The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of Defeat: Face Your Fear of Failure

The thrill of victory.

To be fair, most of us won’t be winning our fall marathons.  Yeah, yeah, I know we have Salt(y) and Pepper here to think about, but the majority of us – mere mortals that we are – don’t have a huge shot at seeing the tape.

We do, however, have our own victories inherent in the race.  What is it for you?  A first time finish?  A PR?  Breaking 4 or 5 hours for the first time?  Qualifying for Boston?  The list is as long as the number of people running, and the “victories” as personal and individual as each of us.

The problem with the marathon?  Well, it’s right there in the title.  “The thrill of victory – the agony of defeat.”  The marathon is HARD.  And anything – anything – can happen out there.  A dream can come true – and a dream can be shattered.  All in the space of two-and-a-half to six hours.

For the amount of training and the months of work we put into these things, that’s a pretty big risk, don’t you think?  So what’s a girl (or guy) to do?  How do we reconcile that mountain of work we’ve put into this with the huge risk we take stepping on the starting line?  How do we prepare ourselves – mentally and emotionally – for all the things that can physically go wrong? How do we stare down our fear of failure?

I’ve been open with our readers about my struggle with infertility, and it’s one of the few places that I’ve found a real parallel to marathon-running.  Earlier in my journey through the tests and treatments, I was adamant that I had finally found something that running couldn’t solve; something that running fast marathons and epic 100-milers hadn’t prepared me for at all; something so difficult, so overwhelming, that running was downright trivial in comparison.

Well, except for one thing.

The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.

When one is undergoing fertility treatments, each step in the process is a bit like a mile marker.  You live in equal parts unrelenting hope and utter despair.  You always start out believing that THIS is the month; after all, if you were completely out of hope, would you really throw that kind of cash down and shoot yourself up with hormones every month?  You get about halfway through and the doubts start to seep in; once the shots and procedures are done and there’s nothing you can do but wait, excitement turns to nerves turns to doubt.  And then there’s that final moment – the last test – where you wait with baited breath to hear yes or no.  When you know that no matter how many miles you didn’t run, no matter how many cups of coffee you didn’t have, no matter how much rest you got or how careful you were to keep your stress level down – that answer will fill you with tremendous joy – or utter despair.  Again.

Sound at all familiar?

When we start our training cycles for a new marathon, we are filled with that unrelenting hope.  We always start out believing that THIS is the race; after all, if we were completely out of hope, would we really throw that kind of cash down (entry fees, flights, hotels) and put ourselves through tempo runs, long runs and Yasso 800’s  again?  Of course not!  We could still be runners, enjoying our casual 5 milers in the fresh snow as the holidays approached.  But no.  That unrelenting hope calls us to the track, to those early Saturday mornings, to something more than that recreational running.  That unrelenting hope calls to us to take the risk – because one day, with enough of the right work, the risk will pay off.

But then the training gets hard and heavy, and we’re tired and sore and have a bad workout or two.  We wonder if we’ve bitten off more than we can chew.  We wonder why can’t just enjoy those casual fall runs with the leaves crunching under our feet for what they are; why we’re constantly chasing more.  Is Boston really that important?  And so what if you maybe never break 4 hours?  I mean, isn’t it enough that you’ve done five marathons?

Yet you push through, you get your mojo back.  You see the end of the training cycle around the corner, followed by the taper.  You look at the numbers from the good workouts and see all the improvements you’ve made.  You look at the people you’re running with, and realize they’ve all achieved the goal you’re aiming for.  Hope returns and abounds; it is unceremoniously interrupted by the taper.  You’re left with nothing to do but wait; obsess, worry, second-guess and doubt.  You realize it is not going to happen; you’re scared of how much it might hurt; excitement turns to nerves turns to doubt and back again.  You’ve worked so hard – you should be able to do this – you can do this – you will do this.

You hope.

