Thinking About Mental Toughness and Resilience When Coming to Terms with Failing
It’s really easy to think about having mental toughness and being resilient when everything is going well. But what I learned last week after failing in my FKT attempt of the La Cloche trail due to a severe error in navigation is that being mentally tough when the going gets hard presents a really odd dichotomy of challenge.
The situation: At 20 miles into the 50-mile loop, we realized that we had actually backtracked 5 miles—meaning to finish the loop of extremely technical terrain would involve doing 60 miles total instead of 50 miles. We had food for 50 miles, we had prepared for 50 miles. I’ve never run more than 30 miles, and 60 would have meant certainly not getting the FKT and also that we would be running in the dark for at least 3 hours even at record-breaking pace. Added to that, the mental challenge of continuing to run for 40 more miles after an error that big was pretty upsetting. Between that and the fact that if we just went back to the start, completing a 32 mile run on the gnarliest trails I’ve ever been on, we could be at camp for a late lunch and recovered to start running again later in the week… well, it made sense to finish the day early rather than risk everything for literally no payoff other than me retaining a tiny bit of pride at having completed the task. (My coach, when I explained this to him: “THANK YOU FOR NOT DOING THAT.”)
Here’s where the mental toughness gets tricky.
I cried, I cursed, I got ANGRY for a couple of miles. Then, I started looking for silver linings:
- Neither me nor Peter was injured—the problem was navigation, not a bonk, not an ankle sprain, not a heart attack
- I was still doing my longest run ever
- I was still running with my favorite person in the world
- I could get done with the run and think about racing again in October
- 32 miles of trails is still nothing to sneeze at
- At least the trail and this FKT will remain looming in my future, and I could look at the FKT as an even bigger challenge and have an even more extreme time goal, now that I have more time to train
- If you win everything, where’s the fun in that?
OK, silver linings found. My mood shifted from being grumpy and sad AF to back to my normal reasonably happy state. (No, I don’t smile a lot, but I’m rarely in A. Bad. Mood. I’m very Irish with my emotions—angry for a minute, back to happy the next. Just ask my mom.)
So, on one hand: Does mental toughness and resiliency mean giving in and accepting that this is where you’re at, and being happy in the present moment?
Or… Is my willingness to get over being upset about missing out on this huge goal of mine (for now) a cop-out? Am I not mentally that tough? Should I have stayed angry, should I have run the extra 18 miles to hit 50 miles even when the FKT was out of reach?
I felt guilty for not staying with the bad feelings for very long. Like I should have been mourning harder, and if I didn’t, it meant that I didn’t care enough.
Suddenly, I was questioning my racing as a whole: Do I ever really go deep, other than in a final sprint to the finish?
It’s easy to say you’re mentally tough and resilient when you’re winning—but are you actually?
I was suddenly super stressed out that my casual ‘well, it didn’t happen this time’ shift in attitude made me a less committed athlete.
Was I mentally resilient, or was I just a cream-puff who, when she doesn’t get her goal, just gives up?
Giving up is a strong sentiment, but when a friend asked if I would try the trail again the next day (after running that 53 kilometers!) or later this month, I felt SO GUILTY saying I wasn’t. Not because it’s a goal I’m giving up on, though. It’s because I don’t like doing anything half-assed, and another attempt this fall would be 100% half-assed, because of so many reasons, from daylight and weather to the training itself.
Instead, I’ll go back as soon as possible next year, with a more ambitious goal and a smarter navigation plan. In the meantime, I signed up for another couple races in October to make sure that I finish the season on a high note—not necessarily with wins or anything, just with race days that (hopefully) go according to plan.
In this roundabout way, I’ve talked myself out of feeling like a cream-puff, but it’s a nagging feeling that’s come up a few times since we’ve gotten back. It’s not a feeling I like—but I think this is probably how most people struggle after not hitting one of their main goals. How long can you flog yourself for not getting it? Should you? In this case, there’s an identifiable problem and solution, not based on my training or anything that I had prepped for. It was something I hadn’t factored in as an issue, so how long can I beat myself up?
There isn’t much sense in feeling bad about a failure—mental toughness isn’t continuing to lament a missed goal, it’s thinking critically and logically about the next best steps and making plans to ensure that the same mistake doesn’t happen again.
But for anyone who needs to hear this—I think it’s normal to question your mental toughness and commitment when you don’t feel like you’re mourning the loss of a goal as much as you maybe should be. You’re still mentally tough—if anything, this just means your resiliency has improved.