Last night, my wife told me that Karl Meltzer, the ultra-runner who was attempting to set an AT speed record of 47 days was still racking up massive daily mileage even though injuries several weeks ago had demolished his chances at the record. 60 miles one day, 40 on another, Meltzer is still pushing himself as hard as he can. I gotta respect that. He could’ve easily packed up his plan and headed back home to Sandy, Utah when the window for the record vanished within the first 20 days. He could’ve just decided to dial back the mileage and turn the rest of his thru-run into one long and immensely productive training block. Instead, he’s pushing himself to perform his best, and I have no doubt that he’ll reach the end of the AT in Georgia later this month with an immense feeling of satisfaction, one that’ll he’ll ride for years.
I call this the idea of a “successful failure.” The idea is that by pushing ourselves to our limits, win or lose, we come out better for it. Successful failure can take many forms. I recall the writer/climber Mark Jenkins telling me that his favorite experience on Denali was when he had to turn back before summiting because of weather–not the other time he successfully climbed it–because he came back a wiser man. And I can vouch for the idea as well: 45 miles into a 100k mountain-bike race run through Beaver Creek, I crashed and tore all the muscles in my left thumb. After 45-minutes of wallowing in self-pity at the last aid station, I sucked it up and finished the ride, maneuvering my bike with one hand. Finishing that race was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever accomplished, and it buried the idea of “quit” several levels deeper into my psyche.
When I think about it, the effectiveness of every single work out or exercise is predicated on the idea of successful failure. The most important push-up or pull-up or sprint that you do is that last one that you can’t complete. That last rep—to failure—is the one that sparks the body to grow stronger so you can do one more rep next time. The last miles of a 20-mile hike, when your body is exhausted, and you’re not thinking straight, are the ones that will make the next 20-miler feel much easier. Several decades ago, the cycling community used a thing called bonk training, where a rider would purposely go for a long ride with nothing more than a water bottle and make himself bonk. The idea was that this experience would then change the body’s energy systems to use fuel more efficiently and enable a rider to go longer on less (While effective, it was dangerous and no fun for the rider.).
As for Meltzer, I’m sure he’ll come off his record attempt with some powerful additions to his mental and physical strength. The AT might have beaten him, but I wouldn’t bet against him at the next ultra-marathon he enters. He’ll have 2,174 miles of experience in the bank that no one else can touch.