How Not Qualifying for the New York Marathon Taught Me About Success

qualifying for the New York Marathon

12 seconds. That’s how close I came to my goal of reaching the New York Marathon qualifying time. 12 seconds. While I had won the race and beat my PR by 13 minutes, all I could think about were those 12 seconds. Maybe if I hadn’t said thank you to the volunteers; maybe if I hadn’t paused to look at the scenery; maybe if I hadn’t changed the podcast on my phone; maybe if I was stronger, tougher, more determined, I would have reached my goal.

The New York Marathon qualifying time for a woman my age is 3:13:00, so it’s needless to say that my time of 3:13:12 wouldn’t suffice. By all accounts and purposes, I’d failed. On the other hand, I’d won the race and set a PR by 13 minutes. What was I supposed to feel? Disappointment? Pride? Both? I’ve come to learn that the answer isn’t all that easy.

Eliud Kipchoge attempted to run a sub 2-hour marathon and fell short by 26 seconds. He failed. However, Kipchoge succeeded in running a marathon in less time than has ever been humanly possible. By running 26.2 miles in 2:00:25, Kipchoge pushed the needle of human potential farther than it has ever been pushed before. During that historic race, Kipchoge proved to the world that, as a human race, we have yet to reach our limits and can benefit from striving for dreams that once seemed unreachable.

I have no idea what it feels like to run a marathon in less than 2 hours. However, I do have an idea of what it feels like to fall short of a goal. If you looked at the headlines the day following Kipchoge’s race, you’d see a lot of news sources focusing on Kipchoge’s 25 seconds. While he is receiving appropriate praise for his great achievement, Kipchoge’s failure to run a sub 2-hour marathon is mentioned first.

Every success comes with failure. Nothing is ever perfect and, regardless of the achievement, there’s always a margin of error that could be lessened. For me, that margin of error was 12 seconds; for Kipchoge, it was 25.

This was my face the entire race. I wasn't happy, to say the least.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have aggravatingly high expectations. When I sell a copy of my book, I think about how J.K. Rowling has sold countless more. When I help someone at my job, I think about how I’ve yet to help as many people as Bill Gates has. When I win a running race, I think about how I’m not as fast as Shalane Flanagan. I think about those 12 seconds.

All of us have our own 12 seconds. We all have a margin of error we want to close; a failure we want to turn into a success; a sense of purpose we have yet to see fulfilled. It’s this insatiable pursuit of bigger and better things that, arguably, makes our constant craving for life worthwhile. Imagine waking up one day with no purpose, whatsoever. No desire to put on your shoes, brush your teeth, open the window to see the sun. Anyone who has struggled with depression will tell you this is not an ideal life.

In many ways, we survive because of our faults, failures, and lack of success. We survive because of our addiction to the pursuit. It’s this hunger that keeps us working towards our dreams.

A lot of people tell me to settle down, stop being so hard on myself, and gain perspective on what I’ve achieved. I get it; talking with me can be exhausting and frustrating given my perseveration on what’s yet to be discovered and conquered. In fact, much of the advice given to me is the advice I give to others: appreciate your accomplishments; take care of yourself; be grateful for your successes; celebrate. While this may seem like a classic example of not practicing what I preach, that criticism fails to appreciate the nuance of my philosophy and message.

Success, and the pursuit of it, is an individual process. If you read any of my work, you’ll realize that everything I suggest comes wrapped in the context of one’s personal experience and needs. For example, while I find prioritization to be a key component of productivity, one person may require an hour long journaling session every week in order to come to terms with their priorities, while another may only need a quick mental check in while they’re waiting in line at the grocery store. Both approaches are viable if they allow for a deeper understanding of one’s priorities and their contribution to a productive life.

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Much of my work is about figuring out what works for you, taking the time to understand it, and then using that knowledge to its fullest capacity to reach success.

