Learning From Disappointment

Coach Alex Nichols looks at what we can learn from a disappointing race.

By on March 2, 2021 | Comments

I remember my excitement on the 2018 UTMB starting line in Chamonix, France. It was early evening, and a light rain was falling on us. The forecast predicted a dark, rainy night ahead. Ominous music pulsed as the crowd lined up and strained against the starting-line tape. I couldn’t wait to start running. My training leading up to this moment had gone very well. I had started the year with a second place at the Vibram Hong Kong 100k, followed that with a course record at the Collegiate Peaks 50 Mile, and after that I set the supported Nolan’s 14 fastest known time. This was my first experience at UTMB, but I felt prepared to handle just about anything.

The tape dropped and the mass of humanity mixed with carbon-fiber trekking poles lurched forward. As we all bolted, I tried to swing left to avoid the congestion of the first sharp turn to the right. Suddenly I was on the ground. Someone had swept my foot out from behind me and I found myself staring at cobblestones. Feet flashed through my vision as other runners jumped over my face. I instantly thought of the thousands of other feet ready to trample me if I didn’t find a way out of the chaos.

I log rolled to a retaining fence, got to my feet, and was back to running at full speed in a few seconds. My shorts were torn and I noticed blood along the left side of my leg, hip, and shoulder, but with adrenaline shooting through me I felt no pain. I pushed myself on the first climb. As the adrenaline faded, a pain in my hip became more obvious. Kilometers passed but the pain grew, my iliotibial band locked up, and my run became a slow walk. I accepted my DNF.

Alex Nichols - Chamonix France

Alex Nichols above Chamonix, France. All photos courtesy of Alex Nichols.

In the days that followed, I thought constantly about how this had happened and what could have been. I had traveled across the world and my race ended in the first few steps. The days turned into weeks of self-pity. My hip healed but I was not motivated to run more than a mile or two at a time.

Eventually my disappointment turned into ambition to prove that I wasn’t worthless. I told myself I needed to move away from ultramarathons for a while. I signed up for a road marathon, something I had never tried before. I wanted to run an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying time, so I got to work with fast long runs and intervals. After a few weeks of marathon training, my hamstring gave out during a speed workout. I had come back too quickly, injured myself, and was once again feeling dejected and worthless. I stopped running almost entirely.

The only thing that kept me going out was my monthly Pikes Peak summit challenge, where I tag the summit of the biggest mountain near where I live in Colorado once a month. That month, November of 2018, my summit trip was a slow, snowy trudge. I was out of shape and almost unable to make it to the summit. However, in my sunrise struggle, I regained something that was desperately missing from my running ever since UTMB. I found joy.

In the following weeks, I spent more time in the mountains. Sometimes I ran with friends, sometimes alone, but each time out reminded me that I still loved running. I was finally running for the sake of running again. I had stopped thinking of the next race or the next challenge. I was just doing something I enjoyed.

Why am I telling this story? It was one of the lowest times of my running career, and I now realize that I made some mistakes that made it even worse. I hope that I can provide a few insights from my experience to help others navigate a failed race or disappointment of their own.

Avoid Outcome-Based Goals

As I explained in my article “Rethinking the Aid Station,” outcome goals are based on the final result of an event, and depend on more than your own efforts. Outcome-based goals, like winning a race or setting a record, are often the most exciting goals because they are so visible. But these types of goals are extremely unpredictable because they depend on things like the performance of other runners, the conditions of the trail, and the weather. I tried to pull myself out of my slump by focusing on the outcome-based goal of an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying time at a spring marathon. When I injured my hamstring doing a speed workout for this goal, I felt like even more of a failure because an already ambitious outcome-based goal became impossible to achieve.

Embrace the Process

Process-based goals are on the other side of the goal-setting spectrum. Process goals involve the minor steps we pass through to achieve bigger-picture goals. Process goals focus on the more controllable aspects of a challenge. In my situation, I could have experienced more satisfaction by first developing personal and achievable goals like making sure I was getting enough sleep each night or drinking enough water each day. These smaller, more realistic goals are the first steps to realizing the bigger accomplishments later on. When I ignored the process accomplishments and only focused on the end result, I was putting all of my mental eggs into a very unreliable basket.

Think Big Picture

When I look back on those months following UTMB, I see that I lost track of why I run. I am a very competitive person, and I enjoy going head to head with my competitors on the race course, but that isn’t the only reason I go out and run everyday. I didn’t start running as a 13-year-old because I really wanted to finish atop the UTMB podium; I ran because running made me feel free. Once I regained that feeling during my runs on Pikes Peak, I realized that I was ignoring a crucial part of myself.

I fell into the trap of thinking that I was only as good as my last performance. I could only think of that single DNF, and I forgot to be proud of all of my achievements earlier in the year. With time, I learned that a failed competition is just a failed competition. It doesn’t have to be a defining moment, and it certainly doesn’t define my worth. That was just one bad run among thousands of fantastic days out, and it’s really the fantastic days out that make me the runner I am.

Call for Comments

  • From what disappointments have you learned? And what were the lessons that came out of the experience?
  • Have you gotten stuck on outcome-based goals that are hard to independently achieve?
Mont Blanc - Chamonix France

Mont Blanc above Chamonix, France.

Alex Nichols
Alex Nichols coaches at Colorado College as well as at Trails and Tarmac. He has a Master of Arts in Sport Coaching and a USATF Level 2 Endurance coaching certification. On the trails, Alex has finished second at the Western States 100 Mile and won the Pikes Peak Marathon, Mont Blanc 80km, and Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile. He's supported by SCOTT Running.