Saturday, August 15, 2015


“…the goose pimples of rejection run up and down your spine.” – Alexander Solzhenitsyn [1]

I have failed – and have spent the last two months licking my wounds.

I entered the 2015 Comrades Marathon, run on 31 May. This is an annual 90km road race between Durban and Pietermaritzburg that has to be completed inside of 12 hours. I last ran it ten years ago – my 12th run - and upon finishing it I said I would never again run it.  But this year was the 90th edition of the race, and the whisper of the challenge saw me entering the race again. I worked hard, running 1200km of training between January and May. I ran two marathons, and three ultra-marathons and when race day came I felt that I was ready to prove my mettle. I set off at sunrise along with approximately 17000 other runners as we wound our way from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. And this uphill run became a mental ‘uphill’ for me – because I had a bad day and every step became an effort. I found myself running with the 12 hour ‘bus’ of Vlam Pieterse, which carried me to the halfway mark. However, when they pulled away from me on the Inchanga hill I knew that it was all over. I dejectedly walked all the way up this painful hill, found some momentum on Harrison Flats, but was pulled off the road at the Umlaas Road cutoff – 57km completed but 30km short of the finish. I felt relieved and deeply disappointed. I had struggled all the way and was glad to stop, but had never before had I failed to finish this race – in fact any race. I had worked so hard at preparing for this race, and I felt the crushing weight of failure.

This has given me an opportunity to reflect on how I feel about failure.
Let me begin by saying it as it is: I do not like failing! Since I was a child I have been acutely aware of the feelings associated with failure: shame, embarrassment, humiliation and inferiority – what Solzhenitsyn has so evocatively described as that moment when “…the goose pimples of rejection run up and down your spine.”   The reason I know this so intimately is because these feelings have often visited me: I was a reserved child who hung back and hoped that someone else would be asked to speak/play/run/shine, just in case I failed to do it well. To make matters worse, I did not attend schools big enough to have many winning teams. I played rugby for the teams that got beaten by other schools, and got thrashed by the tennis teams of the bigger schools.

I have found two conflicting reactions to attempting anything that has a prospect of failure: the one choice is to avoid doing anything that might cause me to fail. However, in contrast, maturity has produced a stubborn streak in me that whispered “try it” when a challenge was presented. It is not that I lost my aversion to failure, but rather the greater debilitation of the knowledge that I did not try, has motivated me to face my fears. So when I did my compulsory military service I volunteered to do the Physical Training Instructor’s course, precisely because it was tough and I feared it. When my friend Alan began postgraduate studies I again heard the aggravating whisper of the difficult endeavour and enrolled for further study. And when a friend mentioned that he was running the Comrades Marathon, I knew that I would have to do it – in order to pacify that internal challenge. To my amazement I discovered that I could rise to these challenges. Truth be told, I have generally succeeded beyond what I deserved or believed myself capable of.

This is not to say that I have never failed. I failed my Biblical Hebrew exams – twice! Which means that I graduated from seminary two years after my class. I have lost many league tennis matches, and come at the back of many road running events. A big one was when I applied for a position that I really, really wanted – and was turned down. I have learned that the fear of failure does not go away. It sits out there as a beacon that mocks me, entices me, and sometimes seduces me. Which brings me to my most recent failure.

It has taken me some time to recover. My running shoes mostly collect dust in the corner. I have been back on the road – but now have niggling injuries. It is therefore easier to stay in bed in the morning. I have just seen that the theme for the 2016 Comrades Marathon is IZOKUTHOBA - IT WILL HUMBLE YOU.   Ironically I was humbled this year! So do I put my hand up to be humbled again next year? Right now I do not have an answer for this question. It is in this space that I hear the echo of Winston Churchill’s observation that "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."  This reminder of the impermanence of both success and failure challenges me to embrace my journey through life as an adventure, rather than a competition. It is this that is drawing me out of my self-imposed hibernation. It is this that now enables me to think of trying new things. So here is my resolve:
·         I will continue to choose to live a curious life, something that might lead me to attempt difficult things.
·         I will continue to risk the possibility of failure by trying things that frighten me or stretch me beyond my current experience.
·         I will continue to embrace the opportunity to learn new things – even if it mean falling flat on my face and learning how to get back onto my feet.

Throughout my struggle with the vicissitudes of success and failure I have treasured the encouragement of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He is a man whose writings and life embodies the courage to rise above the rejections of life: 

"Live with a steady superiority over life ...
don't be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness: it is, after all, the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing.
It is enough if you don't freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don't claw at your insides. If your back isn't broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why?
Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart - and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act ... "

- Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “From Island to Island” The Gulag Archipelago

[1] Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “From Island to Island” The Gulag Archipelago