Finding success in failure

For the past 10 weeks, I’ve had one goal in mind – to set a personal best time in a half marathon. I’ve raced the distance in triathlon events a couple times before, but this would be the first without swimming or biking. I think it goes without saying that the goal of running faster in a pure running event should be fairly attainable, by at least 15 to 20 minutes. After some discussions with my coach, we settled on the goal of 1 hour 45 minutes. At the time, and to be completely honest, right up until the week before the race, it felt daunting. To run a 1:45 would mean I would be running at a pace that earlier this year was on par with my 5K pace. But, I trusted my coach, which in turn made me believe this was possible.
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On the Friday morning before race day I was getting ready to hit the road when I started to feel a bit “off.” At the time I brushed it off as nerves, and for the next 12 hours that was all it seemed to be, until about midway through Saturday when it hit me like a ton of bricks. My stomach was in knots and nothing I ate stayed in for very long. I was curled up in a ball under the bed sheets, and that’s when the tears started. I was disappointed and frustrated for all those hours of hard work just to get to race day in less than optimal form. By around 6:00 that night, I found the energy to join friends for a pasta dinner, but by later that evening my stomach was doing somersaults.

On race morning, I felt like I had lost five pounds and my fuel tank was on zero. At that point, I could have opted out, or simply half jogged, half walked the race, but I have this relentless stubbornness, and going in half way wasn’t an option, even if my body disagreed. That mind versus body battle is an interesting one. I’ve had it a million times and each time I can never predict which one will be victorious.

At the risk of sharing too much information, I popped almost half a pack of Immodium and headed towards the start line. Within the first kilometre, I felt depleted and lethargic, but still believed there was a chance. By 5k, I was still optimistic and was only about one minute off my goal pace. By about 9 kilometres, I knew I was struggling because I started to look at my watch more than usual, and I could feel a wobble in my legs. At 35 minutes, as planned, I took my first gel, and realized my initial nutrition plan on a day like today would not be enough. My stomach felt like it was eating itself.

It was by about the 13 kilometre marker when I knew that I wasn’t going to hit my goal; now it was about finishing. As I rounded a downhill corner, I looked up to see a familiar face in the crowd, Keri. She was cheering loudly and I tried so hard to give her a smile, but feared that it came off more like a grimace. On a good day, my smile comes naturally, yet not so much on this day. About 500 metres up the road, I slowed to a brief walk, allowing my body a slight rest to see if it would help – not really – so instead I yelled at myself to get going; one foot in front of the other.screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-5-35-20-pm
When I finally saw the finish chute, I gave it everything I had. The faster I ran, the faster it would be over. I did not have the energy to celebrate; I could hardly stand. I barreled my way through the crowds of other runners, found a tree, and sat under it on the cold, wet ground. I was done. My mind and body could finally agree on one thing, it was time to rest.

My race time was disappointing – I did not hit my goal. I got a PB, but not the one I wanted, and it’s a difficult thing to find success in failure. It’s difficult to look at what went right instead of finding everything that went wrong. I have a bad habit of dwelling. I’m constantly having to remind myself that bad races happen. Sometimes we make tactical errors and fail in our execution, and sometimes our failure is simply out of our control. Not every day is perfect, and neither is my body; it goes through ups and downs. I recognize that dwelling on “down” moments does not do me any favours, and that it’s best to leave those moments behind and move on.

Tiger Woods once said, “Winning is not always the barometer of getting better.” I may have missed my goal on this day, but that does not define my accomplishments. That permanently etched time on the Internet does not always represent the work, the other successes, or me. This is something I am constantly working on – realizing what did go right and celebrating that. And, realizing there will be plenty more races and plenty more opportunities for failure and success. In the end though, it’s all a part of the learning experience and becoming a stronger and faster competitor.

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Robbie King

It’s been awhile since I last sat down to write, and while I contemplate how to tell my Ironman story, I’ve had some fun writing a different story that highlights my training partner’s journey to the Boston Marathon.

