The Art Of Failing

One hundred and five teeth. One hundred and five mountainous teeth. One hundred and five rugged, breathtaking, unrelenting teeth. The first 75-ish went about as swimmingly as possible. The next 30 chewed me up and spit me out. They left me sore, tired, and nauseous. But more than anything they left my head reeling.

Sometimes it takes the mundane to explain the complex. For weeks now I have been trying to wrap my head around my UTMB experience. I’ve discussed it with countless people. From interviews to discussions with hikers, runners, friends, and family, I’ve addressed the situation over and over again. I’ve shared the stories, talked of the emotional toil, and longed to make sense of it. I spoke of my disappointment in what seemed, in some ways, like failure. Most reminded me that my performance was still very good. My friend, Ange, however, pushed deeper. Although she probably thought that my performance was great, she also understood that it was far less than what I dreamed of. Her ability to acknowledge my struggle enabled her to address a very interesting topic. The art of failing is how I would describe what we discussed. It’s the idea that sometimes we pursue something most of the way, say 80%, only to realize that we are in a losing battle.

In a losing battle, failure is imminent. Yet for some reason we press on. It’s a fascinating experience. The goals and aspirations that motivated our efforts have long since left the stage. To put it bluntly, there’s nothing left to fight for. Okay, maybe there is something, like a finish, but in the moment of battle such victories can pale in comparison to the grandiose things we dreamed of. And yet we refuse to give up. We press on. Perhaps we do so for those lesser goals. Not that they are actually any lesser than the others, but in the heat of it all they appear to be second rate.

It is a fascinating experience. To sail a sinking ship. To return starfish to the sea. To fish a fish-less pond. And yet we do it. Most would ask why? It seems to be the obvious question, just not the one I’m after. I feel like I know why. I press on because I’m too stubborn to quit, because I value finishing, and because sometimes I’m still holding onto a thread of hope that it will turn around. But if I’m not asking why, then what am I after? It’s hard to say for sure, but I think I’m after the what.

What is it? This pursuit of failing prospects. What does it accomplish? What is the point of it? What does it do to us? There are many things that the ‘what’ could be, but for me the ‘what’ is merely an experience. In the moment we don’t have to understand it. We don’t have to analyze it or search for answers. We simply have to be present in it.

Oftentimes we don’t want to be present in the experience. In fact, we want nothing more than to escape it. We drop out. We slacken our effort. We slam another coke and pray for the bonk to end. But amidst our efforts to ease our pain we miss out on something really great. It’s like skipping the last 10% of your long run because you felt tired. What sort of sense does that make? Is not the true value of the long run to challenge and build our endurance? You don’t run the first 20 miles simply to bow out on the last two. The first 20 are what give the last two their true value. So don’t take the easy way out. When the sea of failure appears dive in and keep swimming. Drink it in, soak it up, and learn all that you can.

It’s like sharpening a chainsaw by hand. It can seem tedious and mundane. It takes focus and commitment. One tooth at a time you must abrade the old surface in exchange for a newer, sharper one. But you can’t just abrade it. You have to pay attention. You have to get the angle right to ensure a good cut. One tooth at a time you must focus on the task at hand. Just like a failing prospect, you must remain present. If you keep your focus, however, the chain sharpens and the saw chews through logs with great efficiency.

And so, the same is true in life. When our chain grows dull and our saw begins to fail, we mustn’t throw it out. Instead we face the struggles, one tooth at a time, and let them abrade us. We may shift a bit here and there to get the angle just right, but we shall not flee. We will stay put. We will embrace the temporary discomfort in exchange for a sharper edge. And in the end, when the file is removed, we will run faster, sharper, and stronger than before. For there is not growth without struggle, and no sharpening without staying the course.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you ever continued on in a run or race when you knew you were going to ‘fail’ (however you define this)? What was it like for you? What did you learn?
  • And how about in life? When was the last time you ‘failed?’ What happened? What takeaways did you experience through it that you think helped you for the future?
  • Can you think of reasons to quit, or to not proceed on, when, as Zach describes, ‘failure is imminent?’ Where maybe there is more to be learned from stopping what you are doing?
Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.

