Athletes plan for success. After all, why wouldn’t we? Success is what we’re striving for. It’s what pushes us to get out there every day, to train just a little bit harder. Success is what we plan to achieve when the big race comes. But, unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. And while we never really plan for “failure,” it is important that we are at least prepared to handle it.
It’s important to know how to handle failure because — if aiming high enough — every athlete will fall short of his or her goals at some point. Sometimes it’s due to less-than-ideal preparation. Other times, our bodies just don’t perform on the right day. And other times, our failures result from things we can’t control.
That was the case for me this past Sunday, when I failed to meet my goals at the Boulder Peak Triathlon in Boulder, Colo. My preparation for the race was spot-on. I’d put in hard work for months leading in, and then allowed myself to taper so my body felt rested and totally ready. I was psyched to have the great race I’d been planning for.
Come race day, I got off to a great start with my best swim so far this season, and was feeling fast and efficient on the bike. I was envisioning a stellar performance that would exceed even my own expectations. But at mile 4, those thoughts were quickly overturned when I got a flat rear tire.
Looking down at the airless tube under my rim felt like seeing my dreams deflate. I thought, “This can’t be happening. Not here. Not now.” But sure enough, it was … at one my biggest races of the year. So I did the only thing I could in that moment, and pulled over to try to remedy the situation. I remained shockingly calm as I worked to change the tube out (which is not something I am skilled at doing quickly), watching as rider after rider flew by me, my heart sinking a bit more each time.
I stayed focused on my task, and doing what I needed to finish the race. Unfortunately, there were some complications with the change, and I was only able to get the new tube partially full of air (got it filled to 40 PSI, instead of the usual 110). I briefly thought about whether it made more sense to turn around, but I was determined to finish if there was even the slightest possibility. After all, I’d come all this way to race.
So, I rode the remaining 20-plus miles with my rear tire less than half-full, praying it would not go flat again. I rode as hard as I could, determined to make up at least some of the time lost in the eight minutes I spent on the side of the road. Luckily, I made it through the bike (way off my expected pace) and onto the run, where I turned in one of my strongest performances yet, fueled by a mix of frustration and determination to at least realize what I could have done.
The day was bitterly disappointing to say the least. But somehow I found myself totally OK with it all. In a strange way, I was even glad I’d had the experience I did. I guess with all the ups and downs I’ve faced over the years as an athlete, I now understand that the disappointments, failures and even the circumstances beyond our control are all just another part of
racing that we have to accept and even value.
Yes, it’s frustrating to know you fell short of your potential, to feel like you were held back from what could have been. But in the end all we can really do is do the best we can in the situation, with what we can control, and most importantly, take what we can from our experiences and move on.
Disappointment is never easy, but it’s a vital and valuable part of evolving as an athlete. Ultimately, the only true failure is not recognizing that value, and not learning from our setbacks. So face your disappointments head on. Find the source, determine what you did well in spite of your situation, and what you can do differently next time. Find the value in your experiences — both good and bad — and take it all with you as you move forward: the lessons, the frustrations, the disappointment and the excitement of what lies ahead when you do have the perfect day.
The setbacks will only make the reward that much sweeter when it’s attained. At least that’s what I keep telling myself, as I push on.
— Truckee's Kara LaPoint is an elite amateur triathlete competing for LUNA bar, and working up to the pro ranks. She has earned numerous overall amateur podium finishes and age-group wins across distances from Olympic to Ironman, and finished the 2011 season ranked as an All-American nationally among her age group (25-29). During the winter, LaPoint is a top local Nordic ski racer and coach. Read more about her racing and training at www.karalapoint.wordpress.com. She may be reached at email@example.com