Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Successful Failure Pt. 5 - Setting a Standard

That's me on the podium, second from the left
I ran the Adirondack Marathon Relay recently.  I was the second leg of a two man relay team.  In a post about failure, I suppose it is unbecoming to mention that we placed second in the relay.  My legs recovered after a couple of days, but my ego is still a bit swollen.

But this post isn’t about my race.  In addition to the marathon and marathon relay, there was also a half marathon, which started at the relay exchange, about half way around Schroon Lake.  The half marathon began an hour after the marathon and I knew my partner would take a little over an hour and a half to reach the exchange.  So I was able to watch the start of the half marathon before warming up.

In the throng at the start line, I noticed an older man.  In many ways he looked like all the other runners - dressed in exercise pants with race bib pinned to the front of his tech shirt.  But while other runners fiddled with their ipods at the start, he gripped his walker.  The gun went off and the sound of pounding feet was joined by the scrape of a shuffling walker.  The old man’s hunched frame bore weight down on the metal bars as he crept across the start and onto the course.  He settled into last place.

For half an hour I bottled up my adrenalin as I awaited my relay partner.  He arrived, the exchange was made, and I was off, chasing down the pack of half marathoners who had a nearly thirty five minute head start.  I knew I would catch some of them over the ensuing 13 miles, but figured it would take a few miles to close the gap.  About a mile in, I reached the trailing half marathoner much sooner than I expected.  It was the shuffling old man.  There were many others I passed subsequently, nondescript and easily forgotten.  Not the man with the walker.  He stood out from the rest.

As I arrived in town there were crowds cheering, a drum band playing, a digital time clock  ticking, and an announcer naming incoming runners.  Medals were hung around the necks of finishers as they walked the shoot.  Warming blankets were available. The massage tent was crowded.  The refreshment tent was abounding.  The runners were giddy. And the old man, I suspect, was slowly trudging along somewhere near mile three. 

It had taken him nearly 45 minutes to walk the first mile.  Multiply that out over 13 miles and you realize that it would take him almost ten hours to reach the finish line.  Having started at 10 in the morning, he would reach the terminus at 8 in the evening, long after the race was over.  According to the information packet I had received, the course was officially open until 3:00 pm.  After that, closed street would reopen, officers controlling traffic would head home, and the finish line reverie would wind down.  Hours later, in dim light he would enter the village of Schroon Lake and shuffle down empty streets to the vacant park that had served as the post-race party site earlier in the day. 

I don’t know if he finished.  He gets no mention in the official race results.  All the timing mats were long gone by the time he would have finished.  I like to think he did.  A man with enough resolve to enter a half marathon though dependant on a walker seems like someone who would finish no matter how long it took.  Supposing he did, he most certainly was in last place.

Last place sounds like failure.  But who, watching this man hobble his way through thirteen miles, would ever call his race a letdown?  His finish may have been the most inspirational of all the participants, even if few were there to witness it.  He didn’t run to win.  He ran to finish.  And for him to finish was a greater display of courage and commitment than the hundreds who finished before him.   Completing a half marathon is an accomplishment that even fully mobile people find difficult.  When is the last time you traveled thirteen miles by foot?  You could argue that the failure of last place was a greater success then my second place finish. 

So this, my last post on failure.  We have considered how failure can be our ally (Part 1).  It allows us to develop persistence (Part 2), make progress (Part 3), and establish credibility (Part 4).  I close with this thought – success and failure are contingent on a standard.  To succeed is to reach or surpass that standard.  To fail is to fall short of that mark.  Sometimes, the issue isn’t with the execution, it’s with the aspiration.  We aim for the wrong things.  We embrace the wrong standard.  It may be that we expect too much of ourselves…or too little.  Or maybe I have accepted someone else’s standard for me, allowing them to define the measurement of my success.

To have finished a half marathon in 10 hours would have been a horrible failure for me, but for this old man, it would be a raging success.  Like the woman who puts two small copper coins into the temple treasury who Jesus says gave more than all the rest.  Others gave out of their wealth, she gave out of her poverty and put in all she had to live on (Luke 21:1-4).  Sometimes success for one person would be failure for another. 

As a writer who believes in absolute truth, I bristle at the subjectivity of those last two paragraphs.  They feel too wily nilly; untethered to anything absolute.  It comes with a caveat.  In the realm of morality, there is an absolute standard that has been set, a standard that is encapsulated in the biblical theme of holiness.  That would be a whole other post. 

But here, as I think about success and failure, I have in mind the many instances when the standard is not set out as a black and white moral absolute.  These are goals, aspirations that we strive for.  To finish a half marathon in under two hours or in under ten hours, either one may be appropriate.  Goals must be personally relevant, set high enough to make you stretch and low enough to be attainable.  That will be different for me and you.  Failure may be an opportunity to reevaluate the goal to determine if you are aiming at the right thing. 

I race again in a week and a half at the Empire State Half Marathon.  I’m shooting for 1:32 , which is a respectable pace by any standard.  But it’s attainable, for me at least.  I don’t race with a walker.   

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