When you are looking to improve it is very hard to set achievable results. Its easy to say you want to be "10 minutes faster" or "top whatever", but every race is different, conditions on race day can change, and you never know who is going to show up. I had multiple races where I was bumped off the podium by one spot because three of the top AG'ers in NorCal showed up to almost all my races! Frustrating, but I was happy with the improvements made.
My process of setting my 2011 goals was straight forward, but also required a bit of research. First I gathered my last two years race results. There are a few races that I do every year, which helps in the next step. Using those races, I came up with an improvement percentage from 2009 to 2010. I set it at 7%. Unfortunately, time doesn't divide or multiply nicely, so I converted all my times into minutes. This yielded some spectacular time improvements for my 2011 goals, so I'm thinking I'll have to find some sort of factor for the Law of Diminishing Returns.
To balance out the 7% with what I think is the easier to achieve goal times, I began factoring in the field placement for all the races. I can see that in 2009 I finished around the top 10% of the total field, and in 2010 that improved to 4-5% of the field, cutting the field in half over a year. That seemed like a better solution since taking a percentage off time is always moving towards ZERO, which is unattainable, cutting the field down is always moving towards the winning time which is not likely, but attainable. This is what I came up with.
Based on this I can come up with some exact goals for repeat races, along with some generalizations about where I think I can place. Repeat races of course are easy to judge, you just need to follow what I spoke about above, but finding unknown races and where you think you should place takes some guesswork. Luckily www.athlinks.com helps out with a lot of this by having a nice central spot for all race results.
For races I haven't done yet, I don't know exactly what to expect so I go with a race I think is similar to it and I compare placement in the field that raced in the most recent event. All field sizes are different, so you still have to take a proportionate finish placement. For example, Oceanside is a complete unknown for me. I can see some people I've raced against in the past, so for my 7% improvement goal, I'll estimate a time based on one of these people to get that goal. For the field placement goal, I take my average field finish of 3% and find the time associated with that finisher from last year. I hope to jump up 50% in the field, then I have my field goal. Since Ironman Texas is a first year event, I used IM Arizona as my test field, hopefully that works out.
Here you can see my race schedule and my goals range from perfect race to achievable. Wish me luck and hopefully this gets me to Kona!