Sunday, June 15, 2014

Do PR's expire?

One of my favorite running writers is Peter Sagal, host of NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me and frequent contributor to Runner's World.  One of my favorite pieces of his is an article that appeared two years ago detailing his attempt, at the age of 46, to run a marathon PR.

He achieved that PR with a 3:09, and the resulting piece is a wonderful meditation on the inevitability of aging and the hard work required to reach one's goals.  
"The stars continue to wheel overhead, not caring much whether or not a 46-year-old man managed to run a marathon faster than he ever had before. But the only story we get to tell is our own, and my narrative will say: He was a runner, and as he got older, he got faster. He learned something about running, and about himself, and what was within his capabilities, and what wasn't; and about what was inevitable, and about what was not. In the end, I set my PR not because I trained this way or that, or drank soy milk rather than sports drink, but because I chose to do it.

You can, too."
It also helps that his goal race was the Philadelphia Marathon, a race that has grown near and dear to my heart since the first time I ran it in 2005.  I can see the curves in the roads he describes, those spectators, that art museum, and even my own future.  14 years from now I will also be a 46-year-old, short, stocky runner, probably running the Philly Marathon, probably chasing increasingly elusive PR's.

In subsequent bylines, Sagal was described as a 3:09 marathoner.  Until recently.  If you check his byline in more recent issues of Runner's World, it seems he has been downgraded to a 3:20 marathoner.  Did he downgrade himself, or was that Runner's World's doing?

Meanwhile, try to find any piece of writing that doesn't mention Amby Burfoot and his 1968 win at the Boston Marathon in the same breath.  It won't happen.  It could be an article on foot fungus or an obscure marathon in the Gobi Desert or a new type of sports drink, and if a soundbite from Burfoot appears, "winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon," or some variation thereof, is automatically appended to his name.

For the record, I have nothing against this.  Winning a major marathon, even before East African dominance, is something to be proud of.  Burfoot has definitely won bragging rights for life in my opinion, and certainly seems to exercise those rights.

But what about Sagal?  What about me?  What about every Joe Schmo who will never win a marathon but who busts his ass to achieve his own equivalent of Burfoot's Boston win?  Have we not also won bragging rights for life?

Mark Remy, author of the Runner's Rulebook, would have us believe that PR's do indeed expire, or at the very least require an asterisk.
"A PR has a shelf life of two years.  After that, it's still a PR - just with an asterisk.  That asterisk means adding a disclaimer, such as 'My PR is 3:05, but that was at Yonkers in 1980' or '... I ran that at Big Sur in 2003.'  Two years is an arbitrary cutoff, obviously, but the larger point remains: It's disingenuous to imply that you're still capable of running that PR, or something close to it, if you are clearly not."
I disagree.  My PR is a 3:03:05 from 7 months ago in Philly, but if I ran a marathon tomorrow, I wouldn't come close to that time.  Perhaps with 6 months of hard training I could surpass that mark, or I might never come close to it again.  Does that matter?  Is it really such a running faux pas if I fall into conversation with someone at a race or at my local running store and mention my PR, and he is the one to assume I could do so again?  Why should it matter whether my PR was 20 days ago or 20 years?  Who cares if I can never run a 3:03 again?  The point remains that I once ran a 3:03, and can therefore speak knowledgeably on the subject.

Like Burfoot, I worked hard for my marathon PR and should be able to mention it at will without regard for some ninny who may get confused as to my true current abilities.  Like Burfoot, Sagal should be able to slap that 3:09 on just about everything he owns, including his own articles.


  1. Scott,
    I'm with you on this, and for me it's actually quite simple: A PR is a "personal record", i.e. the fastest time that person has ever had for the given distance. How could that possibly expire? As a former high-end-amateur swimmer, I have PRs from 100m to 1500m freestyle. Those are my PRs, even if it's been 20+ years since I swam them and will likely never ever get back to these times.

    Now, regarding the "3:20 marathoner" I'm not sure. It doesn't talk about the PR itself; for me this implies more of a "current state", and Peter Sagal is probably a 3:20 marathoner right now (haven't checked, of course).

    Keep running!

    1. Hey Henrik,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with you on your last point and probably should have been more clear. It's a matter of semantics - "3:09/3:30 marathoner" does imply a current state and could simply be changed to "...has a PR of 3:09."

      I guess my point is: why is it important to identify a current state to begin with? Why does Sagal's byline have to change every few years? Why isn't it enough that he once ran a 3:09 and therefor understands the type of training/race strategy/fueling/etc. required to run that time, whether he ran that time 2 years ago or 20?

    2. Hi Scott,
      yes, I'm with you that the byline shouldn't need to change every few years (unless he runs a new PR of course :)); I don't know if it is a matter of credibility/honesty to identify the current state, but I'd personally also always go with the PR in the byline.


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