Failing spectacularly: working towards a goal you know you won’t make

marathonI’m not big on new year’s resolutions, but this year I made one. Having run fifteen half marathons, two marathons, and five triathlons, I thought it was time to push myself in a new way that a finish line couldn’t. Thus, I set a year-long goal to run 1000 miles in 2018. I did the simple math on this. 1000 miles divided by 365 days is 2.75 miles a day. I can run 2.75 miles without issue. This was going to work out just fine!

As I’ve now worked on this goal for six months, I’ve come to realize that I did wrong kind of math! I don’t actually run everyday, so 2.75 miles a day is a number that actually means nothing. In hindsight, here’s the “real” math I should have considered.

1000 miles divided by 12 months is 83.3 miles a month. 83 miles a month is a lot for me. I generally run 4-5 days a week, but I like yoga and weight training and cycling too. So let’s assume that because of the goal, I made an effort to run 5 days every week. That means I run 260 days instead of 365 days. 1000 miles divided by 260 is 3.85 miles. 3.85 miles isn’t really that big of a deal either, but, of course, there are going to be weeks that are busier than others and I can’t run five days and only run 4. If I run 4 days in a week, I have to run 4.8 miles on each of those days. If I run three…well you get the picture. If I go on vacation for a week and can’t run, I better find time to make up a lot of miles.

What I also didn’t consider was life in Minnesota, and the fact that, as I’m not crazy enough to run on snow packed, icy sidewalks, all my winter miles would need to be at my gym on the treadmill. I hate treadmill miles, but I made a real effort in January and February to get to the gym as often as possible and put in my time. What I couldn’t have accounted for was Minnesota would have the LONGEST. WINTER. EVER. and there would still be snow on the ground in late April. That’s a lot of treadmill miles. That’s a lot of torture. To be honest, that’s a lot of workouts that started on the treadmill and quickly moved to the yoga mat or bike.

So here’s the long and short of it. I ran 62 miles in January; 64 miles in February; 74 miles in March; 75 miles in April; 77 miles in May (including another half marathon); and 83 miles in June. I’m proud that I’ve increased my mileage each month so far. But that’s only a grand total of 435 miles…65 miles short of the 500 miles that would have been considered “on pace” for making 1000 by December 31. That means I have to divide those “make up miles” over the next six months, raising my monthly total to 94.1 for July-December, which is significantly more than I’ve run in any month thus far.

marathon 2And all this math really means is that halfway through the year, I’m looking at the next six months with the very real understanding that it’s increasingly unlikely that I will reach my goal. Once school starts again, and my theater program starts again, and the snow starts again, 94.1 miles in a month is not going to happen. I know because it didn’t happen in January, February, March, April, May, or June. And though I’m stronger and faster, I’m not any less busy, and the busyness is a killer!

In light of this realization, I have three choices. One: Forget about tracking any more miles, and just run and do my own thing without the goal hanging over my head. Two: Know that I’m not going to make the goal, continue to track the miles just because, but don’t work any harder or put in any kind of extra effort towards the unreachable goal. Three: Know that I’m not going to make the goal, but continue to track the miles, and try to increase my mileage every month, and give everything I have towards working towards this thing that I think has slipped too far out of reach, so that when I reach December 31st and have still come up short, I can still say I saw it through to the end.

Some of you want to argue that there’s a fourth option and that’s to figure out a way to run 94.1 miles for the next six months and defy everyone’s expectations after I’ve set myself up as this great underdog. You people have either: A.) Never run 94 miles in a month (let alone six in a row) and I suggest you try it first; or B.) Routinely run 94 miles in a month, in which case, congratulations to you, but stop pretending like you can come over here to those of us who don’t and make it out to be no big deal.

It’s at this point that I’d like you to consider the idea of “failing spectacularly.” Failing spectacularly is akin to going down in a blaze of glory with a much more positive connotation. What does failing spectacularly look like? Well, it seems like Olympic athletes are really good at it.

And now some of you are having a midday cathartic cry, and that’s good and healthy, and I support it!