There are 16 comments

  1. Brandon Baker

    Awesome Zach- Great respect for your attitude, writing and perspectives (and of course, running)! I admire mid-to-backend runners the most, ’cause they compose the backbone of our sport, But I find few and few between Pro athletes who solider on during tough days or the ones where the thought of a podium has come and gone- unless there is a major injury or health issue, to continue on during a hard day means EVERYTHING- Thanks for the insight and being you- Happy Trails

  2. Thorsten

    Hey Zach, great article – and awesome performance at UTMB! To me this sounds very much like the essence of ultra-running. Another thing to keep in mind during those tough times is the people you inspire with your persistence. Getting through it when it’s so tough can be more inspiring to folks than killing it with course record. You definitely inspire me with your racing. Keep it up and as you say: you will be even stronger next time.

    1. Zach Miller

      Thanks Thorsten! I’m glad you see the value in persevering and the role that it plays in ultra-running. Keep on truckin’!

  3. Aidan Reed

    Fantastic essay, Zach. I’ve grappled with mid-race failure in quite a few races. I particularly enjoyed the way you likened sharpening a chainsaw to sharpening the body and mind. It is an excellent metaphor, and one which I appreciate. Embracing struggle is certainly easier said or written about than done, but like you, I’ve come to realize that it is in the depths of struggle where real progress is made. Best of luck in your upcoming season!

  4. Mike

    Zach, mate, you did not FAIL! Failure is like the black color: it does not exist! Black is simply the absence of light. You may think you failed only if you haven’t yet learnt how to shift your perspective on what happened. Once you’ll master how to shift your perspective the word failure will disappear from your language. Of course you had an objective, you wanted to cross the line first and you did not. And so what? You already realized you personally got stronger out of the experience! And for sure you shall not be scared of the expectations everyone had on your performance, as you don’t run for us. Do you want to know a secret: I also wanted you to cross the line first, as I have been following you for a while and you inspire me a lot… and I can tell you that just like you had to, I had to get over the fact you did not win… However you inspire me even more now that I see your are on the right path to see how POSITIVE your 2016 UTMB experience was! Take care, and trust in yourself.

    1. Zach Miller

      Thanks Mike! UTMB was certainly a tough result for me, but yes, I do see great value in it. Thanks for your kind words! Best of luck with your future endeavors!

  5. Adam Haesler

    Hey hey Meghan,
    How are you?

    Thank you to Zach for the interesting article.

    Meghan to answer your questions
    My most recent race, I was not sure I would finish before the cutoff. I felt pure joy from beginning to end of the race, and did not concern myself about the cutoff time, as I just wanted to go out and be the best I could be.

    The most significant failure lately in life has been with sending out resumes for jobs, as part of the final stage of a career change.

    The takeaways would be
    1. Worst case-scenario someone says no.
    2. I am a better candidate than i originally thought, but required looking at my experiences from a general point of view on how they would relate to qualifications required. As it is not like a job change where the exact same tasks you already do are almost identical to what would be expected in a position you are applying for.
    3. Persistence is not just good, it is essential to keeping my dreams alive.

    I believe the only good reasons to stop would be the following
    1. I am threatening my health and I wish to be capable of being healthy for near future opportunities, like my 1st 100M attempt in March 2016, I got injured and knew I wanted to be capable of running several races that summer, which might not happen if I kept going.

    2. To help someone else; we are all in this together, on the trails at least, and supporting each other is a high priority for me due to my value for community.

    3. If I want to my ability to deal with the heartbreak of a dnf in a race, or in life, as failure is always just around the corner it is important to me to be capable of dealing with it from a perspective of discovery for what can be learned rathe than how unfortunate it is to have failed.

    Have a wonderful day,
    Adam!!!

