On Sunday morning, I laced up my running shoes and got ready to head out the door for my long run. I was particularly excited to run as Brian and I had signed up for the Big Sur International Marathon the day before plus I finished reading “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall (oh, and by the way, brace yourself for a multi-part series on that book because I loved it THAT MUCH), and I was all, “Yeah, I’m a distance runner! I’m gonna run Big Sur! I’m gonna do it in less than four hours! And then I’m gonna do an ultramarathon! Yeah!”
But I sorely miscalculated one of the most important aspects of any runner’s life – my nutrition. I’d run out of my pre-race staples, so instead of eating a couple of hard-boiled eggs and a granola before getting started, I improvised with yogurt and some fistfuls of trail mix.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Within twenty minutes, I was paying the price for my lack of preparation. By the time I hit thirty minutes I felt nauseated and disgusting. We stopped in our local gym with the intention of running a few miles on the treadmill and recovering before going back out in the godforsaken swamp that is Florida in August. Instead I went to the bathroom, knelt in front of a toilet and threw everything right back up. As I rinsed my mouth out, I wondered if this was my punishment from the sporting gods for my hubris.
I called my run off, less than four miles into what was supposed to be an eight-and-a-half mile run. We went home, and I proceeded to wallow in self-pity for a bit. I’m not good at wallowing, though, and soon enough I was thinking about this in more philosophical terms.
See, this isn’t the first time I’ve failed when it comes to running. I’ve gotten hurt. I’ve missed goals. I’ve fallen apart. I’ve run half-marathons for which I was so unprepared that I stopped at mile twelve, put my hands on my knees and burst into full-body sobs.
This isn’t even the first time I’ve thrown up while running. I once ate so much food the night before at my in-laws’ house that the next day, when I was signed up for the local Turkey Trot, I was too full to eat breakfast. And sure enough, I paid the price. In puke. With less than 100 meters to go. Go me!
But this is the thing – everyone who competes in a sport has stories like these. In fact, I would say that everyone who ever does anything that is even remotely challenging has stories like these. There is not a single person walking the face of this planet who can say they have succeeded at everything they have ever set out to do (and anyone who says they have is LYING and you should burst into scornful laughter before turning on your heel and walking away). You cannot separate success from failure.
Yet if failure is this fact of existence, then why are so many of us afraid of it? I can’t speak for others, but for me, failure bruised my already pretty weak ego. It left me feeling humiliated. And maybe even worse, it affirmed for me the things I suspected may actually have been true: that I was not good at anything, that I was never going to be good at anything and that I would pass through this life without ever achieving anything. So whenever I tried something and failed, I took that as proof that the worst things I thought about myself were true. And so…better not to try at all.
It’s really sad when I lay it out there like that, but it was also true. Operative word: “was.”
Distance running has bestowed upon me a whole mess of wonderful things, including a calm demeanor and calves of granite, but maybe even more important are the lessons it pounds into my heart. Many of those lessons has been about failure.
I have learned that failure is not as scary as I once thought. I have learned that it doesn’t necessarily mean I suck and should give up. Failure has helped make me resilient. After all, you can say you are tough all you want, but if you get knocked down and refuse to get back up…well, how tough are you really? Adversity is a necessary component of strength and power. Without it, you’re just fronting.
Best of all, I’ve learned how to use failure as a motivator, to use the sting of disappointment and frustration to fuel me the next time around. That half-marathon that left me sick and sobbing at mile twelve? The following weekend, I ran another half-marathon, and that time I set a new personal record.
Obviously this doesn’t mean that I love the feeling of setting out to do something and failing. I still hate it and go out of my way to avoid it. And I can’t always be all Buddhist about it. Sometimes I feel like Homer Simpson was on to something when he said, “You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”
But I’ve seen the rewards from trying, and they are too beautiful and precious for me to ever seriously consider giving up.
So yes, I threw up during a run that was shorter than every other run I do during the week. I not only threw up during the run, but I called off the run instead of pushing through. It sucks and I’m not terribly excited about this, and I would be thrilled if it never happened again in my life.
And yet, this morning, I woke up, and I put my running shoes on. I made sure to eat a hard-boiled egg and a granola bar. I envisioned Big Sur and crossing that finish line in four hours, and I got on the road and I tried again.