On Failure

Let’s talk about failure. I’m sure you’re familiar with it as a runner:

  • Missing your weekly mileage goal
  • The wheels falling off during a race (when you knew you were ready for a PR!)
  • Yet another running injury…
  • Missing a Boston Qualifying marathon time by a few seconds

And it seems that as soon as one failure happens, another is more likely. Like when a race doesn’t go well and then you lose motivation and don’t run well the entire next week.

Truthfully, these mishaps are usually more common than successes!

Leading up to my own marathon PR, I was not excited about my training. I rarely felt great and most of my long runs seemed too challenging.

I kept waiting to feel strong, fast, and for everything to “click.”

That never happened. But even though I was skeptical going into the 2011 Philadelphia Marathon, I ended up running a 5+ minute personal best to finish in 2:39:32.

What is it about failure? Why do some runners brush off failed workouts or races so easily, while others languish in disappointment for weeks?

How do some runners persevere through bad weather, poor long runs, and disappointing races?

And most importantly, can we harness that mindset for ourselves?

My Failures Are Epic

First, let me be clear: I am far from perfect. While some of my readers have commented that I’m “not a mere mortal,” I want to assure you that my career is littered with missteps.

In fact, my running resume reads like a never-ending nightmare:

  • In 2015, I was forced to drop out of my first ultramarathon barely over halfway through the race.
  • In 2014 I ran my first Boston Marathon. After GI distress, ITBS troubles, warm temperatures, and poor pacing I raced my slowest marathon.
  • In 2011, I took the wrong subway train to the start of the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler, couldn’t use the bathroom, had a poor warm-up, and missed a personal best by 5 seconds.
  • In 2008 a severe case of IT Band Syndrome forced me to stop running for six months. I nearly quit running.
  • In 2005, I missed Cross Country All-ECAC (East Coast Athletic Conference) honors by less than a second. I literally had the same finish time as the last all-conference runner.
  • In 2002, I began my college cross country career with a foot injury. Instead of starting with a bang, I started with a limp.

This reads like a corny soap opera with too much drama…

Alas, it’s my life. And with each failed race, injury, or disappointing block of training I learned more about myself, running, and what it takes to succeed.

Despite what looks like never-ending problems, there were (of course) moments that defined my running career.

I’ll never forget the depths of suffering that I endured to run my 3,000m personal best. Or how I felt after I met my goal of breaking 2:40 in the marathon.

Any runner can relate. When a race or long period of training goes exceptionally well, there’s no other feeling like it.

You’re on top of the world. Every second of suffering when you could have been sleeping in becomes worth it.

Those are the moments that make running worth every sacrifice – and every failure.

Failures Aren’t Failures

To have more of those experiences, we need to reframe how we think about failing.

Who cares if you had a bad race? So what if you have another running injury? Who cares if you fell apart at mile 22 and missed your BQ?

These aren’t failures – they’re learning experiences. While each is unfortunate, they provide one of the most instructive opportunities to improve your ability.

If you ran a poor marathon, how can you improve your training, fueling, and pacing strategy to improve next time?

If you’re injured, what training mistakes led to you getting hurt?

If you can’t seem to run consistently, how can you hold yourself accountable and increase your drive to train?

Every single time something doesn’t go well with your running (and indeed, your life), you’re being given an opportunity to learn and improve.

Don’t waste that opportunity.

Steve Kamb wrote awhile back on his fantastic site Nerd Fitness:

If I’m gonna put a dent in the universe, I need to start taking more risks.

Without these risks, there can be no innovation.

Without failure, there can be no growth.

If you’re looking for innovation and growth, you should start by getting outside of your comfort zone where failure is common, but the rewards are disproportionate.

“Eternally Optimistic, With a Short Memory”

running failures

Successful runners forget the bad experiences (after learning from them) and are eternally opimistic about their future progress.

This mindset fosters motivation. It’s the fuel that drives the discipline required to run well.

And it’s the outlook that allows you to focus on doing your best. As Coach Gaines said in Friday Night Lights:

Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down because you told them the truth.

And that truth is that you did everything you could. There wasn’t one more thing that you could have done.

Can you live in that moment?

Learning from your failures – and taking action on that knowledge – is how you do everything possible to be the runner you know you can be.

Like DeAnne, who suffered through 5 years of injuries but learned from them and ran her best half marathon yet – finally breaking 2 hours to run 1:57.

Or Aaron, who thought he’d never attempt another marathon again. But soon, he “hardly ever felt tired” and was running long runs faster and easier than ever before.

And there’s Alex, who had ITBS for months that no physical therapist could treat. But he took action and soon ran his fastest 5k of the last 10 years.

It would have been easy for these runners to give up.

It would have been easy for these runners to think, “Running just isn’t for me…

It would have been easy for these runners to believe they were destined to fail.

But I refuse to allow that mindset here at Strength Running. If you want to achieve a goal, then it’s possible with the right approach and a willingness to fail.

Yes, failing should be something you’re ready to do. After all, success rarely happens on the first try.

If your failures are usually injuries, start by learning how to prevent and treat them.

If your failures are usually fueling problems or poor nutrition, learn how to nail down smart nutrition for runners.

If you seem stuck at a certain mileage or race time, learn how to increase your motivation and accountability.

Running ain’t always easy. But if it were, it wouldn’t be so much fun!

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Comments

  1. Winston Churchill said something like,” Success is the ability to move from failure after failure without getting disheartened.

  2. Gloucester Jogger says:

    “Success is failing 9 times, but trying 10 times”

  3. Mark Franks says:

    Great post! I’m full of failures – we all fail at something, sometimes often – and yes, they are the best teachers in life! Embrace them…and get over them. There was I time I wouldn’t enter a race because of my fear of failure – getting dropped by the lead group or not feeling I would be in a position to win.

  4. Rebecca Claire Dale says:

    This seems very tied to your idea that consistency is the secret sauce of the successful runner. Continuing to keep trying in the face of not-yet-success sounds like one definition of consistency to me. The trick I’d like to work on is smiling during the not-yet-success time period.

  5. Marina Naumova says:

    I was over 40 before I ran my first sub 2:40 marathon. This was after 6 years of failure.

  6. Just what I needed to hear! I’ve been failing (or growing I suppose?) a lot lately and it’s always a good reminder that you need to fall in order to get back up. Thanks!

  7. Jason, there’s failure and then there’s failure. If you don’t reach your goals but don’t give up then it’s really not failure, it’s just a setback on the path to success. My recent injuries that prevent me from running more than once or twice a month and leave me in constant pain really help put it all into perspective for me. I was hoping to run my first marathon late in life (I’m now 52) but the injuries are just too bad, so even having the chance to fail is a blessing most people don’t even realize they have. So enjoy your failures, embrace them, and realize the simple chance to fail could be taken away from you at any time…