  6. Mir

    great article zach. i can’t wait to see you and Jim W. at the start of WS or UTMB in 2017. i am sure Xavier will join you for UTMB.

  7. Joe C.

    Great Article! I often find after a month or so that I begin to feel pride in completing a race that in the moment feels like a disappointment or failure — for the very same reasons Zach mentions in his article. This is where for me, the appeal of running long distances exists… not necessarily in the actual time spent to cover a distance, but rather the satisfaction of getting to the finish line while overcoming the physical and mental obstacles that occur.
    Thanks, iRunFar!

  8. Burke

    That may be the best thing I have read all year. Of course, I do have some poor writers in my English class, but even if I had Shakespeare in my English class, this is excellent. I followed along on that race, and I was rooting for you. And I remember wondering what may have been going through your head when things seemed to be going poorly. Obviously, there were lots of thoughts, but as with most things in life, time gives a little better perspective. You may have gained more valuable things from the race that you didn’t plan than if things had gone perfectly. It was still a great performance, and you showed a lot of grit. Thanks for sticking it out and writing this.

  9. Dennis Koors

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this Article on “The Art of Failing” and it brought me back to UTMB 2015.

    The last 1/3 of the Race Report is below:

    Nearly 2 hours after reaching Grand Col Ferret, I entered La Fouly checkpoint after descending over 900 meters (nearly 3000 feet). It was 18:35 and finally cooling down. I took a fluids, electrolytes, filled bottle and bladder, and left for the 3+ hours that it would take to reach LifeBase at Champex-Lac. Champex-Lac is a village located in the French-speaking Swiss Canton of Valais, part of Orsières. This pretty village lies at 1,470 meters on the shore of Lac de Champex, at the foot of the Mont Blanc Massif. But, I never get to see anything as I always arrive and leave here when it’s dark and cold!

    In the 5 hours between Grand Col Ferret and Champex Lac, I had used the Obligatory World Phone and called my buddy Thomas (in Iowa). I asked, “do you have access to that Internet thing?” He replied, “why, what do you need? I have every possible metric that you could need.” I asked what time that I arrived and left Champex-Lac in 2011 & 2013 to get some sense of my current situation. We then discussed the Race, my feet, and he told me that I should keep alert for the Webcam as I arrived at Champex Lac. After nearly 28 hours from the start and at 21:46, I walked into the huge tent and suddenly saw that Webcam. I stopped, backed up, smiled, and had a good closed-hand gesture to the camera. I would later find out that the Webcams at Checkpoints had been capturing 5-10 seconds’ worth of footage as I entered and folks were able to view this from home. I set my equipment down on a table, used the bathroom, re-filed fluids, and was gone in 15 minutes.

    3 hours and 16 minutes later, I arrived at La Giete at 1:02 A.M. This was a new route and peak between Champex Lac (the most recent Checkpoint) and Trient (the next Checkpoint) that Race Officials had incorporated in this year’s route. I love a challenge and I always tell myself that an unknown course may be more difficult than I can conceive. This is simply to avoid being surprised that the difficulty is greater than expected, but the 865 meters (2682 feet) of elevation gain and 7.5 miles to the peak of this “new” mountain were so rugged, steep, and narrow that I was almost convinced that Race Officials were having a laugh at our expense. Most of this path had vegetation so thick and full, that both shoulders were brushing against it, and each step required nearly putting my knee to my chin in order to get my foot high enough to take a step. We did this for 2 of the 3+ hours until finally arriving at La Giete. This “Checkpoint” was so remote that there was water, a little fire, and a bench next to an old and small wooden cabin. My feet were getting more tenderized and blistered from the heat, terrain, and 31 hours of running. As we were now en route to Trient and the last Checkpoint in Switzerland, my right heel struck the ground and suddenly I felt a bolt of pain and what felt like a grape-sized blister explode. The pain was so massive and distracting, that I was at a loss on how I’d overcome it. Or even IF I could.

