The Sting of a Near Miss: A Framework for Handling Disappointment (in Running or in Life)

Close but not close enough. I suspect we all have multiple experiences with the promising moment that goes well but does not quite end the way we expect it to. A presentation goes well but the boss likes someone else’s better. You nail a job interview but the committee feels another candidate is a better fit for the job. You have chemistry with a significant other but you are at different points in your lives. You qualify for the Boston Marathon but your time is three seconds too slow to meet the cutoff time for entry.

Disappointments are difficult. The disappointments where everything appears to go well only to have the outcome not meet your expectations – those are brutal. In my running life that is the story of my 2018.

For the past month I have faced constant reminders that I was agonizingly close to gaining entry into the Boston Marathon. Three seconds, three seconds of the 11,111 I ran during the Cleveland Marathon in May, kept me from the field for the 2019 race. As the race has drawn nearer, social media has served to remind me over and over again of this fact. Three days ago the Boston Marathon announced its elite field participants. Eight days ago the Boston Marathon’s social media accounts began a countdown to race day: 123 days until the 123rd running of the race. Last month runners on Facebook began posting photos of their acceptance letters. Each time I see one of these posts I feel like Ralphie in A Christmas Story pressing his nose against the window at a toy store looking at his coveted Red Rider BB Gun. I am so close to it and yet it’s not yet mine.

What is hard about these moments is that they can serve to cloud over the genuine successes that I and you have experienced. If you put together a great presentation but the boss just likes someone else’s approach you still put together a great presentation. If you are a genuinely good and thoughtful person in a relationship and the timing is just wrong, you’re still a good and thoughtful person. And if you train harder and smarter than you ever have before, and crush your marathon PR in the process, but miss out on the Boston Marathon by three seconds, you still crushed your marathon PR. In many ways 2018 was a tremendous success for my running. I did crush my marathon PR, twice, and BQed both marathons I ran. I entered 2018 with a marathon PR of 3:29:56 and sit 10 days away from 2019 with a PR of 3:03:53. I won my age group in a 10K on July 4th. I finished in a podium position for the first time ever when I placed third in the Towpath 10-Miler on Father’s Day. Everything went as well as it could have…except for missing out on Boston.

There is, however, a framework for handling this disappointment, a process you can use to handle the sting and turn it into a learning experience. Standing at the finish line after the Columbus Marathon in October, a race that went well but shared some unfortunately similar characteristics to my spring marathon, mainly the debilitating cramps that slowed me down in the race’s closing mile, I immediately began to utilize this framework. It allowed me to accept the pain of that immediate moment but also to place it into a larger context to keep sight of the progress I had made and how it could help me inch closer to my ultimate goals in the coming months. You can use this framework as well:

