was relaxed. I knew my fitness was good but I hadn’t been training specifically for a half. I wasn’t afraid to go for it during the race. It could have backfired, resulting in a bonk, but I felt like I knew my body well enough to pull back if I felt the effort getting too high. The most important thing I did during that race to snag my PR was to actually enjoy myself. I was in awe of the Redwoods. I was cheering on my teammates. I wasn’t so focused on the outcome.
So two PRs, but very different means of attaining them. I’m slowly learning that these times I’m chasing are not life or death. My career isn’t dependant on running 26.2 miles in less than 3 hours. What I need to remember, when I start feeling stressed and anxious about a race, is that I do this because I LOVE it. That’s it. I love the way it makes me feel, I love the people I meet along the way, I love pushing my limits. And if I happen to run a race faster than I did last time, then hell yeah!