Boston Marathon

How Running Taught Me How to Lose

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Losing is such a universal experience that you’d think we would all become experts at it. That we’d develop a thick skin, that we’d learn to bounce back quickly, that we’d realize that we need a new vocabulary. “Losing’’ just doesn’t work. It sounds so terminal.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t become experts at it. We equate losing with failure, and we let ourselves be defeated. Instead of becoming expert who bounce back, we become victims who don’t try again. I’ve had my share of losses, but I refuse to become a victim. Instead of viewing my losing efforts as dead ends, I turn them into detours, and I keep moving forward.

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In running, I twice lost in the biggest race I ever attempted: the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Like any accomplished athlete, I set the Olympics as my greatest goal. I wanted it more than anything.

Twice I ran in the Olympic Trials, hoping to make the U.S. Olympic Team, and twice I fell short.

I had imagined that these losses would prove devastating. In both cases, however, I soon found myself on a different and unexpectedly rewarding path.

Nineteen-sixty-eight should have been my year for making the Olympic Team. I won the Boston Marathon in April, and the Olympic Trials were scheduled for mid-August, just days before my birthday. The stars were aligning for my big Olympic effort. At least that’s what I tried to tell myself every morning when I got up for my 10-mile workout.

Unfortunately, I pulled a leg muscle about a month after winning Boston, and it didn’t heal completely in time for the Trials. I started the race, but I couldn’t complete it. In fact, I was standing by the finish line, already showered, as several friends ran down the final straightaway and claimed their spots in the Olympics.

So much for my big dream.

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After the unhappy Trials marathon, I had no reason to do any running. I spent the last 2 weeks of that summer hanging out at the beach. As a result, by September 1, my leg was totally healed. When I received an invitation to run an international race in Canada, I decided to accept. Three weeks later, I won that race with one of the best performances of my career.

This gave me pause. I asked myself: What had I learned from the Olympic Trials? For one thing, that you can never expect a muscle or other injury to heal on your schedule. Heal it will, but on its own timetable.

More important, I learned that losing isn’t contagious. It’s not a fatal condition, and it’s not forever.

It’s more like a cold that makes you miserable for a week but then goes away, and you’re fine.

Eight years later, I was ready for another shot at the Olympics. Again, the signs were good. I had been training and racing well for several years; I had a steady job; my personal life was stable. And this time I was completely healthy. I actually finished the race.

In fact, I had one crystalline moment when I thought my Olympic dream was going to come true. I remember it so clearly. Just past the 10-mile mark, the course made a couple of zigzag turns and then emptied onto a long, straight avenue. I was running in a pack of five and happened to be the first through the several turns.

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Ahead of us, I saw Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, two runners we all expected to finish one-two, which they did. That left one spot open for another runner to make the team.

I also saw two other runners ahead of me, both athletes I knew well and felt confident of catching and passing. That left me in, gulp, third place—the magic position. The thought struck with such impact that I can recall it decades later as if it were a mere 5 minutes ago: “Ohmigoodness, you could be going to the Olympics.’’

Well, not quite. I did catch and pass the two runners ahead of me, and I poured every ounce of myself into the quest to finish third. But I made one serious miscalculation. In my eagerness for third place, I struck too soon. I got there, but I couldn’t hold it. Several other runners, more patient than I, conserved their energy for the crucial last 6 miles.

They steamed past me at the 22-mile mark.

Fatigued and depressed, I faded to 10th place.

Not a bad effort—and I certainly believed that I had given it my all—but not good enough to make the team. In the harsh arena of the Olympic Trials, I had once again failed to measure up. What next?

I was 30 now, and I had other interests that I could pursue. But first I had to deal with my marathon career. I had given a solid decade of my life to making the Olympic Team, and so far I hadn’t made the mark.

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I could continue, of course. I could look at the thousands of training miles—and try to find a way to make it even stronger and higher. The Olympics would come around again in another 4 years. Maybe that would be my time.

Or I could move on. I could acknowledge that I would have to go through life without achieving my greatest dream—the Olympics. There would be no storybook ending.

The answer didn’t come to me from endless soul-searching. There was no mental agony. The answer came, as it should have, from the running. I no longer had the spark. It was that simple. I didn’t have the energy for it any longer. It was too hard to kick-start myself in the mornings. My body said, “No more.’’ It was obviously time to move on.

I was fearful at first. I worried that letting go of one goal, the Olympics, would set a precedent that would follow me the rest of my days. A failure. I didn’t like the sound of that word.

So I didn’t accept it. Okay, I hadn’t made the Olympic Team, but surely I could find other challenges. My life didn’t end. I simply swung wide around the roadblock and set off on a new course, one that soon led to many entrancing vistas. I explored many of them, trying new things, and quickly discovered that my 10-year Olympic quest hadn’t taught me failure. Indeed, the discipline and training and goal setting had prepared me for success in other areas.

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I kept running, but without expectations and pressures. It became simply a process-path to good health, stress relief, creative thinking, and fun times with friends. More than 20 years later, I can honestly say that running this way is far more enjoyable than striving for the Olympics.

I have learned that there is no failure in running, or in life, as long as you keep moving. It’s not about speed and gold medals. It’s about refusing to be stopped. You might find that one particular direction proves difficult, but there are many directions on a compass. Infinite, in fact.

As long as you keep searching, you’ll find your winning way.

Excerpted with permission from The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life: What 35 Years of Running Has Taught Me about Winning, Losing, Happiness, Humility, and the Human Heart by Amby Burfoot. Copyright 2007, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

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