How to Move from Epic Failure to Epic Success
By Ryan Hall
I’ll never forget a pastor saying one Sunday that if you are going to be a big dreamer, you had better develop equally big resilience. Those words really resonated with me because I’d always been a big dreamer, but I hadn’t considered the cost that would come with it. In my running career, I’d had plenty of failures. The ones that stuck out the most were my costing my team an NCAA cross-country team championship during my freshman year at Stanford when we lost by one point—a point I would have easily scored if I had run close to my potential—and failing to qualify for the NCAA Track and Field Championships during my first three years at Stanford. If I had parallel lists of races I deemed successes and races I deemed failures, the failures list would probably be twice as long.
Only a month before the 2011 Boston Marathon, where I had one of my greatest successes and ran my fastest time ever (2:04:58), I’d suffered one of the biggest failures of my career. I had been training in the thin air of Flagstaff, Arizona (7,000 feet), and was running some of the best workouts of my life. I’d routinely do 15-mile tempo runs near a five-minutes-per-mile pace on hilly courses. I was feeling strong and running times in workouts that I had never touched before, so I expected my races to be breakthroughs as well. I couldn’t wait to go out and test my fitness against some of the world’s best runners at the New York City Half Marathon as a tune-up a month before my goal marathon.
Many times in my career, I found that I fell the hardest when my expectations were the highest. Obviously, it’s a positive thing to have your training going well when you have a major competition on the horizon, but usually if my high level of fitness led me to believe that the race would be easy, I was setting myself up for a big disappointment. I learned to arrive at the starting line of every race expecting it to be hard, to hurt worse than ever before, and to be an epic challenge. Generally when I had this mindset, I was surprised that the race wasn’t as hard as I’d anticipated. But this wasn’t my mindset prior to the 2011 New York City Half Marathon.
My expectation going into the NYC Half was that I could challenge my American record of 59:43. But once the gun fired and we were off, I could manage to run only the first couple of miles with the leaders at a humble pace (well slower than the 4:32 pace required to better my American record) before losing contact with the lead pack and fading a “long, slow death.” (I coined this phrase after experiencing this so many times in my career.) I ended up finishing more than five minutes slower than my personal best, which for a world-class runner amounts to the difference between running with the best runners in the world and recreational jogging. I was devastated. The worst part was I didn’t even have an excuse for my performance. I envied the runners who could blame their bad performance on what they had eaten the night before, illness, or injury. That usually wasn’t my story. Often when I didn’t perform well, the cause was a bit of a mystery to me, which I found maddening.
The NYC Half Marathon finished in Manhattan’s Battery Park, about four miles away from the starting line in Central Park. After the race, I decided to “walk it off” to process what had just happened. I set off on the four-mile trek back to the start, stopping several times to grab coffee in the hope that the caffeine would lead my mind to some grand revelation explaining the dismal day—or at least put me in a better mood. The caffeine did make for a wired walk, but even it could not lift my broken spirit.
When I reflect on the many heartbreaks of my running career, I’m able to identify what helped me get through them: I had to keep moving forward. It has been said, “If you’re going to fall, fall forward,” which to me means that you need to learn from your mistakes. But there’s more to it than that. Moving forward involves having a vision for your future that is bigger than the heartbreak you are going through. For me, walking the streets of Manhattan after the NYC Half Marathon and turning inward only made things worse. What helped me was getting up the next morning and thinking about Boston, which was only a month out. Thinking about Boston gave me hope. My training had been going phenomenally well, I was healthy, and everything—aside from the NYC Half—was clicking. I once heard on the radio that athletes need to develop amnesia about their poor performances, and I’ve found that to be true. Obviously, you want to learn from your mistakes, but you also want to be so focused on what is right in front of you that the past isn’t in your mind at all—you’ve forgotten it.
God illustrates “sports amnesia” when he tells us, “I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25). How amazing is that! God doesn’t even remember my sins, yet I continue to beat myself up over them for days, weeks, and sometimes months, which usually only causes me to struggle even more with sin. Later in the Bible, Paul affirms this attitude of forgetting the past and focusing on what is ahead when he says, “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13–14).
If we are to live out our destinies and accomplish greatness in our lives, we must realize that failure is a necessary part of the process and something we shouldn’t try to avoid. Failure can teach us and make us stronger, but this doesn’t mean that we should dwell on it. God was constantly telling the Israelites to make memorials to the Lord so they wouldn’t forget what he had done for them. He never told them to think about all the times he didn’t show up the way they wanted him to. Their focus was to be on what God was doing, not on what they thought he didn’t do. I say “what they thought he didn’t do” because God never fails us. He doesn’t always meet our expectations, because he is the only one who knows the big picture, so only he truly knows what is best for us. In tough times, we need to be reminded that God is the ultimate Father and will never fail us. He shows up exactly how we need him to in every situation. We just need to take off the glasses of our expectations so we can see him.
