Embrace Your Failures

Tuesday, 29th October 2013


"It is inevitable that some defeat will enter even the most victorious life. 

The human spirit is never finished when it is defeated...

it is finished when it surrenders."

- Ben Stein

I talked about the 2013 Spartathlon beforehand in hushed tones and whispers.  There is a stigma associated with DNF-ing (Did Not Finish) an ultra-endurance race, and I was under no illusions about how I would fare. When I saw another member of the British Spartathlon Team submit his DNS (Did Not Start) a few weeks before, it crossed my mind that I ought to do likewise, but I could not bring myself to do so. Whenever you view race results you will likely come across the acronyms DNS and DNF, and there is never a desire to know either exist next to one's own name.

As written in my article on 'The SP of MH", I chose to prioritise my research work over training for the Spartathlon. I can return to a race anytime, but my doctoral studies have to be concluded in the coming months so I can spend the next year travelling and on adventures. I was working 7 days a week from 6 or 8 in the morning until 2 o'clock the following morning on my PhD. Although I wrote out a training plan, I would opt to see study participants or write or test MatLab code instead. As a result, I managed only a handful of runs in June and July, and about a dozen in August and the same again in September. I ran mostly 10-ks and the occasional half-marathon. This was nothing but base fitness training and by no means a serious attempt at improving fitness for a 153-mile, 36-hour race.

Before the race someone not privy to all this commented on how he admired my ability to manage work, writing, training and other aspects of life, just as many other successful athletes do. But this is the point…we each have our own priorities, whether those be jobs, family, training or other. The mix between these might change at times, and we make decisions based on the bigger picture.

So, knowing that the Spartathlon was not a priority for me, why did I choose to go along? This is a simple question to answer. I competed because I wanted to.   Previous competitors had described it as the greatest race on Earth. Not being able to train for this year's race, I could at least go along and experience this amazing event, gain a valuable insight for future participation, and most of all I could enjoy myself. Really the question ought to have been: 'Why wouldn't I compete?'  After all, I had earned a place in a tough race to get into, and I had paid most of my costs months in advance.

The main reason not to compete could only have been pride or ego. That is, knowing in advance I could not finish, how would I feel about dropping out of the race? The main difficulty in completing the Spartathlon is not the distance or the overall time limit, but the cut-offs along the route. The first main cut-off is at 50 miles, where there is a cut-off of 9.5 hours, and racers aim to get through with some room for error.  There are checkpoints every 3 to 5 kilometres, and every checkpoint has its own cut-off. Because of this, racers push themselves to get through each checkpoint with time to spare, a result of which is that they run faster than they need to. Although the cut-off times ease off after the first 50 miles, it still requires a pace faster than that for just 153 miles in 36 hours.

My first priority in race training is to ensure I am moving well.  That is, during my first training sessions I am sensitive to any anomalies in how I move (joint niggles or unusual muscle tightness), and I am proactive in addressing these. Having managed this, I am able to run further and faster with fewer issues, until I know I will arrive at a start line in good enough condition to finish, without risk of injury and with sufficient fitness.  During the week of the Spartathlon I was still trying to address movement problems, and I had no expectations of even reaching the 50-mile cut-off within the time limit.


"Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. 

Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. 

Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing."

- Denis Waitley

Although the Spartathlon was my first 'big' DNF, it was certainly not my first DNF ever. My first was in my early days of racing, and a friend had invited me to run a double-marathon within a week of completing the Transalpine race with him. I managed the first marathon slowly and during the second my joints felt sore - as if irritated and lacking synovial fluid. It seemed that if I pushed myself I would end up with a serious joint injury, and for a race I had agreed to do on a whim there was no point putting myself at risk. A serious injury for the sake of pride and ego? That would be far more embarrassing to me than applying what I considered to be common sense.

I then suffered a spate of DNFs in 2012, having been invited to races and agreeing, without time to recover from previous races, or to train specifically for those. After spending months training for Arctic sled-hauling, and a month spent on the Arctic sea ice and in Alaska's White Mountains, I stood on the start line of the Jan Knippenberg Memorial race in the Netherlands. I had been invited by a friend, and I made it clear I would have no running fitness for the 100-mile, 24-hour event. Somewhere between 20 miles and a marathon my legs seized up and I was unable to maintain a running pace. There was no way I would make the cut-offs and I did not want to lose weeks of training out of a necessity to recover.

