“Why the hell do you care about shaving 32 seconds off your 10k time?” asked my non-running friend whilst we sat in the pub, “you didn’t win it. What does it matter?”
I’d never actually thought about it before. I knew that I cared about my race times. I knew the effect they have on me when I finish a race. I knew that finishing a 10k at 44 minutes made me feel sad, but hitting 42 minutes made me feel like everything in the world was perfect. But I’m not an athlete, I’m not trying to win the races I do. I don’t get anything for crossing the finish line at 42 minutes instead of 44. I just know that it matters to me. It’s important. I just never really thought about why.
In the world of running people say one particular acronym more than anything else. Two simple letters that when put together mean a hell of a lot to runners around the world. When people talk about world records they talk about one number. One universal explanation of humans at the peak of what’s possible. It’s amazing, it is for the majority of us, an unattainable phenomenon. A tale that sits up there with Arthurian legend.
But the PB is different. To anyone other than you it doesn’t actually mean a great deal. Yes, every seasoned runner has a predefined set of targets in their head; the sub-3 hour marathon, the sub-40 10k or the 4-minute mile. Goals set by the running world for benchmarks. Targets that denote some sort of elusive club. People use them in their Twitter bios, defining their position in the running community. But for most of us, a PB isn’t a level of comparison with other people. They’re about us and us alone.
When you stand at the start of a race, looking around at the collection of other runners. You can estimate how fast they are based on body shape and size. You can make assumptions about the kit they’re wearing that they take it seriously. That they’re probably pretty fast or that it’s their first race. Sometimes you may be right, body shape and size does have an effect on running ability. But a lot of the time you’ll be wrong.
A person’s PB – as in a non athlete – is not a reflection of their ability to run or cycle or lift a weight. Yes, a top athlete is heavily focussed on athletic performance, true. But real people. They have a lot of other stuff going on. A personal measure of an achievement. It’s about bettering yourself whilst taking everything else about life into consideration. A combination of genetics, emotion, health, drive, ambition and responsibility. When someone finishes a race ten seconds quicker than the last time and a smile pops up on their face, it’s not just because they’ve done better. It’s not just because their training has paid off. It’s because in the vast spectrum of life they can stand there and say that with everything going on, they’re getting better. They’re headed in the right direction.
A PB isn’t just a number. It’s not just a way to compare yourself with the other runners. It’s a health check, a quantifiable measure of progression. A simple, undeniable way of saying that, no matter what’s going on in our lives, we’re doing something right. We’re moving forward.