Here’s the thing. Failing quietly is easy, but it’s not really failing; it’s quitting. I see this is some of my high school students every semester. When they dig themselves a grade hole that it’s going to take a lot of work to climb out of, they decide to stop doing anything at all. Why? Because sometimes it’s easier to stop working towards something in an effort to minimize future disappointment than it is to work towards something that might not be accomplished and have to face the reality that, despite your best effort, the ultimate goal was still not accomplished. It’s easier to look back on the semester and say, “I bombed that test in November, and it just ruined my whole semester,” than it is to say, “I bombed that test in November, and spent all semester doing my best to try to get back to passing, but I still failed.”

Failing spectacularly is hard. It’s ripe for disappointment. But it also produces a different kind of satisfaction that quitting cannot. I don’t think you pick yourself up off the Olympic track and hobble to the finish line because you think there’s an outside chance you might still win a medal. I think you pick yourself up off the Olympic track and hobble to the finish line because when it all boils down, it’s better to be the runner who finished the race and didn’t win a medal, than it is to be a runner who didn’t finish the race at all.

“Sometimes it’s about not giving up. Sometimes it’s about making it to the finish. Sometimes endeavor is its own reward.”

And sometimes endeavor has its own reward. I wouldn’t recommend failing spectacularly because you might actually get something out of it, but by choosing to continue to put forth your best effort, sometimes you do. My very first semester of college, I took an astronomy class. It was to fulfill my lab science requirement, and it was supposed to be the “easiest” choice. Nobody told me it was easy, I just assumed it was because, really, how hard could it be to look at stars!? I’d name some constellations, and it would be good. It turns out, however, that astronomy was really astrophysics, and as I hadn’t been particularly strong in regular physics in high school, astrophysics was a bonafide nightmare.

My professor was a legitimate NASA scientist turned teacher. She was very nice, but most of the time confused the heck out of me. To be clear, I was never actually in real jeopardy of failing the class outright, but I hovered around a C for most of the semester. Still, I went to every lecture, attended every lab session, went to the extra study sessions at 7:30AM in the university planetarium, (Have you ever sat in a planetarium at 7:30 in the morning? You might as well just stay in bed!) and attended the optional sky gazing sessions on the roof of the science building where we’d look at the stars through telescopes and label sky charts. I didn’t dislike the material, but I wasn’t very good at it.

I’m sure I got a C on my final, and a C on my lab book, and then my final grades came out, and I got an A for the semester. I was sure she had made a mistake, and I have too much of a guilty conscience complex to just let the grade stand, so I sheepishly went to her office the next day to confess the error and have her adjust it. She stopped me before I could even start my explanation, and insisted instead that, of all her students that semester, nobody had tried harder to understand the material, had worked harder in lab, or had made more of an effort than I had. She recommended that I not go into astrophysics, but she had seen in my file that I was an English major who had declared pre-law, and she didn’t want astrophysics to become a blemish on my record freshman year that might hurt me down the road when GPA points might matter down to the hundredth. It wasn’t an A for effort, it was an A for work ethic, which she believed to be far more reflective of my character, and therefore more important than math I was never going to use again.

Later in college, after I changed my major to education, I had to take a second lab class, biology. My biology professor was nuts, the kind of guy who writes his own textbook to be used for his own class. Not only that, he believed, despite the fact that the title of course was “Biology for non-biology majors” that we were all biology majors because we lived and breathed in the world, and only existed because of biology. I worked my tail off in that class, and got a B-. It stayed a B-. It ruined my 4.0. Lightning doesn’t always strike twice!

And yet ironically, when I applied for my first job, the principal of the school I interviewed at looked at my college transcript and breathed an exaggerated sigh of relief. Thank goodness, he explained, I wasn’t another candidate coming in with a 4.0. He wondered aloud whether anyone had a life in college anymore, and openly admitted he assumed anyone with a 4.0 to be uptight before they even opened their mouth in the interview. He asked me to tell him about my biology professor; he guessed the guy was a real a-hole. We had a laugh over it. I got the job. Maybe sometimes it’s about delayed gratification.

So whatever race you’re running, I hope you win! But if you don’t, I hope you fail spectacularly. Gut it out until the very last moment, collapse on the track and hobble to the finish line, let someone carry you across if need be, walk it, limp it, crawl it, but don’t quit it. As for me and my 1000 miles, I’ll choose option three. I can’t do it any other way. All quitting does in invalidate the work I’ve put in thus far. And if I wasn’t willing to finish the thing, regardless of the result, than I never should have started in the first place.

Cheers!

Kate

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