There can be no failure where there is learning

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A few years ago, I had a very extreme experience which taught me a great deal. I had taken on a few other physical challenges earlier that same year, so I was certainly becoming more adventurous, and then this particular experience took me even further out of my comfort zone.

My extreme experience was The Mighty Deerstalker, a challenge described as “A cult running event deep in the Scottish Borders. The infamous course sends you across rivers, through forests and over a mountain or two in the pitch dark on a chilly March night.”

I know, I know… I really had no business whatsoever attempting this. It was a last-minute invitation from one of my favourite workout buddy’s from boot camp and seemed like a fun adventure, so I just said ‘Yes!‘.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I’m partway around the course… The weather had been on our side, and during the initial stages, the atmosphere was a lot of fun, plus I was keeping a reasonable pace with my race partner, Heather, so it didn’t seem too awful. At one point, I even remember thinking, “I’ve never felt so alive,” perhaps beginning to believe that I really was Wonder Woman… ah, you’ve got to love a bit of adrenalin.

Jean MacAskil - Mighty DeerstalkerThen the experience began to shift – the uphill part for me had been fine, but for Heather, that part had been brutal on her legs. We got to the top of our first hill, and something happened in my head and to my body. I suddenly felt very out of control.  The imminent downhill section terrified me and physically pained me in equal measure.  Multiple runners were barrelling past me, many chasing a specific finishing time.  At this point, I wasn’t entirely sure I was even going to be able to get off the hill, never mind finish the race.

I can recall that moment of terror so vividly like it was yesterday. I was holding onto a tree and using some deep breathing techniques to calm myself down enough to carry on. Though, all I could think about was getting the hell out of the race!

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.I managed to keep moving and a little further along the route was a cut-off for those only wishing to do the half-course. Having set out to do the ‘full stalker’, taking this ‘shortcut’ felt like a failure. There was a moment of hesitation, a little regret, but then an overwhelming feeling of not giving one tiny sh!t about my perceived failure. I was done.

Although I’d quickly made the decision to only attempt half the course, deep down I knew it was the safest option for me. My partner said she was keen to complete the full course, as the downhill part would be a breeze for her. I know Heather didn’t want just to abandon me, so I promised her I’d be fine and would wait for her at the finish line, we then said our farewells before she headed off alone into the dark! Go Heather!

As the majority of participants had already completed the race or were off doing the full course, the final stages of my run were eerily quiet; I too was alone as my inner voice of doubt and failure started to creep in. Now cold and tired, the sense of failure also began to sit heavy on my shoulders – a horrible feeling as was the feeling of wading waist-deep in freezing cold water under a bridge.

Jean MacAskil - Mighty DeerstalkerAs you can imagine, the finish line–which was a mudslide down a hill–was a very welcome sight. With a good dose of hysteria, laced with immense relief, I skidded down towards the finish – at precisely the moment both my head and chest torches died!

As I crossed the finish line, I felt every shred of feeling like a failure evaporate.

Here I was, a 48-year-old woman, decidedly unsporty, lumbering about the Scottish countryside on a Saturday night, running up hills, successfully traversing through mud and water for over five miles. How could that be a failure?

So, what did I learn?

I’d learned to listen to my instinct, that a steep second hill would have been too dangerous to attempt (how right I was – given the batteries on both of my torches barely made it halfway around the course also). I’d learned how to calm my terror through mindful breathing and sufficiently brought myself back to the present to reach the finish line.

By any standard, it was an incredible experience and I learned so much. To be clear, though I will never do this particular challenge again, it has left me with a completely new attitude towards learning. I continue to look for adventures that will teach me something new; I just don’t worry about being “brilliant” at them.

Do you have a failure that may, in retrospect, have been a learning moment? Is there a past experience you could reframe or a future experience you would now try?

Remember, growth and comfort never come together – annoying, but true. ?

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