A couple of months later I successfully finished my first 100-miler - the Hardmoors 110. A few weeks later was the UTSW 100-miler, but having not recovered from the Hardmoors, and with La Ultra only a few weeks away, I dropped out at 20 miles for the sake of 'The Greater Good'. I had signed up for the Hardmoors and UTSW to give myself experience of a 100 miler ahead of La Ultra, and I did not know in advance which one I would be fit for.  After falling on a couple of descents during the Hardmoors, I was struggling by the time I passed 60 miles.  I kept an eye on my watch and managed myself to the end within the cut-off, beating myself up a good deal along the way. A couple of months later I went out to the Himalayas and successfully completed the 138-mile La Ultra, the world's highest altitude ultra (and the toughest race I have ever attempted).

Needing to get back into training with some kind of focus, I chose to start The Ring of Fire race, having been invited by the organiser. I signed up at 5pm the day before the race, got home from work around 10pm, sorted kit by 2am, and drove from Surrey to Anglesey for the race a few hours later. I managed the first day's 30-miler, but my feet, socks and shoes were soaked, and I had neglected to pack spare shoes. As a result my feet were soaked throughout the second day, and I bailed after 30 miles, with feet having been torn up with blisters. I decided against attempting to finish that day's 60 mile total, or starting the third day's 30-miler. 

I had had a great experience, met some awesome people, and thoroughly enjoyed the new trails. I achieved what I had wanted, and had no issues about ending my participation in the event at that stage. As far as I was concerned, there was an inevitability that continuation would have meant an extended period for recovery. There were plenty of races I turned up to on a whim and did complete, but as I was not a serious competitor there was not much to report on those, especially in an article on DNFs.


"The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart."

- Robert Green Ingersoll

On the whole, it seems the majority of DNFs I have witnessed were due to actual injuries, awareness of impending injury, or some sort of sickness.  In races with cut-off times, people might be forced out by a lack of speed in making a cut-off, or else choose to exit the race if they realise they will not make it. At the Spartathlon I made it to the first 50 mile cut-off fairly comfortably - or at least by comparison to what I had anticipated. I had expected a flat course, and the undulations and slight hills had been sufficient to work me harder than I was fit for, and my thighs began tightening up and slowing my progress. I had a 15 minute rest at the 50-mile checkpoint in order to address some blisters (brought about by a lack of training to toughen my skin), take on some food, apply some much-needed sun protection, and to get stung by a bee.

During the third marathon I slowed further, and the climbs caused my legs to tighten to such an extent that I began to draw dangerously close to the cut-off times. Despite my advance knowledge this would happen, it still struck me in the most devastating way. I felt heartbroken that I could still move, could still manage the distance within 36 hours, but could not make the impending cut-offs. I was late for 4 consecutive checkpoints before I was withdrawn from the race by the staff. Although a foregone conclusion, the disappointment this would happen struck me in something akin to despair, and I had cried on numerous occasions between those checkpoints, realising the inevitability of defeat as I willed my legs to move faster.

Had I managed a more consistent pace during that third marathon, I could have walked the remainder and finished within the cut-off, but I was simply not fit for it. The whole experience was disappointing, but I now know what I need to achieve for a successful completion in a future year. With nothing but the most basic level of general fitness, I managed myself halfway through one of the world's truly toughest races, and I ought not to be as disappointed with myself as I was and still am.

Even if I had not managed that first 50 miles, it still would have been okay.  Participating in the race was the most important thing, and it was a hugely positive experience, for so many reasons. I had the chance to see Athens and Sparta, and the route between. I got to spend time with old friends and make plenty of new ones. Ultra endurance racing is a wonderfully enjoyable way to spend time, seeing marvellous landscapes and being surrounded by other racers, their supporters, and the race support staff. The locals came out to see us, to cheer us on, and to be a part of this phenomenal and historically fascinating event. At the very least, competing in even a part of an ultra-marathon course is a great way of experiencing a new running route, far more interesting than the solitary familiar. 

That there is a stigma associated with the DNF is absurd and right for far more ridicule than any DNF. Ought we only compete in events we already know with complete confidence we will finish?  Should we never attempt to stretch ourselves and to try something incredible? If this were the case, we would all be competing in 5-k road races, absolutely positive we would be fine (even if injured we could walk to the finish).  And what about injuries? Do we need to train ourselves beyond all reasonable risk of injury of any kind before being able to compete in a race?  Alternatively, if faced with the alarm bells of impending injury should we persist, receive the injuries, and reach a finish line having written ourselves out of racing for months or even years to come?

