On the 10th Day of Christmas Running Gave to Me: Permission to Fail

I won 7th grade student of the year.
In 7th grade I won Student of the Year, but I didn’t win a single race.

I never sucked at anything until I started running.

I should clarify: I didn’t truly suck at running, but, as a perfectionist by nature, finishing mid-pack felt like failure. As a kid, I was really good at school. I played softball and was pretty good at that. I took up violin and sat first chair in our district. I wasn’t so hot at gymnastics, but there was no objective measure of competence, so I didn’t really notice that I wasn’t the best.

But in running? I was mediocre at best. And that hurt.

I could have given up and stuck with activities that came easy to me, but instead I dug in and charged forward. I looked for other rewards in running, like friendships and the healthy energy I felt afterward. I also had to learn to quit the comparison game. That sure is easier said than done and, admittedly, I’m a work in progress.

I also learned how to work hard, work smart, and to be patient. In high school, I thought our 30-35 mile weeks were the only way of doing things and fell into the trap of trying to run too hard on most days. It wasn’t until the end of college that I learned how hard I could work, pounding out 70-80 mostly slow mile weeks, week after week.

I know sometimes I can put myself out there without meeting my goals. I'm ok with that.
I know sometimes I can put myself out there without meeting my goals. I’m ok with that.

Then I started winning. One thing I learned about winning, though, is that even when you’re leading the pack, there’s still a heck of a lot of failure involved. Even when I started to compete to win, I usually didn’t meet my time goal or someone else got to the finish line first (often many someones). Injury, weather, and illness ruined many of my goals, no matter how much hard work I’d put in. I had to learn that success in running is often a two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards process.

I embraced failure as an essential part of running and it was only then that I really excelled. I even discovered that I enjoyed putting myself into situations where failure was possible. I entered a national championship race with the slowest seed. I moved to a foreign country without speaking the language. I put my writing on the internet here! I would never have done any of these things, I wouldn’t even be who I am today, if running didn’t teach me that failure is just a part of doing anything worthwhile.

So, thank you running, for curing me of my perfectionism, for giving me a taste for healthy risks, and for teaching me how to fail with grace. Without imperfection and uncertainty, I would have missed so much in life!

I'm a 20-year veteran of competitive running, USATF certified coach, mom of a toddler -- and still trying to set PRs. I write about training from 5k to marathon, motherhood and competitive running, and the elite side of the sport. The 5k is my favorite race (16:56 PR) but I've got a score to settle with the marathon.

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  1. Love this and it is so true, running teaches us to embrace the successes and the failures. One of my favorite quotes is “don’t let success go to your head and don’t let failure go to your heart”- I kind of try and keep that in mind with running (and life stuff too)

  2. Yes! I love this! In high school I believed some people were just talented and others weren’t. I didn’t know about good training practices or how many months of consistent training it takes to be fast. It frustrated me and I have up, but then some stubborn part of me went back to it, dug in and sought to conquer it and that was the best thing I ever did. Through that process I grew so much as a person.

    1. Yes I was the same way about talent/not — not just with running but also academics, etc. The whole “hard work” thing didn’t click until I tried it myself with running.

  3. Fabulous post! And I completely agree with so much of what you said here. By teaching us how to handle failure, running translates to so many other areas of our lives and helps us to be stronger, better people in general.

  4. This is wonderful, and I really needed to read it – and I need to absorb it and integrate it into my being.

    I think I am a perfectionist (and a bit insecure), and suspect it’s affecting my running. The fear of failure and pain can translate so easily into fear of trying/risking and then NOT trying and risking.

    There are so many quotes in this I want to post on my wall to help remind me.

    Thank you for sharing.