On Running and Failing*

I’ve been running a long time. I started in second grade, I was a natural. Before I turned twelve, I’d peaked and lost heart. Of course, that didn’t stop me from doing it. Been going pretty much non-stop since I started. It’s been almost a year exactly now since I stepped it up and fell in love again.

I’ve never really talked about this before, but I think I got kicked off the school teams for both Track and Cross Country every single year of high school. Every. Single. Year. Funny at the time, it’s a bit shameful now. Anything you can imagine, my friends and I did it. We’d order pizza in the middle of practice and eat when we were supposed to be completing a course. We bought a birthday cake once and ate it between sprints–hurling the leftovers at teammates as they passed. I remember this one kid was being a dick so we tied him down with zip-ties and beat him with sticks. I convinced the Indian kid that he was going to be deported and destroyed all sorts of other people’s property. I cheated, I lied, I made excuses but I did have a good time. In the end, the only person who i truly responsible is myself, but still, no one ever sat me down and asked “Why are you doing this?” They just told me to stop. My parents sent me to therapy to learn how to control myself. Everyone made it an issue of authority instead of unhappiness. The problem with that is that it indirectly condones the behavior. It says “What you’re doing is acceptable, but not here and not now.” Or it accuses you of doing it on purpose because you like it, rather than lashing out at something you can’t yet explain. That is, implying it is simply a matter of willpower, not awareness. What someone needed to say was that it just wasn’t healthy, and only an idiot couldn’t have seen that I was actively self-destructive. It was about stopping the behavior, not preventing it, not figuring out why.

Now I know why, I figured it out on my own. I was scared. Two major phases of my life have been defined by me declining to compete–choosing to be a sideshow instead of going toe to toe. If you’re the funny kid then no one takes you or your results seriously. And when you didn’t try, then how can you fail? It’s the pathological nature of the perpetually lazy or the addicted: “If I really wanted to, I could.” Well fuck you very much because until you do, it doesn’t really matter at all.

But I like it again. Fuck, love it. I went through a patch a few months ago where I lost the drive but I realized that it had to do with tactics not strategy. Which is key, it is not enough to do something you love–you have to do it in a way that you love too. I hate running during the day. I like it when darkness is falling. I like to finish with the moon over head. I like to start my second shift at nine or ten, showered, fresh and ready to go again.

In the last year, I’ve done well over a thousand miles. A thousand miles. That might not seem like a lot to you, but for me, I sweated through every single one of them. No less than five days a week, sometimes 6, a few times seven. I didn’t always want to, but I did it anyway. And no one can take that away.

It makes me giddy. Most days I hit the street at a sprint, driving towards the first crest–where the sweat pours and the heart rate stops accelerating. At that wall, I’m so excited that I have to refrain from the desire to pump a fist in the air. And as it goes on, you come to the point where you want to quit–where it stops being fun and starts seeming like work. Hills, on Murphy’s cue, like to show up here. “Motherfucker, Motherfucker…” and you push through it. If you’ve ever swam competitively, there is no feeling quite like the one of hearing cheers, cut, cut, cut-up with each dive back under water. Except this: Breath. Silence. Breath. Silence. And the drums carry the beat through each dip. Squinted eyes, gaping mouth. Melodrama that seems a lot cooler in your mind’s eye than it looks in person. I like it when the shirt goes translucent, when you’re soaked and wheezing. I like to listen to the same song over and over. It’s normally something terrible too; I just turn it up to turn the world down. On repeat, you get to know all the valleys and fills. You know when the chorus comes, when the song peaks and where it gives you a little shot of emotion. The second wave of sweat starts here, as you approach the end. And when it comes, it really comes. Then you stop after the last kick, normally more energized and inspired than you were when you left. I don’t think I’ve ever returned, unhappy with my choice to have done it–and if I have, it was so meaningless that it has faded from memory.

Ever since I decided to compete again, I’ve been better at everything. I don’t mean that I started racing, I mean, since I reentered the field. When you stop acting like you’re better than the rest of the world or too different to be compared, you can finally appreciate yourself. Success becomes something you have earned, progress is something that you can see. Every single good idea I’ve had came from it. I must have written 80% of this blog in my head, running. Emails that formed life-changing relationships were vetted through this filter and traveled with me stride after stride. I’ve left my house, confused and bewildered, only to return centered and calculated. Most of all you get proof–“Here is something I tried really hard at and good came of it”–that transfers over to whatever else you like.

Which of course is fantastic, but the real lesson is hidden a little deeper. It’s not one week of effort that matters, or even a few months, but the continued pursuit and dedication. A lot of people can do the first part but not many the last. You realize that it running yesterday or all of last week doesn’t mean anything if you don’t do it tomorrow and the week after. I was never strong enough to make that commitment before, or even ambitious enough to try. It was more satisfying to abstain than to consider not succeeding. But now if I do it and fail, I’ll at least know I did everything I could to try and prevent it.

*You wanted a running post for the relaunch and here it is.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.