Not the prize, but the struggle

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…”

I share the words above with almost every outdoor education group I have the privilege of leading. Not just because Teddy was the best President ever; or because dust, sweat and blood are part of nearly every outdoor ed trip, but because those words are timeless and universal. At some point on every wilderness trip, the typical youth will encounter failure of some sort. Maybe they set up their tent wrong and wake up soaking wet; perhaps they can’t keep up with their peers on a strenuous hike; some can’t deal with the homesickness and call their parents for extraction.

I want my campers to know that failure is part of a life well lived. I want them to understand that failure is not definitive, but how you react to that failure very well may be. I want them to see the illuminating insights that failure offers us if we are willing to take a close look.

Walk into a Crossfit gym, go to an AA meeting, hang out at an aid station late in an ultramarathon and you’ll see failure in some of its most poignant forms. You’ll see the shock of first time failure, the tears that accompany failure when the will to persevere can no longer be found, the frustration that comes with repeated and persistent failure. To fail, whether publicly or privately, once or repeatedly, by an inch or a mile, and to get back up and try again is one of the most powerful forces that exists in our world.

I share Roosevelt’s words for a deeper reason as well – because they resonate with me. They strike a chord deep inside. Like the man in the arena, despite my valiant striving, I too come up short. I too experience failure more often than my fragile ego would prefer.

Over the years and through numerous events, I have come to appreciate failure, to seek it out and to embrace it. I believe that if you are not looking for those areas of your life that scare you, where you come up short and where you fail, you’re robbing yourself of something amazing. Failure has valuable lessons for those who can put aside their ego and accept the painful truths that it will teach.

This is a bit of a detour away from my previous posts. If you like to keep your internet browsing superficial or of the feel good variety, please feel free to skip this one. I’m going to peel back a few layers of the metaphorical onion and hopefully I won’t shed too many tears along the way. I’ve chosen to share this story in the hopes that someone else will read it and realize that the failure they’ve experienced doesn’t have to define them or signal the end of their hopes and dreams.

When we peel back those layers, what we find at the bottom of it all is a flawed human being. Someone who has made a lot of mistakes. Someone who has quit and someone who has failed. Over and over again. But I believe in second chances. And third chances. And the fact that failure can bring out the best in all of us. It is those failures that helped make me who I am today.

Success and failure are two sides of the same coin and I’ve had the privilege of experiencing both in 2018. I think that the dual outcomes are important for a happy, healthy, balanced existence. But…only one of them teaches the hard lessons that so many of us miss out on in our pampered lives. Failure helps you figure out if you truly desire the things that you say you want. Failure helps shine a light on the areas in your preparation, planning or execution that could have been improved. And finally, after it has its way with you, failure will offer you a concession prize – the option to stay down, admit defeat and avoid crossing its path again. The choice is yours to make. Listen to the critics, whether external or internal, pointing out your shortcoming as a sign of weakness. Telling you that it would probably be easier if you just gave up the fight. Or listen to the voice telling you to get back up and press forward.

2018 got off to a great start for me. In late February, I battled sub-freezing temperatures and dozens of miles of soul sucking sand to finish my first 50 mile trail race at Antelope Canyon outside of Page, Arizona. Despite the less than ideal conditions, I ran a strong race and even set a new 50 mile personal best time. As my buddy and I sat around a campfire swapping stories after the race, I could not help but be slightly amazed that it had all gone so well.

I was extremely nervous in the days leading up to the race. I worried that I had not trained enough. I fretted that the extensive deep sand sections would wreck my feet or my stride. I laid awake the night before the race wondering if I would struggle to finish under the time cutoff. Surprisingly, none of these things happened. I had a great race in one of the most iconic environments of the American Southwest. I met some amazing people who helped me enjoy the experience more than I ever thought possible. The feeling of sitting around that fire after the race was one of pure joy and elation. Chucker and I had signed up for the race months in advance, put in countless training hours and miles and had successfully completed the most ambitious running undertaking either of us had attempted up to that point. We felt amazing. At least until we stood up and attempted to walk back to our cars…

“Come play in the sand,” they said. “It will be fun,” they said

A couple of months after Antelope, I participated in the Goruck Battling Bastards Tough in Atlanta. This was a commemorative event designed to honor those who were a part of WWII’s Bataan Death March. Most Goruck events are a difficult affair, but commemorative excursions typically promise a little extra kick in the teeth and this one was no exception. I knew this going in, but worried little. I’d done over half a dozen Goruck events in the previous years. I knew what was coming and told myself that I was ready for it. Or so I thought. I found myself gassed and struggling from the very beginning and it only got worse.

Log PT is an integral part of most Goruck classes but it typically lasts only a few hours at most. Bataan was different. At the start of the event, the Cadre (former Spec Ops members who lead the event) took all our food and gave us 4 long sections of telephone pole in exchange. We carried those poles practically everywhere we went that night. And we carried them well into the next morning. 12+ hours after starting, Cadre finally relieved us of our logs, gave us our food back and announced that we had completed the event.

I was buoyed by my success at Antelope and Bataan and as a result, I slacked off in the following months. I “rested on my laurels” so to speak and didn’t keep my training or my discipline in check. I even joked to Chucker about this wonderful new hedonistic lifestyle I had discovered.

