Why Runners Should Learn to Embrace Failure
For any race, runners often set multiple goals. There’s a best case, worst case, minimum expectation, and many others. Often, the goal of just finishing reminds us that completing the race is reward enough. We do this because we’re afraid of failure, because if we set up enough variants of our goals, it is impossible to fail. I think this is the wrong approach. Instead, we should set goals that are audacious, then embrace failure as a possible outcome.
This is why I’m not ashamed to admit I AM A FAILURE!
On May 1, 2016, I attempted to BQ for the third time at the Eugene Marathon (an amazing race by the way). My goal was a 3:05, which would qualify me for my age group, and allow enough buffer to register and be accepted into the race. My training went reasonably well, and supporting elements like sleep, nutrition, weather and other race prep were almost close to perfect the week before.
Alas, I finished with a disappointing 3:21.
At the halfway mark, I was less than 60 seconds off pace, but things weren’t looking good. Around mile 19, with hopes of a BQ or PR diminished, I slowed down considerably and tried to “enjoy” the last 7 miles.
Failure is something most of us try to avoid at all costs. We associate failure with things that are bad, evil, or make us feel terrible about our lives. Failure, the act of not achieving, is often reserved to describe the worst things in life.
This is a difficult topic in running. In a sport where people of all abilities compete, one person’s failure might be another person’s best case scenario. As runners, we know how hard each one of us works to prepare for a big race, but yet talking about missed goals as failures can be seen as insensitive.
I say, let’s start looking at our failures (defined as anything short of your number one goal) as an opportunity for feedback; A way to gain insight into ourselves that provides an opportunity to reevaluate what we really want, and to learn how to improve.
Recover, Reflect, Reignite
The week before my race, a book publisher sent me the book, The Champion’s Comeback, by Jim Afremow to review. After reading the first few pages, I hoped it wouldn’t be prophetic.
The Champion’s Comeback zeros in on how champions learn to repeat their successes and pick themselves up after setbacks by consistently practicing positive habits and thought patterns.
I define a champion as anyone who reaches their main goal. From the Olympics to finishing their first 5K.
Before the race, I told my wife I would be satisfied regardless of the outcome. That was a lie, and within hours of my race, I was looking at other marathons to redeem my race. I started reading this book the day after, and quickly realized my failure is simply a stepping stone.
…failure is the greatest teacher. We learn best by making mistakes or experiencing disappointments. If you allow the fear of failure to prevail, then you’ve already ensured your own failure by depriving yourself of life’s greatest teacher.
So how do we learn from failure? Here are seven ways I’m using my failed race as an opportunity for growth, and another chance to someday run the Boston Marathon.
7 Strategies to Overcome Failure
While none of these strategies are easy, I’m trying to embrace them and move beyond a disappointing race.
1. Let it Go
Perhaps the most important step is all about putting your race behind you. It’s about understanding that there is nothing you can do to go back and change the outcome.
I allowed myself to be sad for about a day. I threw away my race bib, and symbolically let it go.
2. Look for Support
After suffering a failure, it’s important to surround yourself with people who will add to your comeback. This doesn’t necessarily mean pie-in-the-sky optimists, telling you how great you are. But rather, people who can realistically support your goals (and your failures, too.)
For me, this includes my family, my coach, and a few fellow runners who are able to provide perspective. Make a list of the people in your life and lean on them.
3. Love the Game
Do you remember why you started running? Go back after a failure, and remind yourself why you care. This can reignite your passion, something you’ll need to do the hard work.
For me this means racing shorter distances, or events that aren’t bound to a specific finishing time. It means enjoying the social aspect of running again. To understand that running is an honor and a privilege is possibly one of the best steps in making a comeback.
4. Learn to Embrace a Growth Mindset
Someone with a growth mindset sees failures and disappointments as opportunities to grow. This is a chance to get fully involved in your goal to better understand how to improve. People with a growth mindset “take ownership of the steps that bring success.”
For me, this means evaluating this race, looking at what went well and what didn’t go well. Looking at my training cycle to see where I can improve. Right now, I think longer marathon pace workouts, more strength training and possibly adding heart rate training is where I will start. These are things I can control.
5. Keep pounding the Rock
The author of The Champion’s Comeback tells a story of a stone cutter. His hammer hits the stone a hundred times, with virtually nothing to show for it. On the 101st blow, it splits apart. Achieving a big goal is a relentless pursuit of forward progress. If you don’t continue to put in the hard work, you won’t be able to reach it.
After a marathon, I always feel like I will never be able to invest so much effort into one thing again. Hard work may eventually pay off, but less than hard work never does. Owning your work ethic means you’re doing everything in your power to become a champion. With new life changes in the very near future, I need to reevaluate how hard I am able to work going forward.
6. Learn Optimism
Research suggests that “optimism is positively correlated with life satisfaction, happiness, and psychological and physical well-being.” This allows you to view failures as situational, short-lived and specific. You need to believe in your goal.
For me that means thinking about my race in Eugene as isolated to that day (situational), just having a bad run (short-lived), which gives me another chance to train smarter and harder next time (situational).
7. Strengthen your Mental Game
The mental side of racing is perhaps where everything comes together. Our minds have the ability to propel us forward or pull us back.
Afremow suggests five mental tricks that help us achieve our goals:
- Develop clear and challenging big-pictures goals.
- Maintain confident, upbeat body language to get the feeling of success in your body and mind.
- Visualize yourself making great plays and winning on the [race course].
- Use positive, energetic language to motivate yourself into a winning mind-set (maybe with a mantra).
- Breathe deeply, starting in your core.
I struggle with this part of running. If I’m honest with myself, I gave up when the race got hard. When the first unexpected setback happened, I didn’t lean into it, I backed off, hoping it would get better. Mentally, I need more experience during those tough moments of a race. I will practice at shorter distances, and have a clear plan when the pain inevitably arrives.
Running, especially the marathon distance, is not easy. Out of the seven I have done, only two have gone as hoped. This is part of the running journey.
A final quote sums this up best:
Going through setbacks in sports and other areas of life is perfectly normal, as nobody can avoid such things. How you choose to deal with setbacks – such as threats or challenges – is what makes the difference. “One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth, “Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.
I look forward to embracing this failure, and learning from it to move forward towards my goal.
How will you embrace failure?