The Gift of Failure

A look at the positive side of failure, especially in running.

By on August 19, 2016 | 4 comments

AJW's TaproomEvery year in August, as I wind up my batteries for the start of the new school year, I choose a book to read that will help get me in the right mindset. In that context, this past week, I read Jessica Lahey’s great new book The Gift of Failure. In this book, Lahey lays out a compelling argument for parents and educators to embrace and even celebrate failure. In our “everybody gets a trophy” culture, Lahey notes, we are unwittingly insulating the next generation from disappointment and adversity and along the way preventing today’s youth from developing the tools for success that ultimately can be nurtured only through failure.

Not surprisingly, as an educator, a father and a runner, Lahey’s book got me thinking about the many failures in my life. Some bigger than others, certainly, but all, ultimately, deeply valuable learning experiences. In my life as an ultrarunner, the failures have, at times, been particularly acute. And each time, these failures have provided me with a launch to something greater.

Of course, none of us, when we toe the line in a race, are attempting to fail. In fact, it is quite the contrary. However, inevitably, given the capricious nature of long distance running, failure invariably lurks around every corner. Experience suggests that each time we fail we are made more complete. Then, equipped with the tools of memory and understanding, we hopefully grow from those failures.

Of my many running failures, none has been more meaningful than my experience a dozen years ago at the 2004 Angeles Crest 100 where, after running a hard fought second place to Guillermo Medina, I succumbed to rhabdomyolysis and acute renal failure. The subsequent eight-day hospital stay taught me volumes about expectations and limits and set the table for the next stage in my ultrarunning career.

And yet, that failure also taught me so much more. Essentially, my kidneys failed at that race because I over-loaded them beyond their capacity to function. In the process of running 100 miles through the hot, dusty mountains of Southern California I forced my body beyond its limits and I failed. Not only was this a valuable lesson for my running but an essential lesson for my life. How many times do we overload our systems these days?

Too often today’s world pushes us beyond reasonable expectations. Too often we are forced to make decisions and choices that can be dangerous to ourselves and others and ultimately can disrupt our equilibrium. Too often, quite simply, we are driven to places in which we cease to adequately function. In these moments, I believe, the failures and disappointments inherent in long distance ultrarunning have much to share and teach. In these moments, the gift of failure provides the essential tools for success. In the end, in these moments of failure and despair on the run, we can find ways to forge on that can steer us even through life’s most turbulent waters.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Earlier this summer when I was out in Colorado I enjoyed several great beers. Interestingly, my favorite new beer was not from Colorado, but, rather, from neighboring New Mexico. Elevated IPA from La Cumbre Brewing Company in Albuquerque, New Mexico proved to be my go-to beer throughout the month in Silverton. Smooth and hopped just right, Elevated IPA is perfectly balanced and fun to drink.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What have been some of your most productive failures, whether in life or running more broadly?
  • What have you learned from them? Where have they lead you?
Andy Jones-Wilkins
finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.