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.