You know, I got to thinking the other day. (Not always a good thing mind you.) Everyone loves success: athletes, coaches, parents, athletic directors, schools, fans. Everyone loves to win or be a winner. Which brings me to my point. If we define ourselves by our victories alone; conversely if we define ourselves by the times we’ve failed to accomplish what we intended; if we only measure ourselves by “successes” and “failures” then we are certain to completely fail.
First, someone sold most of us a bill of goods that include these themes: “there is only room at the top for one”; “winning is the only thing”; “second place is the first loser”; “all those runners in front of me are more talented”; “I have to accomplish every goal I set”; AND “if we don’t achieve everything we set out to do – we’re a failure.” I’m as competitive as anyone… just ask teammates, family and friends. I want to do well. I want to “win”. How many people WANT or actually go into some endeavor intending to lose?
My dad has this phrase he always says anytime something was difficult or a disappointment – “it builds character” (even @ 86 years young he tells me this). It’s an interesting statement. I use it all the time. Must be a family gene. I don’t know that I fully appreciated or acknowledged that comments value. Of course character can be built through winning too. But the intent of course is to see value in the suffering, the setbacks and most importantly grow from the process. Indeed, if we use traditional measures, there is only room at the top for one. However, that does not mean everyone who follows is a failure. I gain many insights and lessons in my difficult times – that does not mean I enjoy them anymore than anyone else! But, I see value in them. I realize that life is not a success only venture.
I’ve finished about 24 marathons (modest by many standards) and I have DNF’d (Did Not Finish) three times. I learned that sometimes, it’s ok just to pack it in. It’s not your day. And, contrary to some belief systems – it is ok to stop – and come back to fight another day. I was building character.
I once dropped out of two races in one afternoon. I stopped after 2600 meters of the 3000 meter steeplechase after they miscounted the laps… then continued the race. I came back a couple hours later to run the 5000 and dropped out with 3 laps to go. I learned that sometimes you have a bad day and the season still goes on. I learned that with the support of my coach, I didn’t fail… and realized that it was just my mindset that failed me in the 5000. I was still beating myself up about the steeple. I learned you have to get over it and move on. Life (and races) aren’t waiting for you to “feel good” about racing. I built character.
I took almost nine months off after Achilles tendon surgery. I learned there are many things I can occupy my time with. In fact, I even wondered how I fit running in after awhile! I also learned how much I miss my running – fast or slow – running does magical things for me. But, I knew, I would always be coming back. It was never “if.” That was a long character building episode.
These of course only scratch the surface of some of my character building episodes. I realize that they make me who I am. They enrich my life and I’m able to relate these experiences to others as well as relate better to those who experience similar experiences. Heck, as time goes on, they become badges of honor! My brother Jim and I have found another hidden bonus to character building. Anytime my brother and I get together you can be sure – every time we recount our travails – it is always hotter, longer, tougher, hillier, windier, colder, and more painful; we have more body parts hurting than we thought existed; and more people passing us than actually even entered the race. Character building is the fodder for apocryphal story telling.
So, set your goals. Work hard and enjoy the process. I won’t tell you to enjoy the pitfalls of being an athlete. Injuries, missed PRs, DNFs, missed Boston Qualifiers, missed age group wins are disappointing. I hope in the process, you find that you have developed more character. It’ll make my dad proud.
Before comments start – I’ve been told many times that I’m a character and do not need more. I only wish I didn’t continue to have character building opportunities… but, such is life. Upward and onward!