Zach Miller is an ultrarunner from Pennsylvania. This is a quote from him in an interview about the UTMB 100. Zach has run this race for the past five years and although he's come close to winning it almost every time, it never quite works out:
"I see so many things go right that it really motivates me to come back and try again cuz all of a sudden it changes from like 'Oh I want to win this race, but this race always destroys me' to 'I feel like I'm starting to get it.' I’m starting to figure it out. I'm not quite there yet but I'm on track—I'm putting together that puzzle with a million pieces and it's like 'Boom, I got the frame together. And I filled in most of this corner and this corner and now I just need to play with these pieces over here.' This is actually attainable now. It just makes me want to keep coming back in hopes that one day I can just have that race from start to finish where it's just, 'I nailed it.'"
This is how I feel about some of my long term running goals: there's a route in NH called the Pemi Loop that I've wanted to be able to run in under 8 hours. I've tried in various ways for years and something always messes me up, even though I know it's in the realm of possibility. But eventually, I know I'll put the pieces together and get it done.
Incidentally, it's also how climbing works: you try a route, probably fail the first time, probably fail like 10 more times, and eventually you manage to take everything you've learned and put together an effort that gets you to the top of the wall.
But Zach has also inadvertently stumbled upon something profound, I think. The idea of failure being necessary to eventually succeed is pretty cliché and understood, but sometimes I think we forget to apply it correctly—the way Zach does.
See, I think we're all pretty down with the "little failures" model, where you have a big goal, like climbing a route in the gym, and you have to persevere through some falls and take a week to get it right, even if falling again and again is demoralizing.
I also think we're largely down with the "medium failures" model, where you get a bad grade on a test and it is a real setback but it motivates you to work hard for the rest of the semester—perhaps your grade in the class isn't good but you get over it and work extra hard the next semester. Or, I dunno, you forget to apply for internships in time and that experience motivates and teaches you to be on top of it for next year.
But speaking personally, I'm still working on the "big failures" model, where the failing takes years. Something like a valuable friendship that falls by the wayside or blows up, or going to a college that's the wrong fit and needing to transfer, or yes, in my case, not being able to run the Pemi Loop sub-8 after 3 years.
When stuff like that doesn't work out and it's not small potatoes, we have a tendency, an urge, to just throw our hands up and declare it a loss. "I'll get over it eventually," we say. "It's in the past now." But those failures are also useful information, just like the little ones. Resolving to ride out the disappointment means we miss the opportunity to put more pieces of the puzzle together so the next time, we have a shot at getting it right.
Zach Miller remembers to do that. He's been chasing UTMB—what would be the defining moment of his career—since 2017 and he's not going to let it go, and he's not going to sweep the disappointing times it didn't work out under the rug: just like little mess-ups, he's using them for information.
Let's be like Zach.