Off the Record

My definition of a successful race has changed dramatically in the past 27 years.

When I was forced to run the timed mile in elementary school, I deemed the event successful if I could finish before gym ended without scuffing up my Keds.

When I ran the occasional charity 5K in high school, I declared an event successful if I completed all 3.1 miles without walking and took home a long-sleeved cotton t-shirt.

After losing 30 pounds and discovering my latent passion for the sport, I called a race successful if I high-fived spectators, thanked a volunteer and stockpiled a dozen free bagels after crossing the finish line.

That feel-good criteria of a successful performance remained unchanged through my first 10 miler, my first half marathon and my first 10K. And then something changed.

I ran my second 10K.

And suddenly, I didn’t just want to finish with a pocket o’ bagels and an ear-to-ear grin. The second time I ran a 10K, I wanted to finish faster than I had the last time I’d tackled that distance. And I did, thus transforming my definition of a successful race to that infamous runner-wide goal: record a new PR.

I throw the phrase “PR” around a lot on this blog like the LOA (lover of acronyms) that I am, but for all you non-runners who have yet to google it, PR stands for “personal record,” or the best time you as an individual have ever run a specific distance. (On this blog, PR may also reference an epic 2008 spring break trip to Puerto Rico; the only remaining NBC show of quality Parks and Rec; or the initials of my very first goldfish, Pipper Riley, may your memory live in infamy. Brits call it a PB, or personal best, but considering this blog’s frequent references to peanut butter, pirate booty and the Princess Bride, best I stick to the U.S. version.)

PRs are a good measure of success for an amateur runner because while you might never be the first to cross a finish line, you can usually count on your PR improving with each subsequent race as you put in more time, more effort and more miles. Following that second 10K, I redefined my definition of success to include a new PR, and for a glorious 18 months, every single race for me could be deemed a victory as a result.

And then the inevitable happened: I stopped getting faster. It’s easy to see incremental improvement as you bump up your weekly mileage from 0 to 20 to 40, but once you don’t have the time to put in any more hours on the asphalt, after awhile, those personal course records stop budging. Sure, you can do more honed training − speed work and intervals and strength training and steroids (what up, ARod?) − but even then, your race times are destined to plateau as your training routine flatlines.

A year ago this month, I ran the first non-PR of my career and told myself it wasn’t a big deal. I’m training for my first marathon! I said at the time. I didn’t want to push myself too hard anyways. Besides, I’m dressed as a cat. It may have been a Halloween 10K, but I’ll never tell.

I meant it at the time, but after 12 subsequent months of fewer and fewer PRs, I started to wonder whether my definition of success was no longer an accurate one. Sure, I wasn’t beating my course records, but I was doing all sorts of other fun and important things: inspiring friends to run their first races, enjoying the fall sunshine in Riverside Park, keeping the tutu industry employed.

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Were those races unsuccessful simply because I hadn’t PRed? Consequently, could I really qualify a miserable race successful just because I happened to record a new personal best?

That second question went from hypothetical to reality on Sunday when I raced the Grete’s Gallop half marathon in Central Park in what was undeniably the most excruciating hour and 49 minutes of my life − and I’ve seen Gigli. From the moment I crossed the starting line, everything felt wrong: heavy legs, GI distress, a quarter-sized blood blister from my new shoes and a terrifying half mile when my lungs strangely stopped taking in air. My eternally patient running partner Adam coached me through it − despite my repeated declarations that if he asked me to run faster one more time, he and his lovely wife would be swimming with the fishies − and I miraculously hobbled across the finish line at a surprising seven-second PR with just enough energy left to force this pained half smile.

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Yes, it was a new personal half marathon record, but was it really a success? When I someday think back on 2013 as a year of running, will I remember that morning I logged a new speed achievement and hated every minute of it − or the day I tie dyed my bathtub trying to scrub off the morning’s running festivities?

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I might eat my words come Nov. 3 if that elusive marathon PR stays out of reach, but I think it’s time to redefine race success one more. Reaching new goals is a good motivator, sure, but I’ve come to realize life is about more than just PRs − unless you’re talking about poodle relatives. In which case, we all know that’s the only thing that matters.

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How do you define a successful race?

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