I still remember when I first met Robbie – it was his legs that caught my attention. He didn’t have those skinny endurance running legs, they were more bull-like and perhaps better suited for out-running opponents in a sport like rugby – his sport of choice in university. Either way, he was fit and fast, and his effortless-looking stride was enviable.

For Robbie, running was never something he took very seriously. He ran for exercise and the fresh air. It wasn’t until a friendly, competitive run with his uncle and his first 10K race that his running goals quickly evolved.

On a visit home from university, after Robbie had polished off a milkshake, burger, and onion rings, his uncle asked him to go for a run – something they had been doing together for years.

“You would never ever say that we were racing, but every time we ran, we were always racing,” he admits. “And, I was always able to beat him.”

After Robbie gave his stomach an hour to digest the food, the pair tied on their running shoes and went out the door. Perhaps, it was the belly full of food, perhaps it was something more, but Robbie’s uncle was the faster runner that day.

It wasn’t until many years later that Robbie would have the chance to redeem himself when his uncle suggested they sign up for a 10K road race on Vancouver Island. It was all the fuel he needed.

“Now I’ve got to beat my uncle,” he smiles.

Robbie set a plan in motion and hired his coach, Maurice. Over the next couple months, his uncle would check in to see how things were going, but Robbie wouldn’t let on that he was doing any sort of training.

“I was so diligent on my diet; I was diligent on everything.” he laughs.

When Robbie finally admitted he had been training and was going for a personal best time, his uncle was “blown away.” Robbie had won the race before it even began.

On race day, Robbie not only beat his uncle, but he crossed the finish line in 41 minutes 39 seconds, which was one second faster than his goal, and more than three minutes faster than his previous personal best.

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“It was then I realized how much I loved running,” he admits. “For me, running was never a racing thing.”

Robbie’s progression in running continued to take shape under the guidance of coaches and mentors as he worked diligently on his pacing, cadence, and form. His success would come from relentless dedication and commitment, and a little bit of help from those powerful bull-like legs that carried him from rugby runner to road runner. His story speaks of triumph, success, disappointment and redemption.

In the year after his 10K race, Robbie looked to his next challenge in the half-marathon, and eventually set his sights on the next big thing. He called up his coach, and said, “I’m thinking about doing a marathon.”  Almost immediately, Maurice asked if he was going for a BQ. Chasing a qualifying spot for the highly-sought after Boston Marathon wasn’t something Robbie had even considered.

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“Way deep down there somewhere far away, I was thinking that’d be good, but not a reality. He believed that I could, I didn’t,” Robbie admits.

Either way, he went for it.

In the following months, Robbie did what he had always done in training and remained diligent and committed. On July 27th, at a qualifying race in his hometown of Kamloops, B.C., Robbie set to the start line of his first marathon and crossed the finish in a time of 3:11:54 – 3 minutes 6 seconds under the Boston qualifying time for his age group.

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“I was super stoked and excited; the fact that I finished the thing and had a qualifying time,” he says.

Despite his time, Robbie still didn’t know if he was going to Boston. It would all depend on his competitor’s times at other qualifying races. Each year there are a limited number of spots per age group and if those spots fill up with times faster than Robbie’s, he would be out of luck. All he could do was wait.

“It’s like anything when you’re waiting for something, you’re kind of holding your breath,” he recalls.

Almost two months after his qualifying race, Robbie received the news he had been patiently waiting for – he got in.

“It’s just like a college acceptance letter; you’re so excited; you’re relieved. You’re in this head space where you can breathe and you know it’s reality. You’re excited, but you don’t go ‘wahoo!’ It’s relief,” he says.

The final cut-off time was 3:12:30. Robbie had slipped in by 36 seconds.

“The best thing about that time is I went out and I studied that course. You want to run the tangents; you want to take the straightest possible route. I ran that race perfect to the tangents, and had I not, I could have run longer and missed the cut-off time,” he admits.

Once Robbie had officially registered and reserved his spot in Boston, he had almost seven months until race day. There was time for a short break, but determined to improve his time, Robbie quickly got back to training on his own. In the month of December, he set out on a run challenge after being motivated by his friend, Wayne, who ran 400 kilometres in December the previous year.