A month after my epic failure, I found myself on the starting line of the Boston Marathon with a smile on my face. Boston is a point-to-point (one way) course starting in Hopkinton and finishing in downtown Boston. I had run the race two times before and both times had battled pesky crosswinds and headwinds. Because I’m a natural frontrunner, wind is not my friend. Bill Rodgers (four-time winner of the Boston Marathon) had told me that once every ten years, runners get a wicked tailwind that pushes them all the way to the finish. This happened to be one of those years. I had never had the opportunity—and never would again—to run Boston at my level of training with a tailwind pushing me from start to finish.
What ensued was the fastest marathon ever run in history. I was at the front of the pack, leading a group of all African runners until the 20-mile mark. When we came through the halfway point in under 62 minutes, the race director, Dave McGillivray, radioed from his motorcycle (which was following the leaders) to his timing team that the clocks on the course were messed up, because they were displaying a time in the 61s. But they weren’t. At the time, the world record in the marathon was just under 2:04, and everyone in that lead pack was on pace to break the world record. At mile 20, the top two guys pulled away from me. I was in a world of pain, unable to respond to their surge, but that didn’t dampen my spirits. Every time I looked at my watch and saw mile after mile clicking away at a 4:45 pace, I was filled with excitement, knowing that I was running this marathon far faster than I ever had run one before.
With just one mile to go, the clock on the course read two hours flat. I knew I was going to shatter my personal best (2:06:17 at the 2008 London Marathon) and the 115-year-old course record of 2:05:52, despite being in fourth position, with the third-place runner just steps in front of me. The question was, How fast would I run? After seeing the clock, I had a discussion with myself. I had never hurt this badly in a race, which caused me to consider two options. I could chill the last mile and run it in about 5:30 or so and enjoy myself. I’d still run 2:05 and change, which sounded good to me. Or I could put my head down and run a gut-wrenching final mile, enduring what would seem like an eternity of pain in an attempt to run under five minutes and thus under 2:05 for the marathon. As I considered my options, the thought came crashing into my head that I might never be in this position again—which turned out to be true—so I decided to take the pain-filled option. When I crossed the finishing line and saw the clock reading 2:04:58, I clapped my hands, feeling the same joy as if I had won the race. The winner, Geoffrey Mutai, and second-place runner, Moses Mosop, finished close to 2:03 flat, shattering the world record. But the Boston Marathon is not eligible for world or American records because it is a net downhill as well as point-to-point course, both of which are disqualifying features. None of that mattered to me, though. I had pushed myself harder than ever before and discovered what God had put inside me. I couldn’t have been happier.
Looking at my Boston Marathon triumph in light of the failure I’d experienced one month before, I realized that the two moments were connected. One couldn’t have happened without the other. For reasons outside of my understanding, after the NYC Half, it was like a switch had gone on in my legs and in that last month before Boston I was training at a much higher level. I still can’t comprehend why I felt such a major jump in my physical fitness, but it was so apparent that I cannot deny that something about that heartbreaking race woke me up physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This experience helped me realize how intimately connected success and failure are, but the only way to reap the benefits of failure is to handle it properly. I never would have experienced the breakthrough in Boston if I’d lost hope and stopped moving forward after NYC.
Ryan Hall is an Olympic athlete and American record holder in the half marathon (59:43). But as a kid, Ryan hated running. He wanted nothing to do with the sport until one day, he felt compelled to run the 15 miles around his neighborhood lake. He was hooked.
Starting that day, Ryan felt a God-given purpose in running. He knew he could, and would, race with the best runners in the world and that his talent was a gift to serve others. These two truths launched Ryan’s 20-year athletic career and guided him through epic failures and exceptional breakthroughs to competing at the highest level.
Along the way, Ryan learned how to focus on his purpose and say no to distractions, to select and strive for the right goals–goals for the heart as well as the body. With God’s guidance and millions of miles pounded out on the track, Ryan discovered secrets to dealing with defeat and disappointment, enduring immense pain, building resilience, and ultimately, running as if you’ve already won.
Now a coach, speaker, and nonprofit partner, Ryan shares the powerful faith behind his athletic achievements and the lessons he learned that helped him push past limits, make space for relationships that enrich life on and off the running trails, and cultivate a positive mindset.
Journey with Ryan as he reflects on the joys and trials of the running life and discover for yourself the power of a life devoted to your God-given purpose.
Ryan Hall is the American Record holder for the half marathon (59:43) and has the fastest marathon time ever run by an American, with a PR of 2:04:58. He represented the United States of America at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games in the marathon. Ryan grew up in Big Bear Lake in southern California, attended Stanford University, and is currently retired from professional running. Ryan is a coach and speaker and lives in Flagstaff, AZ with his wife Sara and their four adopted daughters from Ethiopia.