I’ve been here before. And it’s not fun. “Failure,” is a tricky thing to cope with. Usually, failure is followed up with a glorious anecdote of success. Usually, the narrative I often read about talks of experiencing, learning from, and emerging victorious after an unexpected setback.
That’s where my problem is. My perspective on failure continues to exist in the realm that failure is bimodal, that in order to experience success, one must inevitably encounter failure. But here’s the thing, the two have nothing to do with one another.
100% proud; 0% finished.
In August I signed up for a 100 mile race and made it only 45 miles. In September, I toed the line for another 100 mile race and made it (only) 80. Yes, through the lens of a world that scrutinizes the specifics, I didn’t achieve my goal and therefor experienced a failure of now double proportion. Here’s the catch that was hard to feel comfortable admitting; I am still so proud of myself. I still had so much success.
The two races, though similar in their demise, have nothing to do with one another. In both situations I experienced debilitating nausea. While I didn’t cross the finish line, it doesn’t mean I’m any less of a runner. It doesn’t mean I’m any less of a bad ass athlete, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m destined to fail. What I learned from both experiences was that I have something to work on. I have something to fix and it’s ignited a passion in me to figure it out. After unpinning my bib for the second time I admittedly I though; maybe I’m just not cut out for the distance? Maybe I’m not supposed to be an ultra runner? Maybe I’m not meant to run 100 miles?
The Sparknotes Version.
At mile 80, suddenly something in my body felt horrendous. After running what I deem to be the strongest miles of any race I’ve run; staying patient, happy and nourished, a switch flipped and it was terrifying. All of a sudden I started shivering, throwing up, and needed the help of my pacer (Elan) to hold me up-right. It didn’t make the decision to drop easier, it made the decision inevitable. With the next aid station being a mile away, I couldn’t even put one foot in front of the other to get there. I got picked up by a volunteer off the trail and was driven to my crew, shivering, delusional and heart broken.
All day I stayed steady. Having previously run on the course earlier in the summer, I felt more than ready to tackle the challenge ahead with a knowledge and anticipation anxiously waiting to be executed. The climb to the highest point of the course at mile 67 felt effortless; climbing steadily around 3,000 ft in roughly seven miles. By the time I reached the aid station I felt invincible! Slowly hunting down runners ahead of me, my energy was stable and my motivation carried me down the trail and into the night.
We picked up a rhythm and kept gliding along the single track in the middle of the night, my pacer, Elan remarking, “I can’t wait to have matching buckles.” That more than anything made the unfolding of events even harder to look back on.
When I’m all in, I’m all in. Be it for better or for worse, ultra running is something I adore, and not just for the physicality of it. Trail running in particular has taught me to appreciate how resilient the human body is. Coming from so many years feeling weak and incapable under the confines of a crippling eating disorder (upon which I was hospitalized for months at a time), running in the mountains has taught me to be proud! A concept I would have been hard pressed to communicate to anyone, let alone to those around me.
So not being able to achieve my goal of crossing the finish line makes me feel like I’m incapable. And coming from a sticky history of mental health issues, it’s not the most pleasant feeling to sit with.
So be it for better or worse, I’m stubborn as hell. A few days after the race I reached out to friends in the sport asking for all their advice on nutrition, fatigue, nausea, and experience. I want to get better. I want to keep learning. I want to keep growing.
Failure doesn’t have a pattern, and that can be incredibly frustrating. Before I found recovery, I relapsed four different times, I felt like a shell of myself. And in a lot of ways, that feeling of disappointment feels eerily similar to the dreaded DNF. But you know what? Every time I’ve chosen to pick myself back up, I’ve only become better because of it.
The (wo)man in the arena.
Sure, I could bore you with the the minutia of where, when, and how my race played out (until it didn’t). I could tell you that my lovely crew and I stayed up late, making almond butter and jelly sandwiches and sweet potato tortillas for me to eat during the race, or how at mile 50 my crew got into a fairly substantial fight over whether or not they’d have time to see me at the next aid station.
I could tell you about how I had a dance party by myself in the middle of a particularly hard section, jamming out to, Peaches and Herb’s, “Shake Your Groove Thing,” and how it made me feel silly and carefree and instantly better; or I could tell you candidly how hard it hurt accepting that yet again I didn’t finish.
What I am going to tell you is that everyday I remind myself to stay proud. I remind myself that like Theodore Roosevelt said, the credit goes to the person willing to step foot in the arena. I’ve experienced set backs, unfortunately these two came close together, but I refuse to be set back by it.
I adore this sport. I adore the athletes who line up with me, and I adore the fact that my wonderful mother and amazing boyfriend vested so much of their energy into helping ME succeed. I’m not any less of an athlete, runner or human being because of it. I ran 80 miles, smiling, thanking volunteers for being there; I love what I do and I love that my body is capable of doing it.
Whether or not I race 100 miles, I’m going to keep reminding myself of how far I’ve come in a journey that has been plagued by self deprecation. And rather than feel defeated of the outcome, I’m going to remain proud of the battles I do win. And this one feels like I did.