    I struggled for the 6 kilometers (4 miles) leading down to the Trient Life Base. This took slightly more than an hour. It was an hour filled with pain, discouragement, negative thoughts, lack of confidence, and more pain. Likely, the blisters and separating skin on my feet caused a change in my gait (pattern of movement of limbs), which led to a contracted quadcricep. When I arrived at 2:11 A.M., I was scanned by the Officials and before going to the area for fluids and food, I sat on a tiny brick curb, and wallowed in my misery. The preceding hours had been a suffer fest, and I was almost certain that I’d become one of the nearly 1000 Runners that would not finish this Race.

    I took my phone and called Thomas (in Iowa) and after listening to me explain my misery and discouragement, he immediately began slowly shutting down my negative thoughts. He had all of my Splits from my previous years running UTMB compared to this year and shared that I was beating every Split since the Start. Overall, I was 2 hours faster and that in the last 4-5 hours I had passed over 200 Runners. He was on my Crew during Badwater and knew a thing or two, but I was still trying to convince him as great as all of that sounded, the pain that I was absorbed by was greater than anything I had ever experienced and I was very unsure of my ability to finish this Race. His rebuttal was “you know that this is the worst part of the race; middle of the night, 2 days without sleep, and you’ve covered many hours and miles. I’m not buying it DK.”

    I reluctantly agreed that maybe it was too soon to make such a serious decision and that I’d visit the Medics before determining what I’d do.

    Here I was; 142 kilometers (88 miles) into the Race, after running for 32 hours, and I was laying in the effing Infirmary. Soon a Medic came and asked detailed questions about how I was feeling, and after I removed my shoes and socks; he began working on my feet. He cleaned the blisters and layers of skin that were separating from the tissue of my feet. He then inserted a syringe into each blister, and one-by-one, he applied pressure in order to drain them. He did this 2-3 times as blisters quickly seal themselves and re-fill with fluid. He then injected antiseptic in areas all over both feet and began bandaging the worst areas. There was a Physiotherapist that came to help with the muscle pain, and after I explained what I was feeling; she began applying a type of oil and massaging my quads, thighs, and groin. A third guy came and talked to me and discussed my physical, mental, and emotional state. All 3 of these people had a calm, kind, and proactive attitude towards everyone that they were helping and their efforts were so kind.

    Curious how I’d feel, I stood up, only to feel an immediate cramp and severe shivering. I layed back down and was shaking rapidly. They covered me with blankets from head to toe and wrapped me until only my face was uncovered.

    One guy was calmly telling me that I can rest a little until I am ready to continue, but I was thinking “does he not understand the pain that I am in???” After discussing the remaining distance and difficulty of the Course, he brought a copy of the Race’s Elevation Profile to show me in detail exactly what was ahead. I imagined how sad I’d feel if I let down friends and family that had sent such kind and encouraging thoughts for a successful Race, how attempting to enjoy myself after abandoning would seem worthless, and now I felt a sense of obligation to these 3 amazing people that were so incredibly helpful. I knew that I’d be on a beach in Mallorca in about 36 hours, but would I even have something worth celebrating? My mind was processing the 1000 miles that I had run in the 12 weeks preceding the Race with 12 elevation-specific runs accounting for over 160,000 feet of Elevation Change. Yet, my motivation and confidence had drifted towards the side of despair, and I was struggling to come back.

    I had a warped sense of time but knew that I had spent quite a while in the Infirmary, and just when I needed something special to occur, the Medic that was finishing injecting my blisters and taping my feet, looked up at me and stated so simply: “Dennis, I am very sorry about the pain, but the good news is – there are only 29 kilometers to Chamonix.”

    Wrapping my mind around the distance, terrain, and 2 massive mountains between me laying in the Infirmary in Trient and the Finish Line in Chamonix finally gave me clarity on what was left to overcome. When one Volunteer asked if I’d like to sleep a little, I replied “no, I am going to continue and I really feel that I have to leave now.”

