The Great Thing About Failure

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the start line on the Saylorville dam
fail |fāl|
verb [ no obj. ]1. be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal:
So – obviously, no sugar coating… this is a story about failure.
About a month ago, I woke up at 4:30 in the morning so I could lace up my tennis shoes, drive to a mall, get on a school bus and be shipped to the top of a dam along with 9,000 other slightly crazy adults, who then started running (or jogging, or walking) towards a finish line 13.1 miles away.
I didn’t win any money, I didn’t qualify for anything more grand and I wasn’t trying to raise awareness for anything.  I woke up that early and moved forward for 13.1 miles just to do it.  Why?

Well, in March I decided I needed a challenge. I had completed 2 half marathons when I was less healthy than I am now and I enjoyed the experience of crossing the finish line, of just completing something that difficult.  And I wanted to feel that again.  The race I did this year, Dam to Dam, is regarded as a pretty major race in Iowa… something a lot of people have completed (or attempted) at least once.

I also had a goal time in mind.  My first half, back in 2010, was a flat course in Des Moines that I finished in 3:09.  I had a bad ankle and walked most of it and felt like crap when I finished.  Just total crap – lots of pain.  But I finished, and that alone was pretty amazing to me.  I think I decided to do another one because I’m pretty competitive with myself; since I had managed to do it at all, I wanted to prove that I could do it better.  My 2nd half, in 2011 in Chicago, was also a pretty flat course and I was in slightly better shape for it (and not injured).  I had enough left in me to actually jog the last 200 meters. I defeated my goal of 2:45 and finished in 2:41.  I remember being near tears. While training, I have a lot of friends that were very encouraging, but I am a brutal self-critic.  A huge part of me had expected to not make that time – but I did. I had done something I truly thought I would never be able to do – and proving myself wrong felt so satisfying.
This time, physically much lighter, in much better shape that I can ever remember, I set a goal of 2:30. An improvement over my last time, but not by much.  It had been a while since I’d really trained as a runner and this course had lots of hills which would make it more mentally and physically exhausting.  I didn’t know what to expect from myself, but I knew how fast I was running miles.  So based on that, I thought 2:30 was possible, but it would be work.
The thing about distance running that is different from all other forms of exercise I’ve tried… it’s the sheer length of time that affords you so many opportunities to just quit.  I thought about quitting before the race even started – when I was training, because no one is going to make me do this race but me and it didn’t always sound like a fun idea to skip happy hour and go jogging – and the night before the race, because what if I just conveniently oversleep my alarm and don’t put myself through the pain I know my legs will feel for days after it’s done – or when I was putting my hair in a ponytail at 4:30 am, thinking I might not make my time.  And then the actual race starts – and every time I want to walk I have to convince myself not to, because if I walk I won’t make my time.  Or when the big hills start to come on mile 6 and they continue thru mile 9 – when my left hip starts to ache and the pain gets progressively more sharp – I have to make the active choice not to quit, over and over.
It’s kinda like life.  Distractions exist and will try to derail you.  A very human part of you will always desire the path of least resistence.  Ultimately, what you are or are not capable of is the sum of mental fortitude and proper preparation.  Doing a race of that distance will show just about anyone what they are made of.  And it never ceases to amaze me the different types of people who try to do these races.  I saw 12 year old kids, and 70 year old men.  Middle aged women, heavy set linebacker types, girls is tutus, guys in leotards.  And they all have to run their own race.
Every half I’ve ever done, there comes a point where I hit a wall – where quitting is all I can think about.  This time around, the 11th mile was by far the worst for me – I just had nothing. I couldn’t run more than 15 steps without walking. Something was stabbing my in the hip.  My upper back was seizing up.  But what was really killing my time was my attitude.  All I could think was “I don’t want to do this anymore.”  Once that thought got hold of me, I started walking.  And I walked for a long time, when I needed to be running.  I had to rely on my mind to force my legs to move and my mind was not in the right frame.
Up to the 10th mile, I was on track to make my goal but now I could feel it slipping from me.  And now, after walking almost a whole mile, I started to get angry at myself.  All those miles that were behind me, that I had worked hard to make time on, where I had pushed myself – and now, with 2 miles to go, I was going to blow the whole damn race because I had a bad attitude, because I was letting myself walk, because I was tired.  That’s also a metaphor for life, right?  You get so close to something, but at the last second sabotage yourself, give up, take the easy way out.  The only way to change that is to decided to stop giving yourself an out, to stop settling, to stop making excuses – and instead decide to dig as deep as you can, to give your best (whatever that means). And you have to do that one day or one thing or one step at a time, over and over.  Walking the last 2 miles was not my best.  So out of anger, I started running again.
I was in pain.  On the 12th mile, I kept looking at my phone and thinking “You have to go.  You have to GO!”  It wasn’t over yet… I just had to go.  But my legs wouldn’t, not as fast as I wanted.
When I got to the sign that said “400 meters left!” I wanted to run the rest of the way – to finish strong.  But I couldn’t.  I remember what Chicago felt like, and I wanted to feel that way again, but this was just not Chicago.  I was squinting to see the clock at the finish line – and by the time I was close enough to read it, I knew what had happened.  I slow jogged the last 100 meters, grateful the race was over and knowing the truth.
I had failed.
Lots of people told me that finishing was an accomplishment, that I should be proud and my time didn’t matter.  And I get that – because anyone who got up and tried to run Dam to Dam that morning, no matter what their time was, whether they finished or not, did a hell of a lot more than the couch potatoes.  So yes, there is a certain amount of victory in the attempt.  I won’t deny that.
BUT.
I also have to accept that I set a goal and I did not accomplish it.  By definition, I failed.  I failed.  I failed.
I’m sure everyone who told me that “just finishing is good enough” was just trying to help me feel good about what I did.  And I did feel good about finishing Dam to Dam – it was a freaking hard race!  But I also don’t like that admitting failure is associated with shame.  I’m not ashamed that I failed.  But I’m also not happy about it.
I’ve got a pin that is a Muhammad Ali quote.  It says, “Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down.  It’s staying down that’s wrong.”
My official finish time was 2:33.31.  So I failed by 211 seconds.  I think it’s important that I can admit that – and not give myself an out.  I can’t and I won’t.  Just like I can’t give myself the out “I had a bad day so I deserve this pizza.”  The way to combat failure is first – to not berate yourself.  And then, as objectively as possible, reflect upon what you could have done differently, no excuses.  Looking back, I could have trained harder for that race. I knew that standing at the start line.  And I probably could have eaten a better pre-race meal, more protein the night before and probably a banana that morning.  But I didn’t do those things and my results reflect that.
211 seconds.
I was close.  But I failed.  And I learned.  And next time, I’ll work harder for what I want.
I’ll have to wait a year to get another crack at Dam to Dam.  But I will be back in 2015.  And in the mean time, I hope to run another half before 2014 is over.  Which is kinda funny – if I had run 211 seconds faster, I probably wouldn’t want to do either of those things.
But that’s the great thing about failure… it’s an awesome opportunity to come back stronger.
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