Redefining my Relationship with Failure
Crossing the finish line at the Leadville 100 this past weekend felt nothing like I had envisioned in my head for the last several months. I wasn't breaking the tape. I wasn't watching a fast time flash on the finish clock. I wasn't jogging it in with exhausted excitement of having just crushed my first 100. Instead, after having only been physically able to walk the previous 15 miles, I only started jogging it in when I was certain that the red lights I saw ahead were in fact the finish line and not a traffic light. As I ran over the red carpet, I honestly didn't feel much excitement, just desperate relief that I could finally stop moving my blistered, throbbing feet. In fact, as I crossed the line they didn't even announce the right name, and I finished as "Andrew, a first time 100 mile runner with two kids." All I could think for the next several hours was "this was nothing like I thought it would be." I was disappointed. I was frustrated. I was in pain. I had failed.
But, then I slept on it.
Now, I think that this past weekend's outcome is the best thing that could have happened. Failure is the best way to learn. Yes, failure makes you feel exposed. But, if you take a second to gaze at the holes that are now evident you know how you can get stronger. You know how you can do it better next time. I'm the first to admit that things have come relatively easy the past 6 months when I started racing ultra distances. Yea, I may have only run two 50-milers and a 100k, but all three came off without a hitch. I had success in each one and didn't have to deal with any of the horror stories that you hear about when racing such distances. When people asked "How do you deal with stomach problems?" my response was "Oh, I've never had them." Or, "What precautions do you take to prevent the nasty, debilitating blisters?" I would just say "Hmm..never thought about it because I don't get them." I got stuck thinking that I was the exception. Maybe I was just so prepared that those things weren't going to happen to me. I remember meeting with my crew chief, Andrew, prior to race and as he began to list all the things that I needed to bring and have accessible at aid stations just in case, I thought "Yea, that's for normal people. Those things don't happen to me." I started to think I was invincible. And, the lack of preparation and the arrogance to think I didn't need to be cautious came crashing down on me this weekend. I truly believe that when it comes to training for this race, I worked as a hard as I could. I think that I was as physically prepared that I could be and in the best shape of my life for that distance on that terrain. I know that I physically had the ability to perform well in those mountains on that day. But, when it comes to 100 miles, the mountains don't care how fit you are. And, they are going to throw you every single curve ball and see if you have the foresight to adjust your swing. And, the truth is...I didn't. The curve balls kept coming, and I kept swinging and missing.
Every single thing that could go wrong, went wrong. My legs felt off from the very beginning which I'm attributing to my failure to recover as well as I should have after Never Summer 100k only 3 weeks before. I started having stomach issues around mile 40. I had to take several pit stops in the woods and was having trouble getting fluids and food down. For whatever reason, the balls of my feet felt like one big bruise and every step coming down on the rocky terrain of this course felt excruciating. Despite all of that, I was still moving decently well and holding a lead until things really went south around mile 65. The stomach cramping turned to nausea and I could no longer take in anything without feeling like I was going to risk vomiting, which scared me. In my mind, that was the one thing that could force me to not finish. And, here it was....all the discomfort that I hadn't prepared for. I was prepared to run hard. I was prepared to fight up all the climbs. I was prepared to push through exhaustion and debilitating muscle soreness. But, I was not prepared for all of these other factors to come and challenge my focus and emotional state. Every minute that passed felt like an eternity. Finally, at mile 85 my body could no longer hold it together and the upchucking that I had been fearing for hours had arrived. And, it didn't stop for the next 15 miles. When I got to May Queen aid station with 12 miles to go, I went over to my mom after puking up all the broth and Ginger Ale I had just tried to consume and said "I don't think I can finish." And, she begged me not to. It would have been easy to let her give me a hug and to give in. Nobody would have blamed me. It would have been totally understandable. But, then I thought about why I would be quitting. Just because things weren't going how I wanted them to? Just because it hurt and was the hardest thing I had ever done? Those weren't good enough reasons. Yes, I had already failed to reach my goals for the race and there was no way of making up for that. They were gone. But, in the place of the goals I had set and missed was a new opportunity. To put myself through something I had never been through. I had shown that I can be tough and I can fight and I can go to the well to win a race, to set a course record, to reach a goal. But, could I put myself through extreme pain and determination when they goal is already out of reach? I could fight, and dig, and hurt when things were going well. But, could I do it with the same drive when things were going terribly? I wanted to find out. That's a different kind of fight and I wanted to see if I had it. I have been fortunate enough to accomplish many, many things in my 20 years of running and racing. But, I would have to put the last 12 miles of the race as my proudest accomplishment, and the only ones that witnessed it were myself and Corey. I have never had to fight so hard and dig so deep to find the willpower to do anything than I did to get to that finish line. There was no glory to be had and no prize to be won from the effort. I didn't feel like I had to finish, I felt like I deserved to finish.
In many ways, I see this past weekend as a failure. But, one that I'm glad that happened. One that I needed to happen. Failing breaks you down, but it also gives you the opportunity build yourself back up even stronger. No success I have ever had has taken to me the depths of my abilities that that failure did. Success is fun, but it can also challenge humility and make you think that if you work hard, good outcomes are guaranteed. There are no guarantees. There are never sure things in sports and that's what makes them so riveting and exciting. After this weekend, I'm humbled and I'm broken. But, I have also seen and felt the many cracks in my foundation. Now, I have the opportunity to fix them and build myself up even stronger and sturdier. That's an opportunity that only failure provides and I'm thankful for it.