(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
June 2002 (retitled in the magazine). Time cuts two ways for a runner in a race. Time can make you a winner when you set personal records. Or time can beat you when it ticks faster than you run.
Time’s blessings turn most harshly into curses when your PRs become permanent. You work as hard as before but for slower times. A crisis looms when you ask yourself, Why race anymore?, and can’t find any good reason not to retire.
You read much about training for PRs and about celebrating these private victories. You see little written about what to do after your last PR is set, though this is a fact of running life that you’ll eventually face.
You plan to be a lifer in this sport, right? You need to know, then, that life is much longer than the period for PRing.
Runners are given about 10 years for improving our times. We spend those years learning the tricks of the game and becoming fit enough to exploit them.
This improvement timetable switches on when we start to race. Begin at 15 or 55, and we still get to cut our times for about a decade.
If you’re still in those PR-setting years, enjoy the excitement while it lasts. It won’t last forever, not if you stay on your intended running-for-life course.
You surely will slow down eventually. What then?
Here’s where I have advice for you from the far side of the PR hill – along with some words of comfort that no abyss awaits you when improvement ends. My best times have sat in stone for three-fourths of my running life. But I can tell you with certainty that there is racing life after PRs, and it can be a very good life.
I’ve found other ways than running my all-time best times to find enjoyment and satisfaction at the races. Here are five for the post-PR runner, which you will become if you aren’t one already:
Run in races without racing them. This means running at your everyday pace, which might lead to the question: Why bother going to a race if you can do the same training without traveling?
Plenty of reasons: You can join hundreds or thousands of like-minded folks who reclaim the streets from the cars. You can accept drinks and cheers and T-shirts. You can do a good deed by pacing someone else to a PR.
Start a new set of records. When the old ones become unbeatable, what’s to stop you from starting over?
Instead of targeting lifetime bests, look to shorter periods. Aim only at the records you’ve set in the current 10-year or five-year age group. Or just try to run faster for a particular course or distance last year, or in the last race of this type.
Adopt a new racing specialty. Racing takes wildly diverse forms, and few runners sample them all at once. This leaves much unexplored territory for record-setting.
If you hit your time wall in standard road races, try ultras, or trail runs, or cross-country, or track. Or simply race a distance you haven’t run before.
Practice the magic of racing. Race-day excitement brings out our best, which is far better than we might imagine it to be. Forget PRs for now, and think of the distances and paces you typically run by yourself.
Now look at what you can do it a race. It’s probably at least a minute per mile faster than you could go alone for that distance, or twice as far as your usual pace. That’s always satisfying.
Appreciate racing’s timeless values. Improving times isn’t the only reason to race. It can become one of the lesser reasons.
Good and honest effort count the most, and you can’t check that on a watch. You feel it.
Jack Foster, a New Zealander who held the world masters marathon record for almost two decades, said as he eventually slowed down, “Only my times have changed. All the other experiences of racing that attracted me initially are the same as they always have been, and they still appeal to me.”
The times of racing must slip eventually. But the feelings of racing never have to change.
2018 Update. I now set PRs for pure walks, after years of doing that for walk/runs, and before that runs/walks. The latest too will eventually prove unbeatable – while the experience of pushing to the current limit will remain unmatchable.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]