Monday’s Boston Marathon marks the 122nd iteration of the world’s oldest annual 26.2-mile footrace. Over 32,000 athletes will compete in this year’s edition, each one having qualified by finishing another race in a specified time based upon gender and age.
As a kid, marathons and marathoners struck me as a mixture of mystery and madness. Why would you do that to yourself? Chronically chubby, running was a chore, a necessary evil foisted upon me by a coach or gym teacher. If I wasn’t the slowest, I was close to it.
But by the time I reached high school, I decided to try and lose weight, and running was an efficient way to do so. Those first few weeks were difficult, but the exercise grew easier with each workout. To break up the monotony, I registered for a few local races. A plodder, my half-marathon times were slower than many who ran full ones, but it was fun and challenging nevertheless.
Training for my first full marathon, I struggled. Some long runs became more like long walks. But I persisted. In 1992, I finished the Marine Corps Marathon. I was hooked.
In the echelon of long-distance running, the Boston Marathon is peerless, a storied tradition dating back to 1897. The Commonwealth’s Patriot’s Day race is to running what The Masters is to golf. And like this weekend’s tournament at Augusta National, you can’t just sign-up to run – you need to earn your way in.
My first attempt to qualify was a bust, as was the second, third and fourth. Adjustments were made. The training was intensified. Again, I kept coming up short. Most races started well, but I always hit “the wall” – the proverbial place in a marathon when the spirit may be willing but the legs grow weak.
Months of futility turned to years. In order to qualify for Boston, I needed to run a marathon in three hours and ten minutes or less. A dozen tries later, I was still coming up short, sometimes by as much as 30 minutes. When I checked into a hotel on race weekend in Steamboat Springs, I was convinced my room number – 310 – was a sign of good things to come. It was a beautiful day, but insofar as qualifying for Boston, there was nothing good about my time.
When it became possible to track a runner’s progress via a chip on their shoe, my friends began following the races. I was actually a little embarrassed each time I failed, especially knowing they were tracking me in real time.
If the author Robin Sharma was right, that “Failure is greatness waiting to happen,” I was on the verge of something big. Yet, several more marathons followed and qualification remained elusive.
And then, just like that, it happened. Running the Salt Lake City Marathon in July of 1998, I finished in three hours and eight minutes. It was my 24th attempt. As a result, I finally made it to Boston in April of 1999, and again the following year. I didn’t actually place first in either race, of course, but I had already won by simply earning the right to be there.
Athletic competition is a great metaphor for life, a reminder that it’s OK to fail, to reach for something just beyond our grasp. In fact, if you’re not failing from time to time, you might ask yourself if you’re trying hard enough. Don’t be afraid to swing and miss. The heroic life involves reaching and risking. And failing.
I’m convinced that most of us are like R.U. Harby, the miner from Maryland who, after some initial success, grew frustrated when his Colorado mine stopped producing gold. He sold his equipment and claim to a junkman for only a few hundred dollars. The new owner hired an engineer, who discovered Harby had stopped drilling three feet from millions of dollars’ worth of gold.
As a writer and runner, I like that story. It’s convicting because disappointment and failure are seemingly everywhere. Although I’ve written several books, none of them have made it onto the New York Times best-seller list.
In fact, one of them has only sold a few thousand copies, which is nothing to sneeze at, but still far short of mine and my publisher’s expectations. And if I’m honest, I’m a little chagrined when friends ask me how the book is doing and I have to tell them it’s underperforming.
But in my heart of hearts, I know I shouldn’t be ashamed. After all, I’m trying. I’m chasing the dream of any writer, or anyone who aspires to achieve a particular goal. Although I know I could always do better, I’m doing my best.
April 23 marks the 109th anniversary of President Theodore Roosevelt’s legendary “Man in the Arena” speech, a message he delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. Now the most quoted of all his messages, Roosevelt’s admonition remains timeless instruction for anyone with a dream:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Most of us won’t be running in Boston Monday, but all of us are running the race of life. All of us have dreams, those goals and aspirations that stir our hearts. Big or small, see them for what they are – hopes and ideas that God may place in our minds for purposes we can’t always see. So, go ahead and take a step. Then another.
It sounds trite but it’s true: failure is often a steppingstone to future success. Seize the challenge and manage it like running a marathon – one mile at a time.