Last week I came across John Kelly’s blog Random Forest Runner. John Kelly was this year’s only official finisher of the Barkley Marathons and the 15th person ever to finish the race. He was asked to speak at his high school’s commencement and he chose to talk about the idea of “failing with purpose”. You should read the post I linked above because it’s fantastic, but in short he talked about setting reach goals that are aggressive and that give you a high likelihood of – but don’t guarantee – failure. He asserts, and I whole-heartedly agree:
“The failures where you reached just a bit too far, though, the ones where you set a stretch goal and came up short, those are the ones I want to talk about. Those are the ones that help you discover what you’re capable of, push your limits, and ultimately lead you to successes you may have never thought possible…
I had plenty of failures along the way, though, and I consider those an irreplaceable part of my success. These failures occurred from me trying to push myself too far, from choosing to put myself in situations where failure was not just possible, but highly likely. laz likes to say that you can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure. Well, I’d like to take that one step further and say that oftentimes accomplishing something great has failure along the shortest route.” – John Kelly
In the cognitive science literature, this idea is referred to as “desirable difficulty“. People make the biggest gains in learning and performance when they are doing something difficult that is just at the edge of their understanding and competence. Often this means a lot of the learning comes from failures along the way.
It’s easy to get out of practice of putting yourself out there with the possibility of failure – whether it be in running or other aspects of life. It takes so much emotional and mental energy to want something badly and to be willing to stare down failure. But, I think this is what makes things exciting. Getting a chance to ask and answer the question “What are my limits?” As someone who has never DNFed a race the possibility of failure when facing the 100 mile distance is what draws me to it.
I fully intend to finish this race and I know I’ve prepared myself to have a good shot of succeeding, but it’s 100 miles… I saw on a blog somewhere that one 100mile racer considers the term DNF to stand for “Damn Near Fatal” and that’s the mentality I’m going into this thing with.
I have a pace chart that is calculated to put me with a finishing time between 21:58:00 and 22:28:00. This is aggressive. A goal like this for a first 100 is potentially a failure waiting to happen. But these are the stretch goals John Kelly is talking about in his speech. I don’t want to finish with anything left. I want to know what I can do – that’s why I’m out there. If it’s not meant to be I know I’ll be failing with a purpose, and maybe it’ll be a step toward something really great.
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are oldmay my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile
— e.e. cummings
Mileage: 22.4 running; 17.5 walking
Time on feet: 9hr 19min