Why Failure is the Key to Finishing

On May 5th, 2012 almost 1500 athletes and I filed into the calm chilly waters of Sand Hollow Reservoir in St George, Utah ready to embark on the first leg of Ironman St George. The water looked like glass, the sun was just peeking over the mountains, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. 

The Ironman event is a triathlon race consisting of three events. A 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile run. I had completed the same race in 2011 just a year earlier. At that race, I didn’t do well and I blamed it largely on my biking as it’s a very challenging, hilly course. But this year would be different. I was ready to have the best bike of my triathlon career. I only needed to get through the swim first. 

The Swim

The gun went off and we were on our way.

Only minutes into the swim everything changed. Every time I came up for air I seemed to be sucking in more water than air. It wasn’t long before I realized I was swimming in 4-foot swells. The wind had kicked up almost immediately after the gun went off but by then it was too late. New to triathlon and having learned to swim from a DVD, I had not experienced anything like this. I was confident I would drown.

As I paused to regroup and seek out the nearest kayaker (a safety measure for races like this), it looked and sounded like something out of a horror movie. The course which was once marked by giant markers was almost invisible behind the looming waves. People were screaming wondering where to go, hanging onto whatever they could. Kayakers struggled to keep their own kayaks afloat as athletes latched on for dear life. I thought “there is no way they’re noticing a single swim cap slip below the surface.” I swam straight for a kayak. I was sure a boat would be coming to pick us up… they weren’t going to let us die out here, right?

Still, others kept swimming.

After holding onto the kayak for a while my reasoning started to kick in “how will they get 1500 people into boats?” I gathered all the courage I could and started to swim from one buoy to the next making my way to the finish. In these races, there are cutoff times for each discipline and 2:20:00 was the swim cutoff. After nearly 2 1/2 hours and only a 1/2 mile from the swim finish, a boat approached and my race was over. I had missed the cutoff. 

We’re all Running the Same Race

In that race, a record-breaking 29% did not finish, yet, 71% did. What was the difference? We all had the same distance to go, we had started at the same time, and we were experiencing the same racing conditions. We were all running the same race.

It’s not much different in life. Largely, we’re all running the same race. some of us have been at it for a longer time, others have nicer bikes, better coaches, but we all started in the same way and I’m confident our finish line looks pretty similar.

Here’s what I think happened to me in St George and how it can apply to you in your life. 

  1. Balance – Perhaps the primary mistake I made was allowing my bad bike from the previous year consume my training focus. I knew I hadn’t spent adequate time in the water to prepare so I wasn’t confident when the conditions shifted out of my favor. Likewise, poor balance in key areas of our life is a threat. If our focus is heavily placed on one area (e.g. careers, health, education, family) at the expense of another, we won’t be ready when conditions change. Trying to save a marriage, salvage a career or get your health back on track is extra difficult when the waves are already crashing over you. 

  2. Stay on Course – When things started going sideways, I panicked. In my attempt to survive, I swam away from the course to the nearest kayak I thought would bring safety. Surviving is what happens when we’re unprepared vs when we’re prepared and focused on a clear goal. The fact that I swam away from the course to survive is a considerable factor in my failure. Don’t run away from your challenges because it’s very likely you’ll be running, or swimming, the opposite direction of your goal.  

  3. Ownership – Sometimes failing in a crowd doesn’t sting as bad. I could justify being part of the more than 25% who didn’t finish this race. Not my fault, the waves WERE crazy.  But an attitude of responsibility is essential to growth. Blaming failure on the conditions of the day diminishes the ability to take credit for performance on another.  Conditions as a cause of failure is easy. Taking responsibility for failure allows tangible  opportunities for improvement. We’ll no longer wish for favorable conditions, we will work for complete preparation.

Like much of what I write, this isn’t about me, or a race. It’s not about exercise or winning a medal, or any singular accomplishment really. It’s about understanding the potential and power to see challenges as opportunities, to learn from them, and to become stronger than before. Most of all, my hope is that you’ll see how powerful you are and recognize how growth positions you to help others grow too. The effort is worth it.

Balance your life. Stay the course. Own it. Grow.

Greer Method Complete Coaching provides one on one coaching for executives and business owners. Through expert coaches, habit locking technology, and proven processes we help leaders create, manage, and sustain personal and professional performance.

Jared J. Greer is the founder of Greer Method Complete Coaching. He is an executive coach, 6-time Ironman finisher, marathoner, ultra-marathoner, husband, and father of four.

#challenges #performance #perserverance