2017 broke my heart twice. First, amid the raucous din of Boylston Street, in the finisher’s chute of the Boston Marathon, a malfunctioning Garmin beeping manically on my wrist. And again, not long after that, on the corner of a quiet residential street in Toronto, orange streetlamps illuminating the last page in a bittersweet love story.
Athletes are supposed to be good at heartbreak, and marathoners especially so. Ours is a sport that demands months upon months of gruelling, thankless preparation. Even then, there’s no guarantee that the gods of illness, injury or fair weather will be on your side come race day.
That’s why resilience, for a distance runner, is utterly essential; in the marathon, as in love, you can do everything right and still get burned. But in 2017, in the wake of an epic heartbreak double-feature, I felt my characteristic marathoner resilience start to falter.
Redemption stories have always captivated me. When you look below the surface, it’s incredible how many dazzling accomplishments owe themselves to a doggedness born out of heartbreak and failure. Perhaps nothing in recent memory comes close to Shalane Flanagan’s historic New York City Marathon win this past November, less than a year after a stress fracture forced her to withdraw from Boston — an epic, untouchable moment of redemption, bought with the pain of an unfortunate setback.
When we talk about heartbreak, this is often how we frame it. We’re a culture that’s comfortable with failure in the narrowest possible sense of the word. Failure is a trope, an origin story. It’s the thing that happens during the opening credits of the movie, the inciting incident setting our hero up for a greater triumph yet to come. There’s precious little room in that narrative for the reality of what heartbreak so often brings — for the paralysis that grows out of self-doubt, for sadness or anger, frustration or fear.
Embrace your setbacks, people tell us; use them as fuel and come back stronger. But what happens when what doesn’t kill you doesn’t really make you stronger?
What happens when failure is just failure?
It’s a question I’ve wrestled with a lot in recent months, a question that’s dogged my road-weary steps through innumerable false starts — through Netflix binges and missed workouts and halfhearted pledges to “get back at it”. What does it mean when you can’t find the silver lining?
For the better part of this year, my running devolved from competitive training into what can only described (shudderingly so, I might add) as “jogging”. Out of shape and out of excuses, I eschewed racing in favour of easy, contemplative runs through the city at night. I fixated endlessly on the contours of my own disappointment, struggling to shape them into something redemptive, something that might pass for inspiration.
Struggling, but not succeeding.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of the unflappable optimist. But there’s a danger in looking at failure exclusively through the prism of redemption.
If we fixate on the silver lining — if we take the unyielding position that every stumbling block has been placed in our path solely to test us, to push us, to make us stronger — we run the risk of devaluing ourselves in the present. Our worth becomes tethered to the moment-to-moment likelihood that we will, in fact, turn things around and come back stronger. But what if we don’t? What if we continue to struggle, stumble and fail?
In the world of distance running, it’s easy to revel in stories of the big, epic comeback: Lanni Marchant’s record-breaking marathon in 2013, shortly after being left off the 2012 Olympic team; Kate Van Buskirk’s banner year on the track, after a devastating spondylarothropathy diagnosis in 2015.
All too often, though, we forget about the stories where crushing defeat goes unavenged. Think Kara Goucher’s heartbreaking fourth-place finish at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, or Rob Watson’s emotional post-race debrief at last year’s London Marathon, after missing the Canadian Olympic standard by more than five minutes. Think of Paula Radcliffe, arguably the greatest marathon runner of all time, whose record-shattering career nevertheless saw her shut out of an Olympic medal of any colour.
We can’t fit these stories into the tidy narrative of failure as an origin story for later success; Radcliffe’s competitive days have ended, and the prospect of a future Olympic berth for either Goucher or Watson looks increasingly unlikely. There will be no big, epic comebacks here — at least, not in the traditional sense.
But there’s a grandeur, an undeniable glory to these endings that goes beyond the prospect of what might lie ahead. There’s greatness in the act of striving for something, a greatness that is not diminished by the dream left unreached, by the barrier left unbroken.
Sometimes there are no silver linings. Sometimes that’s okay.
Resisting the urge to rationalize this year’s disappointments as part of some bigger plan, I have forced myself to look at them, instead, for what they really were: the end result of a series of random, mostly arbitrary events outside of my control. Boston wasn’t great, but it wasn’t for lack of training. My relationship ended, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Give me clear sinuses and cooler weather (and, maybe, better taste in men) and both outcomes might have been entirely different.
The tipping point between success and failure often has nothing to do with us. In a way, that’s a profoundly scary thought, because if our failures ultimately hinge on chance and luck, that means our accomplishments might, too. So we plumb our heartbreaks for lessons that aren’t there, instead of celebrating the nobility of the attempt. But in the end, we’re all at the mercy of the whims of fate.
And so, if you’re like me, and you’ve had a profoundly unlucky year, I’d like to take this moment to celebrate that: to every dream job you didn’t get, every PB you didn’t set, every meet-cute you missed, every spark that failed to fly.
Here’s to quitting (at least you started). Here’s to heartbreak (at least you cared). Here’s to failure (at least you tried). Here’s to you — not your potential, not your goals, not your still-pending comeback.
Here’s to you, right now, just as you are. Silver linings or not.
Chase big dreams.