Somewhere along the way, we grew restless and decided that we again needed to challenge ourselves. Much like the idea that the sum can be greater than its parts, our collective appetite for suffering outweighs anything we would attempt to digest on our own. In our infinite wisdom, we decided to up the ante and run the Hell Hole 100K in Francis Marion National Forest outside of Charleston. That’s right. A 62 mile run. In a coastal swamp. In June. How hard could it be? It was only 12 miles more than what we had run in February and on a much flatter course. Neither of us saw the sucker punch that was coming.

Torrential rains in the days leading up to the race had forced a reroute of the race course since waist deep water, snakes and alligators had found their way onto the planned route. Whatever. We didn’t care. We laughed and joked the morning of the race like we were getting ready to run a 5K. We didn’t laugh very long.

Despite the course modifications, we still encountered mile after mile of shin to knee-deep, murky brown water in that blistering swamp. The sensation of unseen creatures rubbing against my leg caused my heart rate to skyrocket despite my slow and stumbling pace. After the first 15 miles, I was already feeling the effects of the heat and the deep water sections had substantially slowed my pace as I slogged through them in a mix of terror and caution.

The stuff nightmares are made of

The second lap only intensified the suffering under the full heat of the midday sun. The pace was slow and saw me coming to grips with the reality that I would almost certainly be finishing the last loop in the dark. Dealing with knee-deep water in the swamp in the daylight was intimidating as it was. The thought of doing it in the dark terrified me. So, I let that fear and my cramped muscles take control and I quit after 30+ miles. I wasn’t alone. Of the 13 individuals who signed up for that race, only 4 completed the course; a dismal finishing percentage by almost any race measure.

Looking back, it is clear that I could have finished that race. I did not reach a state where I was physically incapable of continuing. Despite my fears, I was not bitten by a snake or dragged underwater by an alligator. Rather, I lost the mental fight and threw in the towel because I could not, or would not, find the will to continue. Such is the case in almost all endurance event DNF’s. People don’t typically drop out on a 62 mile run because they break a bone or because their kidneys fail (although these things do certainly occur). People quit because the demands of the event eventually outweigh the desire and discipline required to continue. The pain, anguish and frustration grow louder and louder until you can no longer hear that little voice in your head reminding you “why” you signed up for the race in the first place.

And so it goes with life. People who accept failure’s concession prize and give up the fight rarely do so out of a complete inability to soldier on. They give up because they lose sight of their goal. They give up because their will gets eroded to the point where it can no longer stand. Or, as in the case at HellHole, they give up because the fear of the unknown becomes more powerful than their faith in themselves.

Chucker and I elected not to accept failure lying down and instead we signed up for the Daytona 100. Spanning the distance from Jacksonville Beach to Daytona, the race offered the opportunity to run through some of the most popular beach communities in Florida on one of the most iconic oceanfront roads on the East Coast. A1A Beachfront Avenue!!!

I ran religiously in the months leading up to Daytona and saw my running times reach levels that I had not encountered since high school soccer. Driving to Jacksonville on Friday afternoon, I truly felt that I was prepared. Unlike the nervousness that I experienced before the Antelope 50, I felt confident and ready. I had a great carb loading supper that night with Chucker and his family and slept better than I can ever remember before a big race. I felt very few butterflies when we took off through the darkened streets of Jacksonville Beach at 6AM the next morning.

A lot of things happened between that start line and my ultimate drop at mile 61 of the course. I saw a beautiful sunrise. I met a fellow runner who I would share the journey with from the very first steps to the last time I saw him somewhere around mile 45 (I later learned he dropped out shortly after). I met some truly awe inspiring race volunteers; including one who has run across the U.S. and rowed across the Atlantic. I fought gear and gastrointestinal issues most of the day. I watched a sunset of unspeakable beauty. I experienced highs and lows, often within minutes of each other. I laughed, I cussed, I prayed, I cried. And ultimately, I failed.

Just like HellHole, nothing that happened to me on A1A forced me to quit. I did not get heat exhaustion. I did not develop rhabdo. I did not get hopelessly lost. I simply reached a point where I could not find or force the will to continue. Somewhere along that dark, lonely stretch of A1A that parallels the Matanzas River, the answer to my “why” lies lost. I looked for it for hours before I finally called off the search.

It has been said that quitting is a stink that you can’t wash off. It is true. Despite having run over 50 races in the past decade, I can only vividly recall a few of the most important ones – my first half marathon, my first 50K, my first 50 miler, etc. But, I can tell you exactly where and when I quit every race that I ever DNF’d. I don’t think that I will ever be able to forget those failures. And you know what? I don’t want to. They inspire me. They keep me awake at night. They make me lace up the shoes when I want to sleep. They remind me of the things that I have sacrificed on the altar of security of comfort.

An oft read maxim in the ultrarunning community is DNF>DNS.

Did Not Finish > Did Not Start.

Teddy knew all about this. Like the man in Teddy’s speech, I have stumbled. I have erred. I have come up short again and again. But, I am not done. I will not let my failures force me to adapt a life controlled by fear. I will again toe the line. I will continue to attempt things far outside my comfort zone. And I will most certainly fail again. But, that is okay. It is not a life devoid of failure that I seek. It is not a life full of success and shiny medals either. Rather, I choose to travel this path for the strength and wisdom that comes from difficult experiences, regardless of the outcome.

“…if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

One thought on “Not the prize, but the struggle

  1. DonJon, This is beautiful. Thank you for opening these doors and letting us all in. I constantly advise my patients to “seek out the uncomfortable”; this piece is perfectly illustrative of the benefits of so doing. I have no doubt that you will get a buckle, but that’s all it will be- a buckle. The struggle truly is the prize.


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