74 Seconds

On Monday, October 26th, after months of training, fretting, sleepless nights, and too many sacrifices I care to iterate, I ran my second Dublin Marathon. And I failed.

Before I go any further I want to stress that this is not a sympathy piece; I’m not looking for affirmation that even finishing a marathon is a great achievement. I know this, and I do not regret for one second my decision to “go again” and try for a sub four-hour marathon. It was not a waste of time. I enjoyed a lot of things about both the preparation and race day itself. This despite the fact that I was in agony for a lot of it.

This is as much a post about acknowledging failure as it is about embracing its effect. As a society, the concept of failure as something negative – a bad outcome of an attempt – is instilled into us from a very early age. Don’t fail. No one likes a failure; a quitter. But I’m referring to failure here as an emotionless concept – as a simple binary state. Yes or no. You did or you didn’t.

My goal was to run the marathon in under four hours. There’s a clear success/fail marker here: my finish time. Under four hours, success. Over this personally set limit, I failed at my objective. Now, if my objective was to complete a second marathon I absolutely succeeded. No question. I have the medal and blackened toenails to prove it. My final time was 4:01:14; 74 seconds over my target. If I had run each of the 42 kilometres a mere two seconds faster I would have achieved my goal and with ten seconds to spare. But I didn’t. The chip doesn’t lie.

Whenever I tell people I consider my recent marathon completion a failure they immediately attempt to counter my statement and tell me not to be disappointed, how what I did was an amazing accomplishment, especially considering I moved house, changed job and picked up a bad injury all during my training period. But while I appreciate the sentiment, I don’t need the pick-me-up. Because I am fine with this failure. Because failure often rewards more than success. We need to be okay with saying “I tried and failed.” There is no shame in failure. There is, in my opinion, only shame in never trying.

The reasons behind why I failed on the day are both myriad and complex. Some of what went wrong that fateful morning was my fault. I own these mistakes. Other things I couldn’t have controlled, and while I have to accept these aspects, I also need to not dwell or lean on them. Was it wet and windy and did this affect my time? It sure was and it sure did. But did I stupidly change my running attire the day of the race and end up freaking out five kilometres in when all my equipment malfunctioned? That happened, too. And that’s on me. Did I look over my shoulder numerous times on the run-in, desperately scanning the sky for the four-hour pace-setter balloon, knowing as long as I stayed ahead of that person I would be okay? And did I then ease up a little toward the end, never once spotting this ominous balloon, forgetting like an idiot that the four-hour pace-setter actually started the race ten minutes after I did? Yeah. Some of the mistakes are easier to accept than others. I have come to terms with all of them now.

Failure is the greatest teacher. I made a slew of mistakes the first time I ran a marathon. I learned from the event, though, and didn’t make them again in my second effort. I just made a whole bunch of new ones. Logic suggests that the more you do something the better you get at it. Will I ever run another marathon? I honestly don’t know. It’s a huge time-sink. If I’m being honest I’m also mentally a bit frail at the moment, so the thought of trying again – and failing again – is something I’m struggling to even comprehend in this post-race haze of dejection and discomfort. I never said failing doesn’t incur self-doubt or have other effects that can be perceived as negative. Sometimes failure is a way of finding out you can’t do something. You may not like what failure tells you but only a fool ignores the message.

The type of person I am it’s hard to believe I won’t try again. As I sat on a stone wall, chatting to fellow finishers four hours, one minute and fourteen seconds after I started the race that inclement and harsh Monday morning, the words “never again” were proclaimed with vehement gusto and resounding sincerity, admittedly greatly influenced by the waves of pain still coursing through my spent and disappointed mind and body.

Never again. I can’t put myself through this again. I have other goals, other things I want to achieve.

But 74 seconds. I can hold my breath for 74 seconds.