“I just ran every moment I had the opportunity. If I could run at night, I would run at night and it was always dark and cold. I ran every lunch at 45 minutes,” he recalls. “And then sometimes I would run at 5:00 a.m. and go for an hour and come home. So I was just putting in as any miles as I possibly could.”

In that same month, Wayne was also back to putting in the miles, and the two of them would watch each other’s stats as they posted to Strava, each of them racking up the hours and the miles.

“I didn’t want to be in a challenge with Wayne; that’s a whole other league so I was like, this not a challenge I want to take on. But deep down I kind of wanted to,” he says.

Towards the end of the month, Robbie logged a 32 kilometre run and that was enough to put him over the edge.

“I got an email from Wayne saying his legs were done; you win,” he laughs.

That December, Robbie logged more than 400 kilometres, which equated to about 100 kilometres per week.

“I didn’t miss a day,” he says.

By January, Robbie had a solid fitness base and was back into a scheduled training program with his coach. Together they laid out the plan for race day and set a goal time of 3 hours 8 minutes. As race day drew closer and Robbie excelled in his workouts, Maurice decided he could push for 3:05 if there was a tailwind and 3:12 if there was a headwind.

Watching Robbie at the track in the days leading up to Boston, you could see a guy who was fit and ready. He looked strong, he looked fast, and he looked relaxed. As Robbie put it, his training was going “super awesome.”

On April 20th, 2015, Robbie lined up with thousands of others on the infamous Main Street for his first Boston Marathon experience. He was proudly sporting a Canadian singlet and ready to put all of those long training days to the test.

Robbie ran the first 10 kilometres of the race in perfect pacing hitting 45 minutes bang on. He admits though that his legs felt heavy.

“I wasn’t exhausted or tired but I just didn’t feel how I should have felt and it was downhill and I love downhill,” he says.

As per the plan, he was supposed to pick up his pacing, but soon realized he would not be able to sustain it, so he settled back a bit and hoped maybe he would have a kick at the end.

He crossed the half-way point at 1 hour 36 minutes, which was about one minute off of where he should have been. Robbie says he knew in that moment he had to go for it, or it wasn’t going to happen. Within the next five to six kilometres, he says his quad went into spasms and then he felt a pull in his hamstring. Despite trying to stretch it out, Robbie knew his race plan was over and his goal time was out the window. In that same moment, he made the decision to turn over his watch, rip off his pacing tape, and just enjoy the Boston Marathon for what is was.

“People are cheering everywhere you go. It’s just a crowd on both sides of the streets the whole 42 kilometres,” he recalls. “People are BBQ’ing, giving out water bottles, cut-up oranges, and bananas. There was always somebody cheering the whole way. You never forget you’re in a race. It’s so liberating.”

Robbie admits that for the last 15 kilometres he was in some serious pain, but he allowed himself to enjoy the moment and take it all in. At the final aid station, he grabbed some water, wiped his face, and readied himself for the finish chute. He says that he didn’t want to walk through the end and wanted to make sure he had something left in the tank so he could run.

Robbie may not have achieved his goal for the day, but his finish line photo paints a picture of a winner; smiling and celebrating.

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After the race, Robbie says he found a nearby park to eat and relax. He also picked up the phone and called someone he knew was closely following along his journey that day.

“This all started because of a stupid email from my uncle saying he wanted to do a race,” he laughs. “I knew he would be watching me online, so I wanted to call him right away.”

In the moment, Robbie recalls “riding a high” immediately following his race and it wasn’t until the next day that he started to feel some resentment towards his race and time. He was disappointed in his performance.

“I sound really competitive, but I’m not. I don’t race against others when I’m in a race,” he says. “I’m highly competitive with me.”

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When I asked Robbie if he’d ever go back to Boston, he paused for a moment. “The feeling I’m getting says, no, but maybe if someone else got in, I might want to, that would be fun…” he trails off.

Boston may not be in the cards again for Robbie, but he admits he has unfinished business, including a sub 40 minute 10K and a sub 1:30 half-marathon. Of course too, he will continue to chase that sub 3:10 time in the marathon with the same diligence and commitment he’s had since that first 10K.

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