The Feeling of Failure

By Marie Douay

I started trail running in Asia only a few years ago when I signed up for a 19k race, which I ran with just my Adidas shoes and a water bottle. I just loved it and only two weeks later, I signed up for a 50k race.

I started running to “get in shape”, but with trail-running I found way more, it allowed me to clear my mind of a persistent discomfort, to set & achieve goals and to let go of the pressure in other aspects of my life. From this, my routine started to change for the better, I started going to bed early on Fridays evening, had lots of early mornings to go to the mountains of Sai Kung or Lantau (Country Parks of Hong Kong) and I also choose my holidays differently - not for the museums, restaurants & beaches but mostly for the running landscape. It was only logical for me to sign up for the famous 100k Oxfam Trailwalker team race, as a perfect new challenge!


It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but trail running never is, as that is what it is about, getting through the challenges it brings you. At the 20th kilometer of the Trailwalker, my right knee started to hurt, then at the 40th kilometer, I had to kneel and stretch every 10 minutes to relieve the pain. At the 15 hour point and the 72nd kilometer I ended up wrapped in a blanket, which clearly meant my DNF status. With this feeling of failure, I felt pathetic sitting on the edge of the pavement while all the other runners passed by shouting “less than 30k to go”. Pretentious for thinking once I might be able to run this distance. Isolated when my friends the next day told me that there were plenty of other races and that I did too much. Envious when I saw the success of all the other teams.


I thought that this state of mind would gradually disappear, and I even proposed shortly to ATG team to write an article about that experience. Finally, it has been a long journey digging in this feeling of failure and understanding why it was still coming back when one of my goals was not achieved.


After confiding in people, interestingly enough I found many other women felt the same and not just in sports but all aspects of their life. I was inspired to write this article to highlight the success in failure for all to see and hear. ‘Failing’ only makes us stronger!

Here are a few “mistakes” which nurtured this feeling:


1. Build self-confidence on accomplishments rather than self-love.

Statements such as “She is born to run” or “I am a self-entrepreneur and a mother of three” define us purely by what we have accomplished in our lives. Too many of us that define our worth in this way. We introduce ourselves by what we have accomplished and built as mothers, wives, business women, athletes etc.


The thing is - we are so much more than that. Our worth does not lie in the ability to succeed and to accomplish, because that would mean that without that job, that family, those friends, you will unconsciously consider yourself as worthless.


2. Compare yourself with others

“I won’t join this run as I cannot run as fast as the others”

Comparing yourself to an elite athlete is different than being inspired by her/him, you should really put into practice a routine or a training towards a better version of yourself and not compare.


If we do not appreciate our weaknesses as much as our strengths, we will always compare ourselves negatively, even unconsciously, with these models we idealized. Embracing our weaknesses will allow us to keep on improving ourselves without a constant feeling of not being good enough.


3. Thinking pain is only in your mind

That is the motto of many ultra-runners, the pain cave. Going through our nervous system stimulus and fighting against its automatic mechanism during long hours somehow becomes an indicator of how impressive a race or a challenge can be. However, pain is our best indicator to appreciate our body state and it seems that only a long experience teaches us to distinguish the pain related to training dysfunction which could cause more serious issues (if it stays for more than 24 hours, it should be considered serious). But there are other factors to consider, especially if you have a busy life on the side, because the pain tires nervously, without you realizing it. Hence the importance of exploring it little by little, to avoid a real burnout.


4. Running to save yourself.

Practicing is an ideal way to decompress and clear the mind, but it can never completely erase deep negative thoughts or heal psychological wounds. On the contrary, there is a serious risk in overdoing it or not exercising properly (without core or plyometrics preparation), which can lead to an injury.


The body is a beautiful machine, and it is important to take care of it. Olympic coaches have understood this well and it is now more common for their athletes to have a psychological support included in their training. Even at an amateur level, investing in yourself in this way is crucial to breaking negative thought loops, which may be based on trauma or unhealed wounds.


Please bear in mind that this article is not intended to directly give the keys to erase the feeling of failure and cultivate self-confidence. It is up to everyone to take from it what they deem interesting or useful.


Here are some additional actions I personally took:


Set achievable goal steps in all aspects of our life (not just sport) and be honest with yourself if you know some of them simply cannot be achieved (for example you might need to train more this year rather than signing up for a100k race straight away).


Surround yourself with open and caring people, not people who will only -directly or indirectly- challenge you.


Write a bullet journal to keep track of your progress. This “secret diary” will be the best way for you to avoid the frustration related to the feeling of stagnation by re-reading the progress you have made over the last years or months. No need to write novels, it can be simple: 5 things that make you proud, 5 negative words or actions and their alternatives for next time.


I wish you the best for both your trail-running and unconditional self-love practices.

Marie