Monday, October 04, 2004

The Option of Failure

I run marathons. I can say this because i've run two marathons and i'm about to run my third. It's a strange thing to do, especially when there's no money and little glory in finishing back in the pack, often an hour or more behind the winners. I can't adequately explain why i ran the first two, or why i'm flying to Chicago this weekend to do it again.

But i can identify one aspect of long-distance running that appeals to me. The goals and the means of achieving them are pretty clear. I know roughly how much i need to train and at what pace so that i can run a certain time in the race. I either get off the sofa and do the training or i don't. I know what i need to eat to perform the best, what i need to do to prevent injury, and what sorts of equipment will serve me best. For somebody like me who's managed to reach 40 without any firm idea of what i want to do when i grow up, this kind of certainty can be very reassuring.

There's an element of luck involved; you have to avoid getting sick, not turn your ankle stepping off a curb, not have a job with random meetings scheduled over your training times, get decent weather on race day. But beyond that it's fairly simple. No politics, no personality conflicts, no arbitrary decisions made by other people that put you at a disadvantage. You do the work, you get the benefit.

But, and this is the important part, you can still fail. A marathon is interesting because it's a real challenge. You might not be able to do it at all. You might finish, but not meet your goal. In my first two marathons i finished in 3:39 and 3:26, respectable times for somebody my age. But i'd hoped to run 3:30 in the first and 3:20 in the second, so in a completely unambiguous way i failed. I'm proud of the fact that i finished in both cases despite some considerable pain over the last few miles, but nonetheless i still failed.

The important thing i've learned from this is that failure is not necessarily bad (although it obviously can be, the phrase "his chute failed to open" comes to mind). This might seem like a startlingly banal observation from somebody my age, but no amount of "try,try again" platitudes can replace an individual experience. It's way easy to rationalize failures in many parts of one's life, but something like a marathon teaches you that it's not important why you failed. You either achieve what you wanted to achieve, or you don't and you decide what to do about it.

So, i'm going to Chicago this weekend to try to run 3:20 or better (3:15 i hope), so that i can qualify for the Boston Marathon. I'm prepared for it and i'm convinced that i can do it. But if i don't, then i'll probably get to try again. Success is great, success is what we all want; but for some reason at this stage in my life i've come to appreciate more what i can learn from the option of failure.

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