I am a failure, and I’m happy about it. That’s an odd statement, I know, but hear me out. If you’ve been a runner for long enough, you’ve likely experienced failure in some regard. Much like death and taxes, it’s coming for all of us.
From a very young age, I was raised to succeed, to accept nothing less than being the best. Being better than my peers, being the best on the soccer field, getting a 4.00 GPA, leaving others in my wake in the final turn down the straightway on the track. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t always the best. Many kids were smarter, faster, stronger, and more talented. But I was taught to work harder than everyone and set unbearably high expectations upon myself.
This path towards unsustainable achievement culminated my senior year of high school. I wanted to run sub-2:00 minutes for the 800m in track and win our local sectional. I was an above average middle distance runner my junior year, but to be the best would require a whole new level of dedication. And that’s precisely what I did. Every day I trained alone; often twice per day. There were lonely 4:30am mornings doing plyometric work in the gym before school. On Christmas morning, I jumped the fence to our track to do 400m repeats in the snow until I’d fallen to my knees from exhaustion. My hair grew long. I wanted to feel it blow in the breeze like a race horse as I sprinted the track. I was becoming a beast. Little else began to matter in my life. This was my vision quest.
My first race of the season was a PR. I ran away from the field with ease in my next race. I could taste victory. In my mind, I could see the tiny “1” preceding my time on the race clock as I crossed the line. Each race that spring I would watch the clock as sprinted all out down the final stretch. 1:58… 1:59… 2:00… 2:01. It was always just outside of my grasp. Winning didn’t even matter. After each race, I’d collapse off the track and then vomit my guts out minutes later. It was pure maximum effort affair, and each race I was willing to sacrifice my life to break the 2-minute barrier.
I never made it. My times plateaued that season, and they even got worse in some races. I was exhausted. I didn’t even place top 3 in sectionals. It was a devastating blow to my ego, but a valuable life lesson, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.
Flash forward to 2016, when I was shut out of every ultra-distance race I toed the line that year. A DNF in every race.
Cloudland Canyon 50 Mile: undertrained and injured. DNF at 50k
Arkansas Traveller 100: miscalculated fluid intake, DNF (and a brush with death) from hyponatremia at mile 64.
Pinhoti 100: went out too hard, not enough recovery from AT100. DNF at mile 40 after my calves seized up in cramps for hours.
After a great 2015 racing season, 2016 was an utter failure by any man’s standards. A younger version of myself would have had a very difficult time swallowing this magnitude of defeat, but as I’ve raced ultras for several years now, I’ve come to embrace failure. I no longer see it as an absolute negative. So long as I’ve given a 100% maximum effort, then I walk away with something even more valuable than a finisher buckle: lessons.
I look at people racing ultras that have never DNF’ed, and I think, “this person isn’t challenging themselves”. The essence of running, and especially ultrarunning, is to “get in over your head”, so to speak. Set goals that scare you. Set goals that you will probably fail to achieve. To have any sort of longevity in this sport, you must know that despite your best efforts, you may fail. Accept your failures. Blame only yourself. Learn from your failures, and become not only a better runner, but a better person.