And then, of course, comes the race itself.  And the most tragic part of the marathon is the thing you never see coming.  No, it’s not the pre-race cold or the nagging hamstring pain that never went away.  When those things happen, you know going in that it might not happen.  No, it’s when that random thing goes wrong.  It’s when, despite your regimented eating and “preparations,” your stomach refuses to cooperate and you leave your PR in the porta-potty.  A couple of times.  It’s when you run off to the side of the street to pee behind a tree, and when you stand back up, there’s some weird glitch in your hip that pinches and never goes away, and you leave your Boston time behind that tree.  It’s when there’s an unexpected and epic rainstorm on the course, and your feet blister and prune so badly that breaking 5 hours is out of the question, because the pain of impact on that soft wet skin is unbearable.

It’s the little things.

And then there’s that final test – the finish line – where a simple number on the clock will give you the answer you’ve worked for for months.  Where you find out that no matter how many cocktails you gave up, no matter how many pounds you lost, no matter how many 800’s you ran – this is the answer.  Like it or not.

The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.

The marathon is HARD.  But what’s most hard about it isn’t the training.  It isn’t the workouts, or the pain or the fatigue or the miles or the sacrifice.  It’s the risk.  Racing the marathon asks you to live in equal parts unrelenting hope and utter despair.

What’s a girl (or guy) to do?

It took me 17 marathons to qualify for Boston.  17!!!  I’m now a sub-3:20 marathoner seven times over, so hear that loud and clear.

I got stuck after I ran that 3:38:17, and it took me six more (yes, 6!!!) to get a new PR.

How did it happen?

I took the risk.  Over and over again.  I got knocked down.  I experienced EPIC failure.  Yes, ladies, I cried.

And every single one of those races made me stronger.  Bolder.  And yes, even less afraid.  The worst had happened – I had failed “marathon.”  But guess what?  The sun still came up; my husband still loved me; the dog and Sunday School kids didn’t know the difference.

Feel the hope.  Take the risk.  And no matter what that clock may say, no matter the profound joy or the utter despair at the end, remember to do one thing.

Go for that easy run with the crunching leaves under your feet, or that slow run in a snowfall at the holidays.  Come home with your legs red from the fall chill or your eyebrows and hat dusted with snow.  Look at your beautiful self in the mirror and think about nothing but how damn good you feel and how wonderful and full your life is.

After all, isn’t that the real victory?

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Trail and adventure enthusiast. Girl who swears like a sailor but not when she's teaching Sunday School. Survived infertility without a successful pregnancy. Self-employed, primarily working for Clif Bar and Company. Thirteen 100-mile race finishes with seven top 3 placements. An original Saltine.

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  1. Wow. Totally inspired right now. I was just rolling along, skimming, until I got to the part about it taking you 17 marathons before a BQ, and that you’re now sub-3:20! So yeah, you know this roller coaster of victory and defeat–both on and off the track. And your words have some serious punch behind them. Thanks for the encouragement to “feel the hope. take the risk!”

  2. YES! And this is precisely why the marathon is so frustrating to me! And then I have this problem of not being able to recognize that I am just a marathon baby with only 5 under my belt with only achieving my goal in the first one. And then I can’t really see that the 4 disappointments, which included 2 PRs, a win (while pregnant, no less) and 1 wogging the last 8 miles to a 3:11 are actually not bad for a slump. But I have SUCH a hard time not focusing on the “failure” aspect. And after 4 “failures” I’m not real eager to go through all the training and sacrifices to go back to careening down a mountain with skis akimbo! Or, well, feeling disappointed after a 3 -9 month build-up. I am not done with the marathon. I want to conquer my fear of failure, but it’ll be a while before I can toe that line again. But I will!

