Quitting the Race: What I Learned From Failure

For the past four months, I’ve been training for a half marathon. It was my second ever; my first was two years ago and my only goal was to finish, which I did, miserably and slowly (jogging the whole time!). I was glad to finish and glad to show myself I could run the distance, but this time, two years later, with a lot more running under my belt, I was ready to improve. My friend and I set a time goal, recruited our boyfriends to train with us, and chose a race: Labor Day weekend down the street from my apartment (300 miles from theirs!).I planned my summer around running. I fit in runs before and after work, changing into running clothes in my office and stopping at the waterfront trail on my way home. I adjusted my eating, cut down on all other kinds of cardio to save energy the days before long runs, increased water and tea consumption, and even changed my strength training routine so my legs wouldn’t be sore. Fridays when my boyfriend has a big midday break at his job, we’d go on long runs–we fit in a 13.1 (not necessary on the training plan, but helpful for our confidence) two weeks before the race on a Wednesday morning before we went to Las Vegas for a long weekend and the beginning of our pre-race taper. Basically, running dominated my schedule for four months.But then the four months of training were accomplished, more or less successfully, and it was the week prior to race day. While I had run ten miles on my own at my goal pace, I hadn’t run the 13.1 that fast. Runner’s World assures me that this is OK, and in fact recommended, but I have low running self confidence, so this seemed terrible to me. The day before the race I was cranky and irritable, and I’m sure the drive down to the race location was not pleasant for my companions. I don’t know how to deal with my anxiety when continuing to train isn’t an option, and talking to upbeat people who handle their stress differently was not helping me.

But the problem wasn’t merely psychological: the week before the race (since Las Vegas and since my father and I drove nine hours round trip to visit his 95-year-old aunt for her birthday), I had begun having some pain in the back of my right ankle, possibly in the Achilles, but I’ve never had pain there so I wasn’t sure. I attributed it to tapering, wearing high heels for two straight days in Vegas, and sitting in the car/on the plane too much. I rested it and iced it for the three days before the race, not going on a final run the couple of days prior, and hoped it would be recovered. And also worried.

Race day: woke up feeling anxious but fine.

Mile 1: perky, no pain, running along my familiar trails with my friend and boyfriend (her boyfriend had come up injured just before paying his registration fee, which is good timing, inasmuch as there’s good timing to become injured).

Mile 2-5: gradually increasing discomfort, though our pace remains good.

Mile 6: every few steps the discomfort increases to outright painful, and every footfall on my right is unpleasant. I feel like I’m getting worn out from trying to ignore the pain more than from running, and I am sometimes wincing as my foot lands. There are 7 miles left, and I can’t imagine how I’ll do them in this condition. I tell my boyfriend I don’t know if I can do it and I don’t know what to do, and he says I should stop. It’s not worth getting hurt more seriously, and there are other races. I know that, but I planned on this race. I paid $80 for this race. This race is on the trails I love running. This race is a good size, with good finisher stuff, walking distance to my apartment, with a nice shirt. This race is the one I planned my summer around. This is the race I’m trying to PR in.

But I couldn’t do it. I started walking. It hurt possibly even worse walking than running. My boyfriend stopped with me, but went on to finish the race in our goal time (my friend also finished in under our goal time). I knew the shorter way to cut back to the start/finish, but it involved another mile on the course with the runners. Every person who passed me made me self-conscious. I’m not walking because I can’t do this, I wanted to tell them. I was in pain and frustrated, and as I left the race course to head back, I was near tears. I took off my race number so people on the path wouldn’t ask me why I wasn’t running, and as I walked I wondered if I was doing the right thing. Why not just run the last seven miles on it and try? Why quit?

I made it to the start/finish in time to see my friend and boyfriend reach our goal. I tried to be supportive of them–they just did something awesome–but I felt incredibly depressed. Later that day they went in the pool to cool off and relax while I watched and iced my leg.

Now, a couple of days later, I’m cheered when my ankle feels better, but also demoralized. If it’s such a minor injury, why couldn’t I just run on it? I want it to improve so I can plan my next race and take advantage of all the miles I put in these past four months, but I also want to be justified in quitting. I’m upset and frustrated and confused, because my body isn’t doing what it seems like it should, and I don’t have any control over it.