    He smiled, helped me put on my socks, shoes, jacket, gloves, a hat, and guided me outside as I walked like an injured Frankenstien. He reminded me to eat and drink before I began the ascent from Trient to Catogne. After consuming cheese, salami, and a baguette, and 1 hour and 44 minutes after arriving, I left Trient for the cold and dark climb to distant Catogne.

    It was 799 meters (2467 feet) of elevation gain before I’d reach that peak and then I’d immediately begin the 789 meters (2464 feet) descent to Vallorcine. Checking in & out at Catogne took under 1 minute as it was simply a canopy with 1 Race Staff Member stuck in a small canyon. It would be 3 hours and lots of pain before I’d arrive in Vallorcine, but there was a sense of optimism from Thomas and the 3 volunteers that helped me at Trient and although I ran with massive discomfort, I also had a sense of purpose.

    As I entered this Checkpoint it was 6:54 A.M. on Sunday), the sky was beginning to lighten, I gave a smile to the Webcam, meet a Runner from England that mentioned how we have the same Gaiters (the cloth sewn in a specific form to be worn near your ankles to keep debris from entering your shoes), listened to another Runner tell a story about how during a previous race, his smashed Electrolyte Pills made an Official think that his plastic baggy was filled with Drugs, filled my bottles and Bladder, spilled my Sustained Energy powder all over myself and into my pocket, and 18 minutes later I was on my way to Col des Montets. As I left, I passed Henrik Jorgensen (another Dane). With only 10 Danish Runners, it was surprising to meet nearly half of them during the Race.

    This portion was cold and I just could not warm up. I kept hoping that body heat generated from my movement would help, but the 48 hours without sleep was really taking it’s toll. I was swerving, my head was dropping, and I was struggling to maintain forward motion. A lot of my memory from this time is blurred and over-lapped, and my perception of color, sizes, shapes, and sounds is distorted. I was hallucinating that piles of branches were houses for some Vagabond families, the rushing stream was loud music with lyrics, and I was certain that there was a train nearby, only to look and find no train. Having your mind know that you are losing control of the rest of your body is a perplexing experience, one that truly tests your mental strength.

    Once at Col des Montets, I knew that I had run nearly 100 miles and I had about 15 of the toughest kilometers (~9 miles) left with 873 meters (2863 feet) of a near-vertical climb up the rocky and ladder-like path leading to Tete aux Vents. Within 10 minutes the Sun crested over the Swiss Mountains behind us and it was as if someone had flipped a Light Switch, as the sunshine instantly lit up the entire massive mountain that we were traversing. The friendly Brit that told the story back at Vallorcine and I began chatting, and sat on some rocks together and shared how we were feeling, and probably something incredibly arbitrary. 2 minutes later, we were in motion again. With over 3 hours since leaving Vallorcine, 2 hours of constant climbing, and almost each step necessitating the use of poles or hands to stabilize as I pushed off with one foot in order to plant the other, I finally reached this peak of Tete aux Vents. It was equivalent to climbing nearly 3 “Eiffel Towers” into the brilliantly blue Heavens.

    Every single step was excruciating, but the view and serenity at this spot was magnificent enough to distract me as I gazed at Mont Blanc Massif and Chamonix Valley at it’s feet. I sat on the patch of grass and enjoyed the beauty and the knowledge that that was the final climb of the Race. Since this part of the course is quite rocky, there is always a need to look down, navigate the drop-offs and manage the huge steps up, all while staying focused to maintain forward motion to arrive at Le Flegere. Once there, I drank fluids, asked for the precise distance to Chamonix (10 kilometers/6 miles), and was out of there within 60 seconds.

    This portion is a ski resort and I imagined how it would be blanketed in snow in 3-4 months, but with the shining Sun and hot temperatures; it seemed a bit difficult to fully envision.

