On a flat, paved surface, the average adult takes about 2,000 steps to walk one mile. In a race that spans 268 miles though mountains and varied terrain in the dead of winter in the United Kingdom, that amounts to something like 540,000 steps. And all it takes is one wrong step to take you out of the race. One step out of 540,000 is .000002% of the race, but that’s enough to delete months of training and effort.
We’re celebrating Send-It September here at Gnarly, but the less glamorous truth is that in order to send, most of us have to fail first, and sometimes epically fail. We checked in with two Gnarly athletes to discuss what failures they’ve experienced and how those have factored into their wins. Ben Light and Corinna Coffin – both endurance athletes – have taken a wrong step at one point that has changed the outcome of their race, training session, or even career as an athlete. How they bounced back is the important part.
For Ben Light, his misstep was during the Spine race, a 268-mile winter ultramarathon in Britain. The brutal nature of the terrain and weather means every racer is required to carry about 15 pounds of gear in case of an emergency, plus water, and an extra 3,000-calories of food. In boggy terrain that was mushy and uneven, Ben stepped aside to let oncoming racers through, but the sidestep caused one leg to sink deep into the muck while the other remained solid on a stepping stone. The passing racers stopped to help him up, then he continued racing with torn pants.
Ben didn’t notice any pain from his fall until 20 miles later. His hip and IT band were injured, but the pain wasn’t enough to stop. He settled in for a quick nap, but with his mind on his hip, he fell asleep with shin compression sleeves on. Restricted blood circulation to his feet caused swelling so intense that his boots didn’t fit anymore. The combination of hip injury and swollen feet meant Ben had to pull the plug on the Spine race of 2017.
Corinna’s wrong step was in the last mile of a 13-mile obstacle race. She tripped on a rock and split her knee on a downhill path. The gash was deep enough that it pulled her from the race. It also wouldn’t heal in time for her to compete in the World Championship, forcing her to pull herself off that roster as well.
The common thread between both of these missteps is that neither Ben or Corinna saw their unsuccessful attempts as a failure. Sure, on paper both of them were quantified as failures, but the sting didn’t last long.
“Failure is not a bad word. Failure is not an identity or a label,” Ben said. “It’s a step in the process to success.”
Ben signed up for the 2018 Spine race before he even made it home to Utah. Going into a race of that length with some idea of what the course will feel like gave Ben a massive advantage during his next attempt. The weather, however, had some big plans and went into epic snowstorm mode. He finished with a time of 153:39:25 in 33rd place out of 53 competitors. Sixty five participants did not finish that year. Ben’s misstep in 2017 paved the way for his success in the 2018 race, snowstorm be damned.
Ben’s list of races that he didn’t finish can fit inside of his hand, but he’s not keeping any sort of grip on it; they’ve fallen away. The failures were learning points on the way to success. He also aligns himself with runner friends who are positive and lift up his spirits during races, making the miles tick by with less thought dedicated to the pain. Blisters will happen, sure, but a good running mate helps tape them up and puts the focus on moving forward. Ben understands that pain in an ultrarace is inevitable, but his reaction to the pain is a choice.
“As an ultrarunner, I’ve learned how to control my reaction to a problem and how to think it through.” It’s this positive mentality that allowed Ben to finish third in the Triple Crown of 200s in 2018, three 200-mile ultraraces over three consecutive months. His finishing time was 225:53:58. The number of blisters is unknown.
Corinna’s knee injury changed the course of her athletic career. While recovering, she focused on CrossFit, then decided this fit her life better than obstacle racing. Her first year in competitive CrossFit took her to the regional competition. When Corinna looks at success, she focuses on a holistic view. “Beyond the workout component – take a step back and make sure that you’re addressing all areas of health, whether that’s mental, emotional, or nutritional health.” Failure can come from neglecting any one of these aspects.
Having experienced intense burnout in obstacle racing, Corinna’s current training consists of nothing written in pen – it’s all erasable. Keeping plans flexible and adapting her training depending on how her body feels is her key to success. If the five-mile run feels terrible, there’s zero shame in walking home. “It’s so easy to be hard on yourself and feel like the only way to get through is to push harder, push harder. A lot of times we need to show ourselves some grace and love ourselves a little bit harder.”
Send-it September at Gnarly is all about celebrating wins, but every athlete – professional or weekend warrior – knows that behind every win is an entire truckload of failures. Our athletes fail over and over. They study these instances when everything went wrong and use it as a road map for improvement. They fix the issues and get back after it. Not sending is just part of the process. Failing to try again is the only real failure.