Most people do not regard dealing with failure as a skill. But there is a process that you can and should learn to help you continue to move forward in order to achieve success.
Turning a setback into a future success is the hallmark of what committed and focused people do. It is how you handle the failure that is important.
In 2013 I had trained for Ironman number three. This was the culmination of 8 months of dedicated training. The last 3 of those months included a high volume of training that is required for a 140.6 mile race. This was also another attempt by me to complete the last leg of the event (the run) in under 4 hours – a feat I hadn’t yet accomplished.
The sub-4 hour run is a common goal within the Ironman community. Many people are able to do this in a standalone marathon, but doing it at the end of an Ironman is a completely different game. The run takes place after a 2.4 mile swim and a 112 mile bike ride. You have to arrive at the start line of the run hydrated, fueled, and still focused on fighting through the last 26.2 miles of the marathon. There is a lot that goes into it.
To run well at an end of an Ironman you have to
- swim well
- pace the bike properly
- fuel yourself correctly during the bike
- be comfortable with being slightly uncomfortable
- pace the first 6 miles of the run correctly
- fuel yourself correctly on the run
- care about your goals after being out on the course for over 8 hours
- be a good runner who is super fit (notice that this is last!)
Coming up short
Back in 2011, during my first Ironman, I experienced what it feels like to be simply “done” on an Ironman course. I still managed to run a 4:34. During my second Ironman the following year in Florida, I battled seasickness on the swim which impacted my entire day. I fought back on the run and finished in 4:04 – coming up short by 4 minutes.
In 2013 with my 3rd Ironman, I thought this was going to be my year to finally put it all together.
The results were very disappointing. The day proved to be very difficult. My body was falling apart by about mile 7 of the run. The wind was relentless all day, my attitude was lacking, and the list goes on. The result was a 4:20. I was thrilled to have completed my 3rd Ironman. In fact, I did it in record time.
But in the end, I was left feeling disappointed for not being able to run to my potential. It had now been two years, countless miles of training and mental preparation, and I had still came up short. Missing that goal seemed like a big deal.
What I didn’t know then was that this failure would make me a better athlete.
Learning from a failure
Recognize that you have failed. The truth is, I had a lot of success on that course that day. The swim went well even though the course was littered with jellyfish, leading to me getting stung multiple times. I rode the 112 mile bike course faster than ever. Managed to cross the finish line 28 minutes faster than all previous races (11:26 total time). That’s a pretty good day in the world of Ironman.
It would have been easy to hide behind that success. And I did enjoy setting all of those personal records, but in the end, I acknowledged to myself that I had failed to accomplish what I really wanted to do that day.
Recognizing failure is required.
Own up to the failure. Take responsibility. It would have been easy to chalk up that failure to the race conditions or a sore knee. Instead, I owned up to not being prepared enough.
My knee was hurting because I had not trained properly.
The conditions felt tough because I had let them get to me.
I had pushed the bike a little too hard. I hadn’t adjusted my pace on the bike course when I started to feel bad.
All of this was my failure and my fault.
Allow for a period of feeling the disappointment. Taking time to acknowledge that you were disappointed in a failure is a key step. It is important to speak with a few select people that will understand how you feel. For me, speaking with other athletes on my Triathlon team really helped. They got it. Not many others did. That’s ok.
Learn from the experience. Reviewing everything that you did or failed to do is crucial. In the Army, we called these “after action reports.” These are the exercises during which you go over what went right and what went wrong. Ask other more experienced people around you to provide you some perspective on what your recent failure means. What do they think you need to do.
Change your behavior. You can’t just keep doing the “same old thing.” Intentionally adjusting your routine and behavior is required in order to move past what lead up to the failure. You have to be willing to change.
Make a plan. You can’t allow a failure to set you back for very long.
What is your comeback plan? What is your revenge?
Coming off a failure can be a time to get ‘hyper’ motivated to seek your next success. For me, I decided that with 3 years of nearly continuous training for Ironman races, it was time to take a year off so that I could let the fire and commitment build again. I also decided that I needed to adjust how I train.
I can tell you that this failure in 2013 lead me to my best performances on an Ironman course two years later. In 2015, in cold and windy conditions, I set a 30 minute personal record crossing the finish line in just under 11 hours. I managed a sub-6 hour bike time followed by a 3:54 minute run. Sub-4 hours was achieved!
Best run of my life!