There are thousands of anxiety-riddled runners this month signed up for a marathon. Hundreds of them will not make it, to the start or to the finish. Some will become sick and say, “That’s it.” Some will be overwhelmed by conditions or personal turmoil and decide, “There’s just no way.” Still others will limp to the nearest medical tent or pass out on the ambulance ride to the hospital.
These situations happen in any race, but the investments are deeper and the risks greater when running 26 miles or more as fast as you can. There are more uncontrollable variables on those long journeys through spectator-clogged city streets or spectacular countryside. Sometimes we can push through the pain and even run a personal best. And sometimes, we end up with a DNF (Did Not Finish). This, by the way, is significantly different than a DNS, where you Did Not Start, which can be disappointing too, but not nearly as much as when you decide to withdraw during an event.
Listening this month to a personal essay by newspaper columnist Jon Carroll on National Public Radio reminds us that failure has its merits. Success is boring, Carroll contends. “Failure is how we learn.” That’s a pretty bold statement, but it’s one some of us are old enough to appreciate as runners. No doubt failing to finish an endurance race—especially one in which your “village” assisted and that you personally hyped—is a humbling experience. But each of us ends up stronger, one way or another.
My first marathon, I cared only about beating the straggler bus at Mile 23. The second, I mainly feared being pulled from the course when a roving EMT recognized I was badly dehydrated. On and on it went, with me losing my shorts at one very high-profile race and leaking menstrual blood at another.
My mishaps piled up, but so did my medals. By my 12th, I’d grown smug and got my comeuppance 10 miles into an easy, scenic course when I fell victim to vomiting. A tougher contender could have run through it, I knew. Eight months later, I saw yet another DNF loom on the marathon front. But I stuck it out, even knowing it would be my slowest finish.
In the months that I sat out after that marathon, I began to see who I’d become: a woman who neglected to eat properly, run smartly and acknowledge her aging body. She loved to brag about how many marathons she’d done, but conveniently fail to mention very few were done well.
I’m now a different runner, and I can already tell my body likes this one better. I have my recent failure as a marathoner to thank for that.