All of my successes of the last twenty-plus years, with few exceptions, have come from an ever-present cycle of failure. The exceptions include meeting and marrying my wife, Sarah, and our decision to have kids. My successes, from my days as an athlete, through my many different jobs, and especially the triumphs of my burgeoning writing career, have all been honed on a path littered with failures of my own creation.
You might stop here and say, “Hey, Glen, why are you so hard on yourself?”
The truth is, I wouldn’t have found most of my successes without first floundering in failure.
I was a competitive runner for my nine years of high school and college. You might stop here and do the simple math and decide I made an error in the calculation of my years as a runner. Yeah, I’m a stubborn s.o.b., and that’s the point of this blog entry. I spent 5 years as an undergrad because I was too stubborn to listen to both the wisdom of my legendary coach and my own body. I have a tendency to push beyond my limits, both physical and mental, and this tendency limited my time on the track during college, but lengthened my overall stay as an undergrad. I was injured for most of 3 of my 5 years.
I wouldn’t have even become a runner if I didn’t fail at baseball.
Entering high school I stood 5’3″ and weighed about 100 lbs. I was certainly not football player material, but I was a good baseball player. The coaches didn’t agree, probably realizing I would never develop into the physical specimen needed for the varsity squad. I was cut during tryouts before I even swung a bat.
Enter Don Helberg, my science teacher. I don’t know if it was because I was moping in the back of his class after being cut from the baseball team, or if he approached every scrawny kid, thinking he might have some potential as a runner inside him, but Mr. Helberg asked me to join the track team. I don’t know why I said yes. I didn’t want to. I had little interest in running, running, and running some more. But I did agree, and the following day I showed up at practice, not knowing that my life was about to change.
The coaches figured I would opt in to running the sprints. It’s easier to break in as a sprinter. The practices and races are shorter, and new runners are less likely to drift away.
For some reason I asked if I could run distance. I was assigned, with some skepticism, to the distance coach. That first day Coach Martin told me to run two miles around the track as he worked with the seasoned runners who were practicing on the inside lanes.
Two miles. I’d never run more than one, and that one mile I achieved through a process of sputtering and coughing around the track of my junior high for gym class. But I was game. And I gave it an honest effort. I made it a mile and a half before I had to stop and walk. It was the longest I’d ever run, but it ended in failure.
Strangely, I was hooked.
I was told by both my coaches and older runners that you could beat just about anyone in a distance race if you worked harder than your opponent. I took this to heart. This became my religion. Working hard. Pushing myself as far and as fast as I thought I could go, and then pushing some more. Five months later, I ran a training run with an alum from my high school. We ran fourteen miles that day. I was in the beginning of a streak of running at least once a day that would stretch over 920 days.
The streak ended in failure in the middle of my senior year. I had just run an early season race that, to that point, was one of the fastest times in the state for the indoor 2 mile. But as I recovered from the race, I had a cough that wouldn’t go away, my breathing had become shallow and gravelly. I had pneumonia.
I lost my streak, but recovered enough that during the outdoor track season, I moved down to the half mile and earned All-State honors in the 2 mile relay.
I graduated from high school determined to race throughout college, but uncertain what I would study. I chose to attend North Central College (Coach Helberg’s alma mater). NCC was, and still is, a running dynasty that began in the early 1960’s when Al Carius took over as coach.
I didn’t realize until recently that I was a horrible teammate. I worked hard, I pushed others to be better, but I was a bad teammate. I was all-state in high school, earned all-conference honors a few times in track during college, but I wasn’t the teammate I could have been.
You see, in any of my pursuits, I tend to be a prick. It’s in my nature, to the core of me.
During my high school running streak, I followed the mantra that if you trained harder than someone, you would most likely beat them. I covered my bases by running every day. During my sophomore year, I added a morning workout. I invited any teammate to come along, but few did. The ones that did show up often drifted away. I pushed myself hard on most days, visualizing teammates that I wanted to one day beat. Once I got stronger and I could beat my teammates, I started imagining chasing down rivals at the conference, county, and eventually, state levels.
I didn’t always win; just the opposite was more oftentimes true. I would often break under the pressure applied by a better competitor, someone with either more training miles under his belt, or possessing more talent. But season after season, with my streak lengthening and my body getting stronger, those more talented runners who would in earlier races break me, would crumble as I turned the screws by turning up the pace.
I figured that college would follow a pattern similar to high school. I would start as the low man on the totem pole. But I would have time, and I would move up as I put in the miles and got stronger. The thing was, my stubbornness was an asset in high school, my “prickness.” All I had to do was deal with the strain and pain until my opponent broke. But at NCC, everyone had that mentality. I kept pressing, kept pushing myself well past my limits. Being a prick no longer worked. There was always someone willing to break me, always someone putting in more miles.
I never learned to listen to what my body was telling me, that I was going too far too fast too often. I’d broken before. That failure is what made me who I was, but now, when I broke, I broke physically. Not listening to myself or my coach, I pushed myself until I tore, not once but twice, a sensitive band of muscle underneath my right hip flexor.
I graduated nearly fifteen years ago, and on damp mornings, my hip aches, reminding me that failure is not a viable long-term option when what you truly seek is success. Pushing myself has never been a problem. Understanding my limits is what has gotten me into trouble.
And it goes beyond running. If you’re reading this, you’re more likely a writer than a runner. I happen to be both, and I have friends in both spheres. For you writers, I will next write about my process of becoming a writer, and how failure has brought me success in a limited fashion. My running and writing pursuits have followed similar patterns, but I can finally (FINALLY!) see them. By exploring this topic, I hope to be able to recognize when I’m on the wrong path, the path that leads to limited success, but ultimate failure.