One of the most significant times I ever failed at something in a way that hurt was my senior year of undergrad.
I’d been running for months to train for the Colonial Half Marathon, a race held annually in my college town. All the most active people who weren’t otherwise playing a varsity sport ran the Colonial Half. Lots of girls I looked up to had run it in years past, and I desperately wanted to be one of them.
Running a half marathon meant more to me than finishing the Colonial Half, though.
In high school I’d been an athlete who was always just mediocre. I was never the worst on any team I was on, but I was also never the best. There were plenty of girls who could move faster, score more points, or generally exhibit better skills than I could.
And in a place like Northern Virginia, where I grew up and where the competitive, cut-throat atmosphere of Washington, DC soaked into everyday life like bleach, it wasn’t okay to not be the best. You had to be the best, or you were nothing.
I felt the weight of my not-the-bestness all the time in my athletic life, so instead I compensated by trying to get the best grades, or by writing the best stories on the school’s newspaper staff, or by holding as many leadership positions as I possibly could in all my extracurriculars.
It still didn’t feel like enough. I was never going to be the best at sports, and that haunted me.
It haunted me all the way through college. And for some reason, when I saw those girls I knew who had been the captains of their athletic teams in high school running the Colonial Half Marathon, I felt like I had another chance.
If I could run a half marathon, a feat that seemed impossible for a girl who got winded after carrying my groceries up the stairs, then maybe that was some kind of proof that I could, in fact, keep up with the others. That I was just as good as them.
So my senior year of college I decided I was going to run the race. It was the last year I’d be living in my college town where the event was held, and I wanted to give it a go before I stepped off campus.
I started training months in advance, and it was hard. I ran a lot by myself in the expanse of woods behind campus, scared that if I ran on the road someone might see me struggling to get through my third mile.
But I kept at it. I kept at it when I hit the farthest mile I’d ever run. I kept at it when other things demanded my time and attention.
I kept at it even when my knee started to hurt.
Which was a bad idea, it turned out. At first it started out as a small twinge, so I ran through it without giving it another thought. But as I continued to pack on miles and train, the twinge turned into a stab, and the stab started to run up my leg.
I remember the last run I did before I stopped training. I was home for a weekend and had trekked out into the trail behind my parents’ house, and the stabbing came almost immediately. I started limp-running, unwilling to admit that I needed to stop. But finally, after five minutes, I sat down on a bench and put my head in my hands.
I knew I’d injured myself. And I knew it was over.
At that point the race was only a month away and I was already behind in my training. The doctor told me I needed to lay off it. There was no way I was running the race.
I was so frustrated and upset, although I didn’t really let it on to the people around me. I was mad that I hadn’t been able to prove to myself that I could do something hard, something that seemed out of my reach athletically.
It felt like more than just a failure. It felt like a testament.
So I hung up my shoes and sulked for a while. I did other things to stay in shape, but the fact that I hadn’t been able to run the race was a thorn in my side. I didn’t want to give it up that easily.
I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.
Fast forward a few years. I’m in my second year of grad school, and I’ve just started this blog. So living meaningfully is on my mind.
I’m doing a lot of thinking about how to live purposefully because I’m writing a lot about it. And as I’m crossing off bucket list items, I keep eyeing the one about running a half marathon.
I was unsure at first. Hadn’t I already failed once? What if I failed again, only this time I had a whole blog to document it? That would be so upsetting.
But I knew I had to try. I knew that if I never gave running a half marathon another shot, I’d be pretty upset with myself.
So I made a running plan and started again. At first I was only running a couple of miles at a time. Then three miles. Then four. Then six!
And by the time race day came, I was able to run that 13.1 without stopping. It was an incredible feeling.
I learned quite a bit from that experience. Here are some of the lessons I gathered:
1. I learned that I can do hard things.
There were so many times during the course of training that I wanted to quit. There were long runs that felt too long, sprints up hills when I thought my legs would give out. There were times when I felt like I was crazy. Who needs 13.1 miles anyway?! Couldn’t I just be satisfied with 6? My injury came back at a couple of points and I had to squash that bugger quick. Some days I wanted to throw up my hands and forget I had even decided to try.
But I didn’t. And when all was said and done, I realized that I could do things that were difficult. I could accomplish big goals, even when it was hard. That made me feel pretty proud.
2. I learned how to stay dedicated.
In those moments when sitting on my bed with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and Netflix queued up seemed infinitely more enticing than lacing up my shoes, I found ways to stick with it.
Every time it got too hard, I developed a new strategy to keep going and make my dream happen. I thought of my goal, or I repeated the one encouraging phrase that gets me through everything to myself. I started running with my roommate, who kept me on track and wouldn’t let me give up. Each of these techniques taught me a lot about what it takes to stay on the path to achieving something that seemed too big to bite.
3. I learned the importance of having companions with you every step of the way.
I mentioned how I asked my roommate to start training with me for the race. She actually decided to run with me on race day, too, which was an amazing asset to me.
Kelsea is already a great runner – she played Division I field hockey when we were in college together, and she often sets off on 9 mile runs just for the heck of it. To have her start running with me when I got higher up in miles really helped me stay with it.
I knew that if I was running alone, by mile 6 I’d be tempted to tap out and start walking. But when someone was pacing with me, I couldn’t quit. She was right there to make me pick back up again.
And on the day of the race, Kelsea stayed with me the whole time, even when she could’ve gotten a much better time had she run on her own. I really appreciated that, because the race was difficult and she kept my mind off the pain and on the prize. I honestly wouldn’t have made it to race day or through it without her.
Overall, I didn’t necessarily avenge my old high school guilt around not being the best athlete in school by running a half marathon. There were plenty (and I mean plenty) of people on race day who zoomed ahead of me, and there are so many folks who have run tons of halfs or even longer distances.
But running a half marathon was a way to prove to myself that I could do anything I set my mind to do. If that’s the only medal I got out of it, then that’s more than enough for me.
Have you ever accomplished something you thought you’d never do? What happened? Or is there something on your bucket list that feels impossible but you are dedicated to accomplishing it? I’d love to hear all about it!