I’m sure there are dozens of times in my life that I’ve failed to accomplish goals, but none are more obvious than being unable to finish this race. I think there are few times in life when improvement and accomplishment are as striking as in basic fitness activities: I went outside three to five days a week, and I could run farther and faster every week. I could look at my notebook and see the improvement that I didn’t necessarily feel every single day–I could see how bad runs were part of a regular upward trend in my ability. And unlike in most of our jobs, these fitness accomplishments provide outlets for demonstrating our hard-earned abilities. There aren’t very many weekend contests to show who can find scholarly articles on nature philosophy most effectively, or who can compute insurance premiums most efficiently, but there are 5k races and triathlons and yoga workshops to help us show that we accomplished something measurable.

And despite not finishing this particular half marathon, I did achieve something measurable. I ran 13.1 miles on a Wednesday morning before my boyfriend went to work. I ran ten miles one day, all on my own, in a pace I used to struggle to maintain for a 5k. I did a 5k training race and set a new PR. I spent many great hours outside enjoying good weather, exploring sidewalks and paths and trails all over, talking to my boyfriend. I figured out some things about my abilities on my own and my abilities to train with others. My boyfriend and I worked through some problems and frustrations together, while running.

All these intermediate accomplishments are what that race really accomplished; the race itself isn’t the whole goal. And that’s true of a lot of things in our lives. The graduate seminar in which I only earned a B+ wasn’t only good as that grade on that transcript, but as a time to learn and read and participate in scholarly discourse, and maybe figure out some things about myself as a student. The job I didn’t get still motivated me to update my resume, practice my interview skills, check in on my network, and review my accomplishments. Those aren’t failures any more than training for a half marathon is a failure.

A week ago when I started thinking of this post, when I had just failed to finish my race, I didn’t think I’d be able to wrap it up so neatly with this now-obvious moral. It was literally painful, both in my foot and my mind. I sobbed in the shower because I didn’t want to pull down my friend and boyfriend who had just accomplished our goal, leaving me behind. But now it seems clear that what was lost was just one race–not the four months of training, not all those other runs, not all that other work. Just one day. And there are lots of days to reach that running goal, especially now that I’ve shown myself I can train effectively. In the same way, I can use this experience to better understand the other failures I’ve had and the ones I see my friends struggle with, because failing to reach a hard-fought goal is rarely a true failure–it’s just one chance of many.

5 replies on “Quitting the Race: What I Learned From Failure”

In 8 years with 6 triathlons, 3 marathons, >10 swim races and countless 5-15k road races (all where I usually finish at the back of the pack, I’m a slow but steady girl, no bragging there) I had one race I didn’t finish. It was an open water swim where the water was cold, the current was choppy and strong and I was wheezing. I had a boat pull me out because I felt unsafe.   Riding in a boat to the finish line and standing there while other people finished was one of the shittier feelings I’ve ever felt.  And I just finished residency recently, so you know I’ve had plenty of reasons to feel bad over the years, so…..

Anyway, my point is the important thing is to realize that when you have to stop, you do. After that race, there were a couple where I wanted to, and the combination of knowing how crappy it felt to not finish, combined with an idea of what actually meant I needed to, helped me put other injuries and exhaustion in perspective, and know I could keep going.  You don’t really safely know your own threshold until at some point you hit it. So, the next time you are out there wondering if you can or should keep going, you’ll have a better idea. Its a sucky way to learn, but it is an invaluable lesson.

Girl, you are amazing. I can’t run to that level — I can’t MOTIVATE myself to get to that level. I am beyond impressed with you. So you couldn’t finish one race? It wasn’t like your mind gave out, your motivation didn’t give out. Your ankle, which you had no control over, gave out. That wasn’t your decision! You had nothing to do with that. The most important thing is that YOU wanted to keep going even though your ankle was hurt, that you COULD have kept going if it wasn’t. But you made the right decision. What if you ran those last seven miles? What if you ran them and finished them, but then could never run again because you ruined your ankle? If that happened, there wouldn’t actually be another race to run, you know? You made the right choice to sit it out. As you said, there are more opportunities! The most important thing is that you’re ready to go after them.

Awh, thanks so much! I know intellectually that the choice was right, but it was SO HARD in the moment. I feel better about it the more time passes, you know? In some ways, I think choosing to stop was the accomplishment in that situation (but then sometimes I think, “now you’re giving yourself too much credit for being a quitter you jerk.”) I was really hoping that the lessons I learned would translate well to other people’s struggles and “failures” too.

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