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There are two types of runners—those who respond to failure with despondent discouragement, and those who respond to failure with renewed motivation.
Trail runners who fall into the first group never reach their potential. They are too busy judging themselves and moving forward in hesitant fits and starts.
Trail runners who fall into the second group are champions. Instead of comparing themselves to an unattainable ideal of perfection, they keep grinding no matter what, laughing optimistically in the face of disappointment.
It took coaching some of the top trail runners in the world for me to realize this basic principle—that the main thing separating runners of equal talent is their perspective. Here is what those champions taught me.
Devon Yanko has dealt with her fair share of injuries and setbacks, only to come back stronger each time, including a third-place finish at the 2016 Western States 100 Miler. Photo: David Roche
1. As a runner, failure is inevitable. Accept it and don’t judge.
Injuries, aging, rooting for the Chicago Cubs—what do they all have in common? Eventually, if you are concerned about results, each will make you crushingly disappointed.
It’s not about avoiding injuries, aging or subpar performances, but about how you deal with setbacks. For example, after finishing third at the 2015 North Face 50 Miler, Larisa Dannis found herself with a major lower leg injury.
She told me, “I’m up for the challenge—let’s use this time to get stronger.” So instead of sulking (after the obligatory initial sadness), she got to work. Every day, she biked and strength trained, all designed to make her more resilient and a better uphill runner when her leg healed.
Now, she is a few days from racing at the IAU World Trail Championships in Portugal for Team USA. Accepting short-term failure set her up for long-term success.
2. Comparison is the enemy of happiness.
There is always another mountain to climb, and the mountains only get taller. Someone out there will always be a better runner than you, no matter where you finish in races. Comparing yourself to unattainable perfection—and comparing yourself to other people generally—will make any runner feel like a constant failure.
I learned this from my wife Megan. After playing four years of field hockey at Duke, she joined the track team and had immediate success. She qualified for the N.C.A.A. regional meet, where she finished 15th out of 48 runners. However, only 12 girls qualified for the championships.
After she finished, I ran to the edge of the track where athletes were gathering. Dozens of young women were crying. You could almost see their internal monologue: I could have dug deeper. I could have beat that other girl.
Then I saw Megan. Her face was lit up in the biggest smile. “That was hard and fun!” she exclaimed. Instead of comparing herself to the amazing runners on the track, she was focused on internal metrics of success. She kept a positive attitude, we had some post-race ice cream (O.K., we had all the post-race ice cream) and by the next day she was motivated to move on to the next adventure (and to whatever ice cream had managed to survive the night before).
Positivity is especially important when climbing mountains. Photo: David Roche
3. Zoom out your perspective.
If that urge to compare is gnawing at your brain, be fair to yourself and zoom out appropriately. So many athletes live in a haze of self-doubt because they judge themselves in relation to the few people at the very top. Middle-of-the-pack runners do the same with people near the top, and back-of-the-packers with people in the middle.
Zoom out, though, and all of these people are pretty darn amazing in the big scheme of things. Each person that toes the line at a trail race has already taken a journey that almost everyone in the world does not take.
My mom Leslie Roche is my favorite example. She started running in her 60s with a couch-to-5K plan. Now, a few years later, she doesn’t complain about finishing in the second half of the race results. Instead, she is proud of herself for being courageous enough to start running in the first place.
Being in nature is a great reminder not to get too caught up in results. Photo: David Roche
4. Smiles beat seriousness in the long term. Practice relentless optimism about your goals.
Let’s put it all together—you will fail as a runner no matter what. If that failure doesn’t happen now, it will happen eventually when you slow down with aging. Even in a perfect-world scenario of health and performance, someone will always be faster and stronger. So what do you do in the face of all these obstacles to your running happiness?
Laugh, smile and keep on moving forward.
In time, running strips your ego down until it is exposed and vulnerable. Self-seriousness is guaranteed to create disappointment.
Instead, the runners that are fulfilled long-term are motivated by patient, persistent optimism. You will fail—so accept it. You will never be the best—so distill your motivation from within. And most importantly, remember that you made the courageous decision to make yourself vulnerable in the first place. Purposefully running into the unknown unites all of us, and it is one of the most admirable things you can do as a human being.
In short, you are awesome. Now go train, race and live like it.
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.