The Importance of Failure

Six weeks before Montana’s Missoula Half Marathon, I set a goal to run a sub-1:40 race in this, my 18th of 50 states. And over the next month-and-a-half, I trained to run 13.1 miles a whopping five minutes faster than my personal record (1:44) for the distance.

Almost all of the stars aligned for success. I put in the miles and blood and sweat on streets and trails and gym floors. And when the sun rose in Big Sky Country early on the morning of July 9, I thought I was ready.

My fitness? On the money.

Great weather? To my Southern skin, yes.

Fast course? Hell yes.

But none of that mattered.

Despite the fact that I’d whipped myself into maybe the best cardiovascular shape of my life at age 35, the simple truth is that my legs just didn’t bring it that morning. Suddenly, after a couple of miles near my goal pace of 7:38/mile, they just did not. Want. To. Move.

To boot, I’d committed the cardinal mistake of changing something on race day. My new running shorts caused the worst chafing ever, so much so that the insides of my thighs were bleeding by the time I crossed the finish line at 1:50, a middling time even by my own standards.And instead of sticking around for the free beer after my TV interview with Missoula’s ABC Fox Montana, I dragged my husband to the closest drug store for Vaseline and extra-large Band-Aids.

Missoula Half Marathon time

I didn’t achieve my time goal in Missoula. But I learned a lot of lessons in six weeks of training and 110 minutes of running on race day, the most important of which was this:

Failure is important.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” ~Winston Churchill

Failure keeps us from getting too comfortable. It keeps us from settling. It reminds us that we can always perform better and be better. And the work we put in to achieve a goal will always make us stronger, even if we fail.

When I was a high school freshman, I failed at two things I’d always done pretty well: school and soccer.

That fall, I made a C in English. When I asked the teacher why she gave me a C grade, she said I didn’t apply myself. That’s the last C I received; eight years later, I earned an English degree.

In the spring, I made the school’s varsity soccer team only to get cut late in the preseason. Getting cut made me hungry. Getting cut made me put longer hours into my game. Instead of sitting buried on the varsity bench, I became a leader on the younger JV squad. And I never got cut from another team again.

I graduated from the University of North Carolina in four years, but a lot of people don’t know that I spent the spring semester of my freshman year at North Carolina State University. I suffered depression from almost the moment I arrived on campus in Chapel Hill, and when I left school to move in with my grandparents in Raleigh after fall classes ended, I felt like a failure. But soon enough, I healed. I rekindled my confidence. I learned to believe in myself again. And the next academic year, I returned whole to a place I’d left broken. Sixteen years later, that experience is still one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Failure isn’t just important; it’s critical.

The best part of my failure in Missoula this month is that I really didn’t fail at all. While I’ve always been a good athlete, I’m not an elite athlete. In my 20-year soccer career, I never had a shot at making the World Cup team. And in my eight-year running career, I’ve done well to earn age group awards. If I’d made speed my primary goal, I might have hung up my running shoes a long time ago.

Instead, I run because my blind sister ran. I run because she can’t run or even walk today. I run because she’ll die young of a brain disease I could have easily inherited from our parents, but didn’t. I run because I can. I run for millions of other people, many of them children, fighting a rare disease. And none of them care about my time.

When I ran the Missoula Half Marathon, I missed my athletic goal by a long shot. But I achieved my other, more important goal in Montana: telling a great story. Today, more people know about Batten disease thanks to the media coverage I got in Missoula. Today or tomorrow or the next day, if even a single person who heard my sister’s amazing story joins the fight against Batten disease, I’ll gladly take 32 last-place finishes in my remaining 32 states.

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The Importance of Running a Fast Race

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