  3. Clove, this has got to be my most favorite post ever on Salty. I am by no means an “experienced” marathoner. I will toe the line on September 29th in Akron for only marathon #3. But, the risk that you talk about…so spot on I cried. Cried. I have been on such an emotional roller coaster with this training. I qualified for Boston in Cleveland this year. I had doubts, SERIOUS doubts that I could even go sub 4:00 when my first marathon time was 4:33. But, I had two amazingly supportive friends who believed in me, helped me to believe in my training, and helped me to believe in myself. I sneaked by the cut off with a 4 minute buffer. I am so proud of that accomplishment. You would think I would just hang up the shoes until April. Nope, I was on target for 3:30 at Cleveland until mile 22 when the wheels fell of the cart (and the beating sun in 80 degree temps didn’t help). I have had this burning desire and passion to see the 3:30 that I believe I rightly deserve. Buuuutttt, I am having doubts. Everything and all that you mention. My mind is a mental mess. One day I could care less how I do. Another day I am so confident, I think I could go sub 3:30. It is the risk. The risk that excites me, the risk that scares me, the risk that fuels my passion. You know what I am looking forward to…the crunching leaves under my feet, the slow run in new fallen snow, the easy 6 miles that doesn’t have to be tempo, or doesn’t have to include 10 Yasso’s. Give me three months though…and I will once again start craving the risk;).

    1. Nah, Meg! 20 minutes when you are just starting can feel like 26.2! Keep up the great work! It’s inspiring to see a beginning runner become an experienced runner….

  4. Thanks for this…even in the midst of all your busy work, you still find the time to write and write so well! That’s another victory.

  5. I love everything about this post. Clove, you have such a way with words! As I eye my sub-4 and hope that maybe in a few years I can get to Boston, this helps put it in perspective. This brings to mind of my favorite quotes – “It’s not brave if you’re not scared.” (Yes, guys, I did just quote a Ben Affleck movie. But it’s a good quote!)

  6. Great post! both personal and universal. Yes, all those months of training and so much can go wrong, either with you or the weather, and it’s not like you can turn around and try again a few days later. So much pressure to perform in just a few hours after you have trained for half a year or so. But, we wouldn’t have it any other way. And yes, it took me ten marathons to finally qualify for Boston. When it does all come together, it is the sweetest high the world has to offer.

  7. I too love this. It is so true. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. This IS what makes the marathon such a heartbreaker sometimes, but it is also the allure of the event. We train 5-6 months for a few hours in one day. And who knows what that day will bring. But when things fall together – it is the greatest high and it makes us want to set our sights even higher. Good stuff and great timing as many of us head into our tapers and races. Thanks!

  8. Speak for yourself, I intend to win my fall marathon. At least, I’ve done what this body will let me do to prepare to do so – but much of it is, as you say, out of my control – not just the random things that can go wrong (some of which is more in our control than we admit), but the fact that it all depends on who shows up. I didn’t expect no one to show up last year. But I guess, any given Sunday…

  9. Thanks for this.

    I’m struggling with my very ambitious goal for my fall A race, now about 5 weeks away, where I hope to BQ for 2016 and beat my previous (first) BQ & PR time.

    I’m not in the same “place” as I was at this point in my training cycle for my spring race, where I BQ’d for the very first time after many years. I’m having a hard time deciding whether to keep trying for my very ambitious – arbitrary – goal pace (which I’ve only been able to hold for ~9 miles in training so far – last cycle, I got up to 17 and 18 miles at goal pace during my long runs) OR……trying to adjust my goal so that I can get in as many “new goal pace” miles in my last weeks and last 4 long runs as I can. And if I adjust, how do I choose a new goal?

    I feel disappointed just thinking about changing my goal, but I don’t think going after a goal I don’t have some confidence I can hit, blowing up and having a race I’m not happy with is a good idea. (I’m told I tend to underestimate myself, but I just don’t feel I’m where I want to be…)

    Also, after my A October race, I plan a Nov marathon 4 weeks later “just to finish” (as part of a separate goal to Marathon Maniac, culminating in a 50k at the end of Dec, then starting Boston training in January). I don’t have any real time to train for it, but wonder if I might improve in between. Hard to say at 48 – recovery seems to be more of a challenge than it used to be.

    Any words of wisdom or support appreciated!

    1. What’s your pr? What is your goal time? What’s your BQ time? How many miles a week are you averaging? I think I need hard numbers to give you good advice 🙂