Of the hundreds of events I’ve competed in, I’ve dropped out of a race exactly one time. Only once. I had traveled west to race the Utah Half, a half-iron distance triathlon. I was racing in my own backyard in front of my family and friends and I knew this course well! My fitness level was at an all-time high, and this was a tune up event prior to racing as a guide for my friend and blind triathlete Richard Hunter in Ironman Florida. I was ready. I was fit. I was confident. I was certain I’d make it onto the podium, and bask in the accolades and cheers of family and friends...but it sure didn’t work out that way. A lower back disc issue flared up during the bike ride and caused me to slow to a literal crawl on the run. Rather than risk further injury and jeopardize the chance to guide Richard , I dropped out. All that work. All that time. All that money. All wasted. I didn’t even finish! I hung my head in shame as I limped back to my bewildered friends and family.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we are unable to achieve the goals we set out for. Whether that means falling short on race day, being unable to toe the line at the race we’ve dreamed of completing, or simply failing to get in all our weekly workouts, failure is a part of fitness and especially endurance racing. We’ve all heard that failing makes us stronger, and that unfinished business on the race course will help motivate us for a faster time in the future. Still, in the moment, we feel the sting of missed opportunity, the frustration of seemingly wasted time, energy, and money, and the heartache of coming up short. So, when those inevitable painful moments happen, how do we keep moving forward?
As we consider failed objectives, and dashed hopes, and unfulfilled expectations, I find it helpful to remember two key points to help us maintain perspective, keep motivated, and become stronger when we experience race-day or season-ending failure.
First, remember that “Not today” is different than “not ever.”
As “type-A” triathletes and runners, most of us see stopping a workout or dropping out of a race as giving up and being weak. However, making the strategic decision to stop, even when it means not meeting your immediate goals is a sign of strength, not weakness. And it does not mean that you won’t crush it next race, next year, or even the year after that.
Knowing when to slow down during a race to allow fluids to rehydrate, halting a training regimen for a week to avoid burnout, altering season goals to allow an injury to heal, or stopping even when you just want to finish, takes an enormous amount of mental and emotional strength. It shows maturity and long-range vision. When continuing the current course of action jeopardizes long-term success, stopping the race, the training, or the season shows wisdom, not weakness. “Not today”, is quite different than “not ever.” Keeping that perspective is a vital part of being a seasoned, savvy athlete, as well as a normal functioning human being. That same perspective is what allows you to learn from your mistakes, and come back stronger, faster, and better.
After you have dropped out of an event, cut a season short, or experienced similar setbacks, what’s next? This is my second point - learn from it: “It’s hard to have race-day success without race-day failure”.
A life-time ago, I learned this valuable lesson from my seasoned pole-vault coach. He taught me to learn from my failures - that they are essential tools to build our ultimate success. And unlike in triathlon or running, failure comes in spades in the pole vault. After all, the bar goes higher and higher until you fail to clear the bar- in most cases, even the eventual champion will FAIL on his or her last jump. It’s essential to learn from our failures- in the pole vault, failure came frequently. It was easy to learn what I needed to do differently to have success. But by figuring out what I was doing wrong, I could learn what do to do right. Thomas Edison is a great example of having this perspective when he said about the difficulties in perfecting the light bulb, “I haven’t failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways it won’t work.”
With endurance sports, we have to also learn from our setbacks. If we don’t take the time to analyze what went wrong, we miss the opportunity to improve. This sounds easy enough, but taking the time to write out the specifics of our failures can be a sobering process. Yet it allows us to better address our weakness and improve during the next event. Maybe it’s re assessing our nutrition or hydration strategy. Or it could be looking at our rest and taper leading up to our race. Or possibly we recognize a deficiency in developed a sufficient base which led to our going out too fast and getting injured. Take the time to go through this process. Work with a coach (or an experienced veteran in your sport) who can give objective feedback and help you identify possible areas of improvement.
Since that ill-fated race day years ago, I’ve gone on to make the podium at that very same race. My time on that course had improved by over 30 minutes, and I have become a much stronger triathlete. Yet this process is a continual one. Currently I’ve made the difficult decision to take 2 seasons off to let my body heal completely after an accident and injury. Painful as it is, by choosing to delay the immediate satisfaction of race-day accomplishment, I will gain the long-term benefit of becoming a faster, stronger, and ultimately more successful triathlete. And so will you.
So, be wise in your racing and training. Remember these two nuggets of wisdom: “not today doesn’t mean not ever”, and “it’s hard to have race-day success without race-day failure”. By knowing when to bow out, we can learn from our mistakes and weaknesses and become better in the long-run. While we never want to DNF, sometimes sitting out, stepping back, and reevaluating is the right move to make. Sometimes, “quit happens” for a reason.