This is not helped by the pathetic and unimaginative attempts at motivation that come from those who have, presumably, never truly pushed themselves, who have always played it safe and considered themselves a success as a result.  'Finishers never quit and quitters never finish', and other such meaningless drivel. I have finished every race I ever properly trained for, and quit a handful of those where I lacked training, recovery, or else was susceptible to injury. But then, surely, that is the same for most of us, if not all of us?

The only exception I can think of is boredom or lack of enjoyment, and as someone who runs and races for the enjoyment of it, I would have to support anyone who ever dropped out because they realised there was something they would rather be doing. I might struggle to really understand that or appreciate the hows and whys, but if genuine it is valid. The only times I was miserable during the Spartathlon was when reality dawned that my race was nearly up, but there was still nothing I would rather have been doing, and I was in my element the whole time.

I will continue to train for the races I am hungry to finish, and I will be determined to finish in a good time, but will accept any finish, and begrudgingly accept a good run even if it does not get me to the end. Any of those possibilities are better than a DNS, although the DNS will still happen if I feel an injury is likely or if I cannot afford the costs, or if life simply gets in the way. I am a human being first, a runner second and a racer third.  I do not have to race to be a runner, but I race because I love the atmosphere, the trails and the spirit of the events. I will not sacrifice my enjoyment for the sake of my pride or ego, or because of the expectations of others. 

Not finishing the Spartathlon brought me feelings of despair akin to grief, and I was breaking down on my feet as I continued to plod, the tears welling up as I proceeded, if only for a few moments here and there. I did not want to quit, but I did not have the fitness to make it. I had no injuries, but I lacked the speed to make the cut-offs. I did all I could, and I will return to do more.

A non-runner seemed to think it absurd I should be so distraught, considering my awareness in advance of the race outcome and the miles I had accumulated. My response was that I allow myself to feel that way, because that extreme of disappointment is matched by the extremes of hunger and determination I feel to succeed in the future. Back in my strength training days there was a poster on the wall that read 'If you never fail, you will never succeed', and I always embraced the realism of either achieving a goal or gaining hunger for the next attempt. Real success comes when we experience our limitations, then go back and train ourselves to overcome them in the future. That means far more to me nowadays than finishing a race I knew would be easy for me.

Our ability to learn and adapt is what helps define us within our lives.  Animals can manage this and so can children. To brand someone as a failure because of a single failed attempt is really to brand oneself as ignorant - it implies we do not recognise this ability to learn and adapt that characterises most animal life on Earth. This affliction of ignorance is easily spotted in politicians, holding another's history against them months or even years after an event or a decision has occurred, but that is because they are politicians and not as intelligent or insightful as other animals or small children. Our past is nothing but a memory, and whatever we have achieved or not is a memory we can draw lessons from. We learn more from our failures than our successes, and more than the intellectual growth from such reflection we can benefit from the emotional growth too.

"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checked by failure…than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt


It is seeing my limitations one day that charges my hunger to train better for an event in the future. This is part of my passion, and for all my strengths and weaknesses I will use what I can to make me the person, runner and racer I want to be tomorrow. Of course, I could always resign myself to only competing in events I know I can compete, but where is the struggle, the adventure and the excitement in such an endeavour? Similarly, I would have far more respect for an athlete who returns to an event to finish following an earlier failure, than if they were to lower their ambitions in favour of easier races, or no races at all. 

One day I will cease my racing, but it will be because it is what I want, not because I believe I can no longer compete in challenging events. We can all compete and we can all learn and enjoy the process. We need not concern ourselves with the small-mindedness of others, because in the end it is our lives we have to reflect upon, and how we fared in comparison to others will have little real meaning, if any at all. I shall continue in my selfish crusade to do precisely what I want to do (or at least giving it my best shot), because when I was a child it was the main reason I had for wanting to grow up. Now I have 'grown up', I owe it to myself to seek out and do the things that enrich my life and bring me enjoyment and happiness. Some might consider that selfish, and they are entirely correct.

"Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much…the wheel, New York, wars and so on…while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man…for precisely the same reason."

- Douglas Adams


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