This past weekend, on Sunday, I participated in a half Ironman triathlon. For those of you unfamiliar with triathlon, that’s a 1.2 mile swim followed by a 56 mile bike ride followed by a half marathon run (13.1 miles).
I spent much of the previous day getting my stuff ready, crossing off checklists, and planning.
I got up at 4:30am.
I drove nearly 3 hours.
I set up, got into my wetsuit, and, at the signal, began two large laps around buoys in a cold, muddy lake.
I got out, swapped gear, and rode the first 18.6 mile loop on my bike.
And then, after completing the second loop, totally out of gas and nauseated, out of metabolic fuel but unable to make myself eat or drink anything, I decided that this event had beaten me.
I packed up my stuff, unceremoniously returned my timing chip (which hadn’t been working anyway, I found out), and walked back to my car several hours ahead of schedule.
After months of preparation, many, many hours of work, and a $130 entry fee, I’d failed.
Not. Fucking. Cool.
How to deal
The entire trip home, I alternately steamed, pondered, and tried to decide what to do next.
We all fail. I’ve written repeatedly about failure, and typically my advice is the same coachy-sounding stuff that, this time, wasn’t helping my mental state at all: Learn and adapt. Dust yourself off and get back on the horse. If it means something to you, don’t give up. But somehow this felt different. This wasn’t my normal breed of “try and see” failure. This was deeper. Somehow it was worse. I had to process it. I had to fight past my initial reaction (anger) and get at what was beneath it.
My situation around this bit of failure was, of course, unique to me, but the process is something that anyone can use. So hang in there, and maybe you’ll learn how to deal with something that’s been eating at you, too.
Failure sucks. And when we face it, our choices ultimately come down to two:
1. Try again.
Sometimes trying again is appropriate. Sometimes quitting is appropriate. The trick is to figure out when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.
So here, in non-random order, are my six steps to processing and overcoming failure.
STEP 1: Determine the reasons for your failure.
You’ve got to know your enemy.
Why did you fail?
Answer that question. Be honest. This is no time to worry about looking like a jerk for making excuses. Go ahead and make excuses, but call them “reasons” instead. If you were sick, that’s a reason you might have failed at a physical endeavor. If you didn’t have enough money, that’s a reason a business might have flopped. If you simply weren’t in good enough shape to run a race, that’s probably the reason you didn’t win.
A “reason” becomes an “excuse” when you mentally claim victory in a magical, nonexistent world where the excuse didn’t get in your way and, as a result, you didn’t fail. We’re not doing that in this step. We’re admitting we failed, but figuring out why.
(Spoiler: Later on, you get to try again after the reason/excuse is eliminated… or you get to accept the failure regardless of the reason/excuse. You don’t get to say, “I failed because of X, so without X, I wouldn’t fail.” That’s claiming victory in fairy world. That’s where a reason becomes a bullshit excuse. Don’t do that. It’s a douchebag move.)
While you’re at it, go ahead and also list the reasons you felt like hell after failing. Knowing your emotional triggers will help you separate fact from gut reactions.
In my case, here are the reasons I believe I failed at my half Ironman:
1. I was riding the wrong kind of bike.
2. It was a really windy day.
Remember, I’m not making excuses here. I’m not saying, “I consider myself to have won this if I mentally eliminate the wind and give myself a better bike.” I’m simply analyzing the reasons I believe things went sour. If I don’t know these things, I can’t attempt to correct them.
See, 99.99% of people who do triathlons (especially the longer ones) use a road bike or a tri bike. I, because I’m new to the sport and not eager to spend $2k yet on a fancy-ass bike, decided to fit the hybrid bike I already owned with slick tires and use that. I knew I’d be slower, but I didn’t care about placing well… and besides, I’d trained on that bike for months.
What I hadn’t counted on was how bad a hybrid is in the wind, meaning that my two reasons for failure were working together synergistically. We had 20 MPH winds on the day of my tri, and sitting upright on a hybrid (instead of low on a road bike) was like putting a sail to the wind. Add to that the increased rolling friction and the extra weight and you’ve got a disaster. The people on road bikes were having a hard time, but I, on my hybrid, was being lapped on a 19-mile course. That’s a huge difference.
STEP 2: Imagine trying again while mentally removing the reasons for your failure, and determine your level of confidence under those revised conditions.
Still being careful not to cross the line between objective analysis and douchebaggy excuse-making, ask yourself, “If I changed or eliminated the things I just listed, do I think I could do it?”
You don’t get to tell people that you could do it. You only get to figure out how confident YOU feel that you could do it.
In my case, the answer to “Do I think I could do it on a better bike and/or with less wind?” was a big yes.
If you’re a big yes, begin working on convincing yourself.
I had three big reasons why I felt certain I could do it under those revised conditions:
1. Failing was a total surprise.
The biggest reason this failure hurt me so bad — much worse than the many failures I have regularly in the course of doing business — was because I didn’t see it coming. It honestly never occurred to me that I might fail. Mentally I was there.
