PRs are tricky creatures. They don’t come easily. That’s the sentiment underlying the shifting glances and fidgeting fingers of the runners who’ve congregated in Berlin a few days before the marathon.
They’ve all come here on a mission. It’s mostly the same one, no matter who they are. They want to run a marathon faster than they ever have before – to set a personal record. All their training and effort and determination will have to align perfectly on one day, to allow their best to become even better, whether that’s a 2:59, a 2:01, or a 4:59.
Berlin is the place to do it. It’s a fast course and the weather is usually optimal. The world record was set here last year. That promise of fast hangs over their heads, shining like a beacon and luring the runners toward its flickering light.
“I want to run ten minutes faster than my PR. On Sunday I want to leave everything behind.”
“There’s no faster course than the Berlin marathon, so I figured if I really wanted to push the envelope as to how fast I could go, there wasn’t a better place to do it,” explains Chris Chavez, a runner from Brooklyn Track Club, on the day before the race.
But it takes much more than just a fast course to run your best.
PRs are like icebergs. The physicality of racing fast for multiple hours is what you see. What you don’t see below the surface is equally, if not more important. It takes hours and weeks and months of mentally marinating in your fundamental motivation.
You’ve got to tell yourself over and over why it matters that you run faster.
Why do you want me so badly? the PR asks. What are you willing to give up to get what you want?
There will come a point in the race when running faster than you have before will start to get really, really hard. The PR chasers know this.
It’s gonna hurt, there’s no way around it. They’ve braced themselves for it – considering and preparing and practicing how they’ll respond when it happens.
“Marathoning is all about magic tricks. It’s about, how many tricks can you show up to the start line with."
"At the bottom of my super long bag of tricks: I'll start doing miles for other people. Like: this mile's for Mom, this mile's for Dad. And as it gets harder the distance just gets shorter. So it'll be like: 800 for my sister. One block for the mailman.”
Standing next to Daniel, Huyen nods along, and adds:
“It's so much bigger than chasing individual goals. When I ran Berlin two years ago, both my parents, who are Vietnamese, they shared it on their Facebook. And their whole Vietnamese community commented, about 60 comments or something, all in Vietnamese – I had to translate. And they were all saying ‘oh my gosh, we're so proud.’”
The runners take this support with them in their minds, into the middle kilometers of the race.
They twist and turn with the course as it spirals across the Spree River, trying to be patient with their pace. They stay focused and composed and think of all the people they’re chasing PRs for.
And then near the end, when the runners can see the Brandenburg Gate looming in the not-so-far-away distance and the last three or four kilometers are in sight, it changes.
That’s when the PR necessitates that they run just for themselves.
“You do have to save the last [mile] for yourself. You have to be a little greedy,” Daniel says.
It happens at the exact second that every muscle fiber in their body tells them it’d be better to just stop and collapse.
The world narrows to the sound of their breath and the rhythm of their strides and the thing that keeps the PR chasers moving forward is: their word. They reach for the word they set aside for themselves before the race ever began.
You can see it on their faces as the runners pass the 38 km mark – they’ve gone inward. The Berlin skies pour more and more rain onto the streets in the waning hours of the race and the pavement grows slick, but the runners tell themselves to stop noticing the water streaming down their faces and necks.
They pretend it isn’t there, and push forward, working harder and harder.
When they see the finish line in front of them – the PR waiting around the corner, out of sight– they dig deeper. They press against their fatigue– even if it’s like running through waist-high mud.
What have you got left? the PR wants to know.
Kenesia Bekele of Ethiopia sprints toward the line, flowing smoothly all alone at the front of the race. Just ten kilometers previously, he’d been 13 seconds off the pack, facing the possibility that his PR could float out of reach. Then, he put his head down and chased.
He flies over the line, leaving his former best somewhere in the distance behind him. It’s an 80 second PR. 2:01:41. It’s also two seconds away from beating the world record.
After 26.2 miles of fight, only two seconds separate him from making history. Still, he catches his breath and smiles, knowing that he’s captured an elusive PR. This one’s been three years in the making, but it doesn’t taste as sweet as it should.
When the women’s winner crosses the line to break the tape, it’s a 60 second PR. She runs through the crowd of photographers to find her crew and jump into their arms.
The rest of the PR chasers begin to file in around them.
“I woke up this morning and didn’t think I should even start. I’ve had this cold and I felt worse this morning. I was crying on the starting line. I’ve been very in my own head and emotional. So I’m in disbelief right now. But yeah, mind over matter,” Caitlin Phillips, says minutes after PRing to finish in 2:34:43 as the 4th U.S. woman. She smiles, but still looks shocked, like she can’t quite grasp what she’s done.
For other runners, the chase is less successful. It just doesn’t come together, and the PR slips away. But still, they finish their races.
“After the half, it was all just hard. I kept going for my dad,” Daniel Medina says, pressing an ice pack against his injured achilles.
“It felt pretty awful. Second marathon so I learned a lot, again, but screw that,” Cam Erhardt says.
The thing about PRs is, no matter who you are, there can always be another one. The next time, the bar just moves higher. Which is why the runners take a moment at the finish line to celebrate and honor the race they’ve had, no matter the result.
They revel in the effort it took. Because they know there will always be more to chase. Something better, something faster, something new.
I’ll be waiting, the PR assures them.
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