It is not necessary to be ‘fast’ to have goals, and the height and drive to hit those goals is set by the individual. Racing can be all about numbers and the set distances makes it easier to compare all the events run through the course of a year or years. Even though the difficulty level between courses can vary greatly, it is still worth cross referencing those times to compare effort levels and fitness potential. There are also races that stand alone due to either terrain or other contributing factors that keep it from being a ‘fast’ course. It is also nice to be realistic and understand that while any race can be run as well as feasibly possible for that particular moment, the opportunities to set a pr can be limited.
Personally the claimed ‘flat and fast’ tag proclaimed by race directors, is not usually a huge enticement. Hills can be fun and usually come with better scenery, so flat is not always necessarily a good thing. Couple that with the fact that a couple of my pr’s (10K and half marathon) are actually on courses that have several hills on them. Hills are a great way to learn to run strong, and hilly courses can separate the ‘fast’ from the tough. Part of the fun of running is the challenge, and to seek out a course that is less challenging sometimes feels like I am cheating myself.
On the flip side, my fastest 5ks (16:00 and a few others within ten seconds), were on courses with very little elevation change. At that pace, it takes a lot of work to either maintain speed going up, or accelerate enough on the way down to make up the time lost. One year I did a large number at that distance in an attempt to break 16, and even on the less flat courses I was still under 16:30s. It pays to work on the hills, but I have discovered that on a race that short, it will take a lot of work to pr without a flat course.
I don’t actively seek out races in the hopes of running a fast time. Instead, I always have the goal of winning local races, and adjusting that according to the competition in the bigger races. For example, my goal at the Portland Rock n’ Roll Half was to break the top ten, not win (I got 9th). My time goals are set to be ‘realistic’ and I can generally predict my finishing time. I go into every race having already mentally run it, to figure out strategy and effort level and use that to help in the race. It definitely makes a difference on those occasions when there is nobody to race with.
As the case with most every competitive runner I know, I can rattle off my prs for the 400m all the way up to full marathon. Of those 11 recorded bests, only 3 were not achieved within the last 4 years. They are the 400m, 8K, and full marathon. I set new time goals every year and hope to best my previous times. I see those as merely a product of my training, not the focus. That allows me to have a race schedule built around what will be possible to attend and fun rather than being completely focused on time standards.