A Dribble of Failure for a Splash of Success

I still remember where it happened. I was in college at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and I was out for a run down the “Power Trail.” Technically it’s called the Lehigh Valley Trail, but my teammates and I always called it Power Trail because it had a bunch of power lines running next to it. We would hop on it from Brighton Henrietta Town Line Road just north of campus. It served as our main thoroughfare to Genesee Valley Park where we would run workouts or pass through on our way to the city of Rochester. The portion of the trail we utilized was only a few miles long and I must have run up and down it hundreds of times during my college days. Of all the trips I made though, this one was special.

I can’t remember all of the details, or even if I was by myself or with my teammates. Regardless, it happened right where the trail jogs to the side, and then straightens out again. I want to say it was the second jog to the right heading north, just after the Crittenden Road crossing. It was here that for some reason I turned my lips to the air and hocked a wad of spit out in front of myself. That’s right, not to one side or the other, but straight out. And then something magical happened. As I ran forward, I opened my mouth and made the perfect catch. Yes, that wad of mucus went right back where it came from.

All photos courtesy of Zach Miller unless otherwise noted.

Sure, there was risk in trying to catch it, but my execution was perfect. It wasn’t even sloppy. No mucus in the eye or dribble down the chin. Like a baseball outfielder who nabs a ball deep in the outfield where the ball hits the glove just perfectly. Pure sound and feel, not a smidge of bobble or bounce. A catch, clean as can be. I couldn’t do it again if I tried. In fact, I believe I have tried, and haven’t been able to match it. That was the best spit of my life.

It brings to mind a similar feat. In high school, my teammates and had a conversation about “peeing off the bike.” I say that as if it’s a surprise. We were in high school and I think somebody on the team read about it in a magazine. Of course, we discussed it. It seemed kind of magical, something lumped in with unicorns, pots of gold, and Santa Claus. It also seemed sketchy. The risk-reward factor just didn’t add up. The best worst-case scenario is that you pee all over yourself. And the worst? You wreck your bike with your business hanging out. Needless to say, I let this one be–at least for a while.

Then in college, I read Dean Karnazes’s book Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, and Dean talks about peeing on the run. There I was all over again. For a while, I didn’t touch this one either, but, you can only stay curious for so long. Plus, the risk of dismemberment seemed much lower with this version. So, one day I gave it a try. It didn’t go well. Turns out, you have to keep one hand on the wheel at all times. Let’s just say that I found myself firmly in the splash zone.

In spite of my failure, I tried again and again. Eventually, I mastered it. At that point in my running career, my newfound skill wasn’t much more than a fun trick or a matter of convenience when out training. My college races simply weren’t long enough to warrant the need for a bathroom break. But hey, at least I could go on a run with my buddies and say, “Guess what I can do!”

Photo: Nathan Miller

In 2012, I wrapped up my time at college and walked away from school with an engineering degree and the coveted skill of being able to run and relieve myself at the same time. Eight years later, I must admit that the latter of the two has proven to be much more useful than one would have thought. I’ve utilized the skill in long ultramarathons all over the world. I may have even been caught on camera a time or two at UTMB. If you’ve run trails with me, then there is a pretty good chance that you have witnessed my skill. When I drop back a little bit during a run, I’m probably just doing my business.

Even with all these skills, one thing has still eluded me: the coveted bike maneuver that my buddies and I marveled at in high school. That is, until last week. I have been doing a lot of cycling lately and on Thursday, November 12, 2020, I went for it. Rolling down a back road somewhere south of Hellam, Pennsylvania, I coasted my way through a successful bathroom break. Sure, I wasn’t zipping along at 40 miles per hour or anything, but the job got done. I didn’t wreck, and the trajectory was more or less spot on. I have since repeated the maneuver, and while I am sure there is room for improvement, I can confidently say that I now have that skill, too. All that’s left to do is to call up my high-school teammates and tell them that I’ve done it, that I’m living the dream. They’ll probably say I’ve peaked.

So, why the funny story? I tell it for more than just laughs. What I am really after is a thought from a recent training session, If you want to succeed, you have to be willing to fail. Simple as that. In other facets of life, the stakes are often much higher than bad aim. The challenges can feel so intimidating that the task seems impossible. That is, until the hurdles are cleared. The moment of success feels freeing, like you have broken through a brick wall. It makes you wonder what else might be possible. What other obstacles might you be able to clear if you are willing to try? So, whatever it may be, quit squirming in your seat and get down to business, because the relief is great and the shoes are easy to clean.

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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.