    Simply running down the grassy slope towards the trail that would ultimately lead to Chamonix and that elusive Finish Line, was challenging and uncomfortable. It seemed like every single muscle was contracted to manage my speed while my traumatized feet slammed against the front of my shoes. I was tightening my abdominal section and letting out a low but strong growl in an attempt to keep the pain tolerable while continuing to run. Soon, the path led us South and under massive trees while clearly dropping as I could feel the vertical loss instantly. The trails here have roots splintering from the trees throughout and required constant attention. I almost fell face-first many times from kicking roots or exhausted missteps while running through the trees, over streams, down railroad ties, over narrow bridges and across massive rock screes.

    About 2 hours after leaving La Tete Aux Vents, we had dropped 1080 meters/3543 feet but I could now catch glimpses through the giant trees of Chamonix that finally made the buildings seem close and not like a tiny make-believe town far away. Finally I saw that spot where I stood 3 days earlier and had absorbed the tranquility of the setting. That precise location where I had visualized returning to after circumnavigating Mont Blanc Massif.

    The moments after this were as if I had glided through an incredible transformation. One that seemed to sway my feelings and emotions from pain, self-doubt, uncertainty and despair; to feelings of gratitude, peace, clarity, and outright joy.

    The dirt path that I was running on dropped gradually and seamlessly onto the narrow paved road and I was suddenly running along cute houses and folks out walking. Soon there were volunteers ensuring that the Runners had a clear area to run along the streets, around the buildings, and safely reach the pedestrian walkway that bordered Arve River. Before turning right at that River, I gradually made my way down the street and began drifting to the left sidewalk. I stopped at a small sign that was up against a hedge. I reached behind the sign, between it and that hedge, and immediately felt a small plastic bag. I grasped this bag, began running again and made my way to the other side of the street that crossed Arve River, and turned right onto the pedestrian walkway.

    Apparently seeing “Danemark” on my Race Bib, an older gentleman said (in Danish) “Stor tillykke Dennis, or velkommen tilbage til Chamonix!” (Big congratulations Dennis, and welcome back to Chamonix!). I replied “mange tak for det!” (Many thanks for that!)

    Seconds later I saw a handsome young couple, where the girl was sitting on the short wall at the edge of the river as her boyfriend was preparing to take a photo of her with the River and Mont Blanc in the background. She, also obviously seeing “Danemark” on my Race Bib, said (in Danish) “Flot lobbet Dennis, stor tillykke!” (Beautifully-run Dennis, big congratulations!) I replied “Tusind tak for det!” (A thousand thanks for that!)

    My body had so much pain but it was losing the battle to the sense of euphoria that I felt running along the River, looking up at the spectacular Mont Blanc set in front of a perfectly blue sky, and seeing and hearing all of the selfless people cheering me on. They do this for every Runner as if each is the most important, and it was truly a touching experience as I crossed the final street, turned right, tossed my trekking poles behind a flower planter (to free my hands), and made a quick left onto the final path leading through this centuries’ old town along the Cobble-Stoned Streets. Virtually every person that I saw was clapping and yelling “Bravo! Allez! Allez!” (French for: “Good job! Go! Go!”).

    It was here that I took out the contents of that plastic bag that I hid 3 days prior. Inside was the Danish Flag, and as I opened it and began raising it flying in the wind behind me, the crowd started to cheer louder and louder. The more enthusiastic I was, the more they applauded, cheered, and hollered with encouragement. These moments were simply amazing as the people cheered, the sun shined, “Conquest of Paradise” played loudly throughout, and I ran through this charming town.

    As I came around a few corners the crowds grew larger and louder, and moments later, with the Flag flying behind me, I was running towards that elusive Finish Line in sheer elation hearing “Dennis Koors, Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc Finisher!”

    Just after crossing, I slowly turned and looked back at the crowd, sat down on the Stage; smiled, laughed, and cried at all of the moments leading up to that epic feeling. Sitting there and simply looking around, a Spaniard that had run a Sister Race, put his hand on my shoulder and gave me a subtle smile of understanding. He knew what I was feeling.

    I thought of the 4 people that had helped me 10 hours earlier and felt such gratitude to them, as if they deserved a large part of the Glory and sheer joy that I had rushing through my body.

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