In a world that craves external validation and societal approval, it’s no small task to listen to your gut and set your own standard of success. The work of internal listening is harder than the work of external listening to those around us. I’m not only talking about blocking out the stereotypical negative voices that we associate with the media and big businesses. No, even those in our lives with the best of intentions don’t have full perspective on what drives us to be successful. Our biggest role models, cheerleaders, and influencers can be mistaken in their tactics motivating us to pursue success.

Don’t let someone else’s vision of success cloud your own understanding of it.

So, why am I so disappointed by 12 seconds? Why is Kipchoge’s “failure” so powerful to someone who thinks like me? Well, to the dismay and annoyance of those around me, I will likely always live in a murky middle where I’m grateful for all that I have, yet also hunger for the ever higher bar of my expectations. I survive on the idea that I have something to prove, that I’m so far away from my own vision of success.

Many say that running is as much of a mental sport as it is a physical one. As I’ve progressed as a runner, I can say that it’s true that my challenges are far more mental than physical. I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing my mentality on that day I let my goal slip by me by a mere 12 seconds. To be honest, the person I was that day was someone I don’t recognize. As the pain increased, so did my thoughts telling me that my goals were ridiculous; that I was weak; that I should give up running altogether.

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By mile 5, I was wondering why I’d fallen in love with this sport to begin with. By mile 10, I was thinking about all of the other ways I could spend my time now that I’d decided to give up running forever. By mile 17, I was secretly wishing that I’d suffer an injury so that I’d have an excuse to stop. By mile 25, I stopped to walk.

It was that 20 seconds of walking at mile 25 that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. If you’re a runner, you know that stopping so close to the finish line is significant. To succumb to stagnation at the moment when primal, adrenaline fueled passion usually kicks in, is something to take stock of from both a physical and mental perspective. Looking at my watch, I knew how close I was to my goal. I looked at the numbers tick by, yet all I felt was complacency. For a moment, I let go of my insane expectations for myself and accepted the idea that what I’d done was “good enough.” At mile 25, I knew I would win the race and beat my previous PR, so my brain began to tell me that the pain was more important than my success. The pain was more important than giving more than 100% of my efforts to crushing my goal.

After the race was over, I understood that what I’d done was remarkable by most standards aside from elite athletes. Yet, I felt awful from a mental perspective. That 12 seconds soon became a marker of my weakness, instability, and willingness to give up when the journey got tough. I knew I hadn’t given the task of running that marathon my full focus, energy, or effort. Because of that, regardless of the time in which I crossed the finish line, I wasn’t proud of the mindset I carried with me for that 3:13:12. No matter what those around me said about “good enough,” this race didn’t fall under my vision of success.

I can’t live in a world where I’m “good enough.” Doing so will only leave me feeling as I did in mile 25: complacent, purposeless, and at the mercy of the standards and expectations of others. Yes, what I did was more than “good enough” by the standards of others, but I’m not looking to live a life defined by the standards of others.

For me, goal pursuit it fueled by the insatiable hunger to do more than is believed to be realistic. I need to strive to be J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates, and Shalane Flanagan in order to keep my legs moving in the proverbial 25th mile of life. So, no, I won’t ever relax, calm down, or give up on the pursuit for more. My internal source of motivation functions best when it believes there’s a big margin of error to overcome. It’s that big margin of error that keeps the fuel of my motivation burning.

Moving forward, I’ll be chasing that 12 seconds. While I plan to crush my goal from a literal perspective, the metaphorical perspective is of more value. To be honest, I could have run that marathon in any timeframe. I’m one of the few runners that believes that the numbers are somewhat arbitrary. When I run my next race, I’ll be chasing that 12 seconds with both my feet and my mind. I want to feel the pain, but force my strength overcome it. I want to feel the impending complacency, but fight for excellence. I want to think about being “good enough,” but reject it for the sake of my true potential.

In running, and in life, I will never be satisfied. And that’s how I like it.

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