This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue of UltraRunning Magazine. Subscribe today for similar features on ultra training, racing and more.
It haunts us. It limits us. It leaves our dreams unrealized and our hopes unmet. It stands between us and limitless possibilities.
It is our nemesis, but we seldom recognize it when we see it. Consider this oft given advice to newcomers in ultrarunning, “Start slow or you will collapse later.”
Doesn’t sound particularly threatening. But consider the message it carries. It translates to, “Don’t try too hard or you will fail.”
Now, let’s take the same basic idea in a different form, “Pace yourself conservatively early, so you can finish strong.”
The same truth underlies both versions. Knowing how to pace yourself is the key to doing well. But the first version is an admonishment to be careful or you will fail, and the second is the advice to run a smart race so you can succeed. Sometimes a message can be subtle. But it does not have to be overt to put your mind in the wrong place.
There is a truth here that is known in every sport: you cannot win by playing not to lose.
Failure has a unique place in our lives. We do not want to fail. It is painful. It is embarrassing. And it is absolutely necessary if we are to accomplish great things.
We are not born with the fear of failure. Look at babies—they fall 1,000 times before they can stand. They fall 1,000 more before they can walk. What happens over the intervening years for us to become an adult who can run 1,000 ultras and yet, never push ourselves to the edge of our capabilities for fear of failing to finish?
I think it is because we lose that attitude. A baby does not stand or walk by trying not to fall. They are driven only by the desire to stand and walk. Look at the world it opens up for them.
By simply toeing the line at that first ultra, a runner demonstrates the same innate desire to grow and explore that drives a baby. But we have picked up a lot of baggage along the way. We have learned to be self conscious about others seeing us fall. We have learned to avoid the risk of falling. We have learned to fear failure.
Set yourself free and let go of that fear. Next time you toe the line, don’t start slow to avoid a collapse. Pace wisely from the start, so that you can finish strong. Don’t run away from failure, run toward success.