Overcome Your Fear by Making Friends with Failure

My first marathon was an utter and complete failure.

When I signed up for that race, the 2002 Rock ‘n Roll Marathon in San Diego, I was asked to write down my projected finish time.  3:10:00.  I wanted to qualify for Boston.

On race day, I lined up in the first corral, just behind the elite runners. Four hours and fifty-two minutes later, having walked most of the last six miles, I barely found the energy to run for the finish line photo.  The 3:10 finishers could have watched a movie by the time I finished.

Fear of failure prevents people from doing amazing things

It’s a fear of crashing and burning like this that prevents many people from going after something big, whether it’s running a 5K, doing a triathlon, or going vegetarian.

I know this because when I went to Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within event (which led to my going vegetarian and starting this blog), we all walked barefoot across hot coals the very first night as a metaphor for turning our biggest fears into power.  Ninety percent of the room said theirs was “fear of failure.” (Maybe one day I’ll tell you mine.)

A room full of motivated people, for sure, and it was the fear of failure that held so many of them back.

Failing was the best thing that could have happened to me

When I “failed” in that first marathon, it awakened something in me that I had never experienced.  When I signed up, I wanted simply to run a marathon.  Boston seemed cool, but not that important.

But when I missed my (naive) target time by an hour and forty minutes, that was something I couldn’t live with.  I found it hard to tell people that I had run a marathon when I had walked so much of it.  And I knew I was capable of so much more.

(By the way, if 4:52 is a success to you, that’s totally cool.  It’s all about doing what YOU are capable of.  My 3:10 personal best is a joke to elite runners.)

It took me four years to run another marathon.  Each time I started training, I got shin injuries.  Sometimes I considered giving up.  But failing so hard the first time is what kept me coming back.

Make failure work for you

If your fear of failure is preventing you from doing the things you light up just to think about, you need to embrace the fear.  You need to redefine what failure is.

On June 5th, I’m not running 50 miles because it will be fun.  (When I’m running a race, I want more than anything to be finished, so I can stop running.)

I’m running 50 miles because the thought of accomplishing something like that energizes me.  And as Sana and Andrew pointed out in my post about being scared of the 50, it wouldn’t be so exciting if failing weren’t a big factor.

If I don’t finish, in some small way that’s a failure.  It will be painful.  But that pain will drive me to try again, and then one day I’ll do it.

For me, failure isn’t a DNF (Did Not Finish) in a race.  Failure is giving up on the process, letting a goal I care about deeply die when it doesn’t come as easily as I’d like.

That’s the definition that empowers me.  You need to choose the one that works for you.

This post is part of a series on motivation for running.  Check out the rest!



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  1. That’s a great way of looking at things Matt. If you can use things that are normally negative (failure) to your advantage (motivating you to run) then you can accomplish almost anything.

    p.s. You’re still a nut for walking across hot coals 😉
    .-= Billy Broas´s last blog ..Pair Beer with Cheese [Beer Newbie Mission #4] =-.

  2. Very inspiring insights Matt!
    .-= meatlessmama´s last blog ..Carrot Pineapple Salad =-.

  3. Cool! I can see how failure can turn into being a major motivator. In my book, I say that when we say we’re going to become greater in some way, we often get tested by surprise… because the Universe doesn’t want any weenies at that next level. If you’re going to step up, the most important person to convince (and prove you’re worthy) is youself!

  4. Thanks for this Matt! My first marathon is coming up and I’m so nervous! I haven’t trained as well as I should have because of injury and ehaustion from my previous race… but I’m still hoping to be proud of my time whatever it may be!
    .-= Abby´s last blog ..“Food Revolution” for Thought =-.

  5. Hi Matt! Yeah I won whoohooo!
    I totally get the failure thing, however there is a flip side, fear of success that can sometimes stop people in their tracks. When I was asked the question “are you afraid of failing or succeeding?” regarding some stuff in my life I was shocked to find it was the latter! Our brains work in strange ways!
    .-= Diane´s last blog ..Workout Wednesday – walking/running =-.

  6. Your story reminds me of when I trained for MY first marathon . . . It was terrifying! I survived, sore ankles and all, but it was fuel that encouraged me to try again . . . to try better. My next (second) marathon is October 30. I’m already training and I know I can do better — thanks for showing me that I’m not the only one who struggled to make peace with their first time out, and for proving that it’s even more rewarding to get back on that horse. (Er, get back in those shoes?) :o)

  7. I’ve just changed my half marathon entry to another full! Thanks for the shoutout!
    .-= AndrewENZ´s last blog ..Smiling on the run =-.

  8. Truly motivating. I really enjoy the concepts you bring up during motivational posts – they usually help me continue to look more into my self-learning processes and find out more about myself – keep up the amazing work. ^_^
    .-= Daniel´s last blog ..Quickie =-.

  9. Kristin says:

    Thank you for this. I was just struggling with the decision of whether to sign up for my first half marathon which is this weekend. I have trained for 12 weeks, but was having doubts about this new distance. So far, my longest race is a 10k. Yes! I’m gonna do it!

  10. Love this post. It is so true that the only way to make BIG strides in our life is to step to the edge and take the plunge.
    It is scary, but when you come out on the other side it is sweet.

    My first marathon in 2005 was 4:19. I was also naively going for a BQ of 3:45. my second wasn’t much better at 4:13 in 2006. It wasn’t until taking a year off and getting into triathlons, losing 20 lbs., starting to do track workouts that I finally was close in 2008 with a 3:52 when I needed a 3:50.

    In a little over a week, I am running my first Boston after having FINALLY qualified this Fall.

    keep up the great posts!!
    .-= Barb Cymanski´s last blog ..New Foods I have gotten to know… =-.

  11. GREAT post, Matt! Your blog is so inspirational, and I think that’s a great way to look at “failure.”
    .-= Katherine @ Lipgloss and Spandex´s last blog ..April is Autism Awareness Month! =-.

  12. Inspiring post, and one that I needed to read today. Thanks, Matt!

  13. Great observations, Matt! I agree with you- we’ve got to make these things works WITH us.
    .-= Sagan´s last blog ..The Living Healthy in the Real World Guide to Budgeting, Part Three: Debts and Loans =-.

  14. I loved this post! Yesterday, I wrote about pushing through my “Make It or Break It Moment” in a race (http://bit.ly/9mxIul) and a really big part of that for me is overcoming the fear of failure. In fact, my race mantra this year is “OUTRUN THE FEAR!” : )
    Thanks for the great post!

  15. I really enjoy your motivational posts. It’s a great way to look at challenges. I fear not being able to finish a marathon and so far that’s what has kept me from signing up for one.

  16. This is a really timely post for me… I’m running the Boston Marathon in less than 2 weeks and I’m terrified! I have only done one marathon before, qualified, but then nursed a knee injury from overtraining for the first marathon. I’m scared in a way to run this marathon because of the aftermath of my last marathon, but I trained smarter and feel better this time (last time I had knee problems going into it). I keep feeling like I can’t walk if I need to because of what people will think if I have a worse time, but you know what? I just want to finish and have fun this time. I have a ton of people coming to watch me and this should be about me finishing while still feeling good, NOT killing myself to look good in other people’s eyes. Thanks!
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Holy Guacamole! =-.

  17. Matt – this post totally struck home with me. It was so what I needed to read to remind me of what failing really means.

    Hope you don’t mind I quoted (& referenced!) a line from it in a blog post of mine.
    .-= Christine @ Grub, Sweat and Cheers´s last blog ..Kick in the arse… =-.

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