And why was I so there mentally, you ask? Well…
2. I had done much harder workouts many times.
On Sunday, I dropped out after riding 37 miles. Combined with the swim, this meant that I was quitting after about 3.5 hours of effort. That’s a long time, but I’d done several workouts longer than 5 hours in recent weeks, including a 100-mile bike ride (on the hybrid bike!) that took me almost 7. I’d swum 1.2 miles several times. I’d ridden over 56 miles repeatedly. I’d done back-to-back “brick” workouts where I did one sport right after the other. All of this together made me feel like Sunday’s conditions of bike + wind + hills (did I forget to mention the hills?) were a sort of perfect storm of ineptitude that was unlikely to repeat itself.
3. I’d never quit before.
The worst part of all of this was I hadn’t been pulled off the course. I hadn’t sustained an injury. I simply became incapable of going further, and had had to make the conscious decision to throw in the towel. But as a convincing reason to move forward, this had punch because I have never before quit a long run or bike ride or any endurance activity because it was hard. I’ve quit if I’ve felt an injury, but never before due to fatigue. And the fact that it had never happened before in workouts up to 7 hours long meant that it wasn’t terribly likely to happen again as long as I was uninjured.
With all of my data gathered, my objective opinion (well, as objective as can be expected) was that given the right bike and at least reasonable winds, I could do it.
STEP 3: Determine if it’s worth trying again.
Seth Godin’s short book The Dip is all about knowing when and which endeavors to quit. Quitting isn’t bad in and of itself. Quitting things that matter because they’re hard is cowardly, but quitting pointless things that consume energy you could use better elsewhere is wise. You just need to know which applies to your situation.
My answer wasn’t straightforward. It involved asking a very hard question: Why do I do this stuff, anyway?
I didn’t hope to win. I didn’t think I’d ever get a medal, or a plaque. When I did an earlier, shorter triathlon with Joel Runyon, we hadn’t even paid attention to the closing ceremony. We just ate and left. I’m not in it for the glory, the fame, the money, or the adulation or respect.
This is still something I’m figuring out, but as near as I can tell, I do it because I want to find the edges of my own abilities. I want to know what it feels like to push until it’s uncomfortable, because I think that your life’s edges are where you learn what your life is all about.
Which meant, basically, that I was doing it to see if I could do it.
So if I knew I could do it, I could let myself off the hook and not actually repeat the half Ironman. But how can you know if you can do something you haven’t done? I could feel confident, yes. But I couldn’t KNOW.
I had two choices: Quit and be satisfied with not knowing, or remove the obstacles and try again… and know for sure, one way or the other.
The answer to this is simple. I want to know.
STEP 4: Decide.
The inelegant way to sum up this step is: Shit or get off the pot.
In other words, if you determine that you want to try again, book it and do it. If you decide to quit, make your peace with that decision and quit. Don’t stay in no-man’s land.
For me, I decided that I’m going to do it again, on my own if I have to. I don’t get to waffle. I get to find a date, get it together, and do it. Find out. Then let it go.
The worst thing you can do with a failure is to leave it hanging, undecided and unfinished, like an open wound. Either heal the arm or amputate it; don’t simply ignore it and let it fester. That’s what Heroin Bob did in SLC Punk, and you saw how much it fucked him up.
The following two steps apply only if you’ve decided to forge on and try again.
STEP 5: Remove the reasons for your failure.
In step 1, you listed the reasons for your failure. In this step, you get to mitigate, remove, lessen, and overcome those reasons.
Failed because you were out of shape? Get in shape.
Failed because you ran out of money? Get more money.
Failed because you went right when you should have gone left? Remember to go left.
In my case, I’d failed because I was using a heavy, upright hybrid bike with wide tires, and because it was an extremely windy day. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I don’t think my physical capability was a damning factor.
Solution? Somehow, I need to get my hands on a proper road bike. Oh, and I want to be sure that I don’t reschedule my event during a hurricane.
STEP 6: Just do it.
Try again. Try version 2.0.
If you fail again, run through the steps again. Maybe you’ll want to try a third time, or maybe it simply isn’t worth it.
Each time, it’s up to you.
And me? I’m going to do my half Ironman again. Soon. I still don’t totally understand why this matters to me, but it does, and the cost at this point is low. Really, my only cost is the time it takes to try one more time, and in light of that, I’m not ready to stand up yet, after all this effort, and decide consciously to quit.
If I fail the next time, using a road bike on a less windy day, I’ll have to go through this process again and — without a bike or the wind to blame for my failure — will only be able to conclude that I’ve failed because it’s simply beyond me.
I hope that won’t happen. I don’t believe it will.
Wish me luck.
I wrote the above on Tuesday.
Wednesday night, I drove out to a bike shop an hour away and rented a road bike for $50.
Thursday, four days after my big failure, I tried again. I made my own half Ironman — an unofficial combination of 42 1/4 laps in a 25-yard pool, a 56-mile bike loop, and a 13.1 mile run loop — and I had another go at it.
It’s now Friday night, and I’ve just made final edits to the above and written this little P.S.
This time it didn’t beat me. And I feel much better.