I've culled the following exchange of ideas and replies from Run-Insight.com, a terrific website from Ohio featuring local, regional, national and international running news with runner diaries and prominent play given to the college scene. There's also a popular forum generating discussion on a variety of topics. I started a thread called, "When is a PR a PR?," and it received a fair amount of feedback.
Those that respond use aliases so I'll denote them with an 'R' and myself with an 'sh'.
sh: I usually gloss over conversations about bandits but one that appeared on Letsrun.com (another fine site) seemed worth a look. It asked if you bandit a marathon, does it count as a marathon? That got me thinking, what if you bandit a race and net a PR. Can you count it as a PR?
R: Personal records are just that-personal. If you know you ran 'x' time for 'y' distance, call it a PR. Those of us who are beginning to feel the effects of age come up with lots of weird ways to get new PR's.
R: I agree in general terms you don't have to pay to get a PR. But, for some reason, I can't quite accept a PR from a training session or time trial.
R: A PR is a PR when you know the distance and timing are accurate.
R: You don't have to pay for a PR. It's time and distance that matters, not time, distance and money.
R: The idea of setting a PR alone, on a track, in a workout, isn't as satisfying as setting a PR in a race.
sh: In '78, I ran with a guy during a marathon, intending to help with pace until 15 miles, then drop out. I felt good, kept going and next thing I know, I'm veering off at the finish after running the whole way in 2:36. As time went on, I couldn't bring myself to regard the 2:36 as my marathon PR because I hadn't entered and hadn't raced the thing. It felt like a submaximal effort.
From the perspective of my racing background, the 2:36 fell into a gray area; worthy but not of the right quality. I wouldn't be able to count it as a PR if I bandit a race. Entering involves a commitment which, as George Sheehan noted, is the difference between being engaged in a contest or not. If you haven't entered, you're in nothing more than a timed run.
sh: A twist on my question; when do you count a PR as a PR? Is it on any course or only on certified courses?
R: If it's not certified, I wouldn't count it.
sh: My PR's are from the late 70's/early 80's when course measuring and accuracy were suspect. Not many certified courses 'back in the day.' PR's I count come from events where I had confidence in the race organization. PR's should mean something and course accuracy is a fundamental part of the equation.
sh: Recall that Paul Radcliffe had male pacers in her London Marathon World Record 2:15. The twist was she was in an all-women's field and race organizers justified the men by saying they'd be scored among the men. A zany twist but it was approved. Why not have men pacing all-women's track races? Sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? That's because it is.
R: I agree that male pacers in female races is ridiculous.
R: Male pacers in a female race means one isn't racing. It's a time trial.
sh: Many male races are led by pacemakers that drop out. When did pacing become common practice? I posed this question to Jeff Hollobaugh (former scribe at Track & Field News, teaching at Pinckney High now and moderator of yet another good website, michtrack.org). He said rabbits have always been a part of the sport, citing those in Bannister's sub-4 but notes it didn't become commonplace until professionalism of the sport in the 80's.
When World Record bonuses came along, that led to more pressure for rabbits to lead the charge in Grand Prix races. He concluded, "Nothing is more boring than a rabbited record attempt. Give me Bayi vs. Walker, Ryun vs. Liquori any day!"
R: Records are nice but championships are very important too. Records disappear, titles don't.
sh: One of the fun things about PR's is they usually occur when we least expect them. They happen when we get wrapped up in the action and are only somewhat aware of the passing of time. When we concentrate on time, we tighten up and time and place become our foe.
R: Record and PR attempts that are unplanned are sweetest. Often an all-out record attempt that fails does damage to the psyche.
As for pacing, it's very confusing to new fans of the sport. At the Boston adidas Indoor Games, there were a lot of first time spectators. Race after race the person leading would suddenly step off the track. That led to confused spectators.
sh: Naturally we're proud of our PR's. They're the result of things coming together at the right time. Some use PR's as PIN numbers, on license plates and as part of email addresses. The younger you are, the more likely it is to feel PR's will continue to come. One thing I feel good about is my PR's came somewhat regularly over a 10 year period. They were the product of consistency, gradual buildup of mileage and pushing the edge while trying to moderate the effort.
My favorite PR is my first time under 9 minutes for 2 miles. Nine minutes is a nice round number and represents a decent standard of excellence.
sh: It's odd what we think when we hear about PR's for others. It's so easy to get hung up in value judgments, of dubious merit, when we learn so-and-so run such-and-such. We're human and surface impressions happen. Stats fail to tell us much about the performer but that doesn't stop us from attaching qualities to the person.
Regardless of the sport, the better the stats, the more we blur the line between what those numbers really mean and how much esteem we accord the achiever. The better you do, the better you appear to be as both an athlete and person in the eyes of others.
R: I agree. I'm a high school teacher and all the girls on the track and cross-country teams think guys on other teams are, 'Just like, oh my God, sooo hot!" They only think the really good guys in our league are hot though. Even though they aren't that good, a 4:40 mile, since they're the best in the league, that makes them hot and better people for some reason. It's just hilarious.
sh: A word about training course PR's; don't set any. I know beginning runners can get caught up in trying to run ever faster, time everything because it's its own form of stimulation. That's okay as you go but with more experience, training PR's will drain off focus and energy to do even better and race well. I'm sure many of you have left a good race in training.
sh: One of the unexpected things about certified courses is some runners are sure they're long because their times are slower compared to other courses. That'd be because over 9 in 10 uncertified courses are short. As mentioned earlier, knowing the accuracy of a course should give all of us pause to wonder about our PR's.
sh: Probably all of us have a PR we feel in inferior to others we own. When asked about a PR, we're tempted to say about seemingly inferior PR's, "But it should be faster." On a point scale, mine fall into line except the humbling marathon.
R: My marathon PR is also not in line with my others. I think that's the case with a lot of other runners.
sh: Yeah, that darn marathon is an elusive one. Pace, training, weather, wind and other intangibles all need to be right for a happy PR marathon experience.
sh: Too many sell themselves short going from high school to college because they don't think their PR's are 'good enough.' To a point, that may be true but you're not doing yourself any favors with self-imposed limitations, thinking about why you can't do something. Better to think about what you can do. That's right. Build on what you know, what you can do and forget that 'can't do' stuff.
I'd guess you could find walk-on, unrecruited runners running varsity at 4 D1 schools in 5. No matter the level, from D3 community college up, don't settle for the status quo. If you like to run, always look for ways to improve, learn as you go, use others for inspiration, set achievable goals. PR's will come.