  1. Allow yourself to experience the emotion of the moment. When I was younger and starting out as a youth soccer coach I believed that emotion, as much as possible, needed to be tamped down. Emotion blocked rationality and that made it hard to learn from mistakes. As I’ve grown older I have come to understand this is not a feasible approach. In fact, an emotional reaction to an event is always going to be the first response. There is some great research and reading on our different systems of thinking, specifically Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which details that we have a fast way of thinking about an event, which is emotional, and a slower way of thinking about an event, which is more rational. The emotional reaction will always come first. It is why I felt disappointment in the immediate aftermath of the Columbus Marathon, specifically with how my cramping issues had sabotaged both of my major races in 2018. Those issues had slowed me down late in both marathons, had robbed me of a place in the 2019 Boston Marathon field, and showed me that for as much progress as I made in my training this past year, I still had more to learn about how to run a good marathon. Friends and family sent me congratulatory messages and urged me to take pride in my accomplishments. In time I would, but it would take a few days. The emotional reaction was going to happen and until it had run its course the next steps would not be possible.
  2. Reflect on your accomplishments but only when you are ready to fully examine them.  Accomplishments, even those that don’t end the way you want them to, are still worth celebrating. Marathon training is taxing and lengthy. Just running 26.2 miles is an accomplishment. Putting together a great presentation is an accomplishment. Nailing a job interview is an accomplishment. The process matters. Nail the process time and again and eventually you will get the result you want. When the time is right you should bask in that knowledge. I felt this firsthand after Columbus. I knew deep down that most of my running in 2018 had gone well and should be celebrated. However, immediately after the race was not the right time. The two-hour drive home from Columbus to Cleveland was not the right time. If I had tried to speed this process up I would have been doing a disservice to myself, essentially judging myself for having a very real and necessary reaction to the disappointment I felt. Again, the emotion of the immediate moment is going to be there. Allow it to be. Move on when you’re ready. However by the evening of race day the emotion had passed and I was able to take stock of what I had accomplished and you know what, I kicked ass this year! I really did. I shaved 26 minutes off my previous PR. I can call myself a two-time Boston Marathon qualifier. I took third in a competitive race. 2018 was a success and worth celebrating.
  3. Be brutally honest about where you could have made more progress. In my coaching life this is a stage I immediately want to jump into. In the role of a coach, I am usually able to quickly process the emotion of a game or practice and my mind immediately shifts toward solving any problems I observed. However coaching requires a receptive audience and someone who is still emotionally reacting to an event is not going to logically process any coaching points. Good coaching is about getting the most out of an athlete or client. If they are not in a headspace to be receptive to the advice, the best coaching points in the world are not going to result in any progress. Once you get to that place where you are receptive to a critique of your performance (self-guided or from a coach/boss/co-worker) you will see that there are areas where a positive but ultimately unsuccessful performance exposes previously unseen weaknesses in your preparation or in your performance. I remember interviewing for a teaching job at a school that utilized a wholly different way of teaching reading to students. I familiarized myself with the method and had some rudimentary ideas for how I could teach within the framework, but when I actually interviewed it was clear my understanding of the method was not as deep as the committee would have liked. I had spent more time planning to highlight my strengths and the time I spent on that took away from learning their method in more detail. When I interviewed for future jobs, I was more careful to learn as much about the school and its students so I could speak more deeply about the needs of that specific school. I made a similar appraisal of my running in 2018, spending several days with a legal pad nearby, jotting down all areas where I had made progress in 2018, but could push the boundaries in 2019. I eventually had a full page of items I felt I needed to either research or more carefully implement for my training in 2019. It was a difficult exercise, looking at areas where more careful attention could have resulted in better race performance, but it served as a foundation for creating a better training plan for 2019.
  4. Use your reflection to build a stronger foundation for your next performance. In athletics when people train improvement occurs, not during training itself, but during the recovery from the training. Hard lifting, running, and jumping all push muscles to a breaking point, creating micro-tears in the muscle fibers. This sounds bad, but it really it helps foster improvement. Sensing the damage, the body sends in repairing agents to the damaged parts during your recovery (largely while you sleep) and the result is that the damaged muscles end up stronger. Reflection serves as this recovery for you. The full page of weaknesses I identified helped me create a plan that is serving to guide my early training for 2019. I have started to build a foundation for a more intense strength training regimen. During my offseason or preseason, however you might label the months before my serious marathon training begins, I am running longer and harder, albeit still far below what I run at my peak, so that I can jump into a more intense early portion of base building when marathon training begins in late January. I am identifying the single most important aspect of my training on any given day so that I can focus on improving areas I have previously struggled with such as maintaining an even pace during speed work, something I think can help me ward off the late-race cramping issue that killed me this year. I have re-doubled my efforts to visualize the perfect race and how I can handle obstacles that may impede that perfect race. The focus here is on marginal gains, improving in small ways across the board rather than attempting to focus on a major improvement in one  area. I already have two very good marathons under my belt and they are worth celebrating. With some small gains in a few areas, I can turn those good marathons into a great one.
  5. Kick ass. The process complete, you know what you need to do. Go do it.

Disappointment sucks and the sting of doing well only to fail at the margins is especially draining. Use the framework above and your near-miss can be the foundation for a major success in the coming year. I congratulate you on a well-lived, well-run 2018 and hope you are able to kick ass in your own endeavors in 2019.

Happy running,

Adam

My reflections to get me ready for 2019

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