The Lovely Beauty of Failure

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“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games.  On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

                        – Michael Jordan

It’s all so damn beautiful. Failure. Mistakes. Biking. Writing. My life. It’s all so Goddamn beautiful, even though it’s full of mistake after mistake.

I’m thirty-one years old. I’m not a mother. I’m not a wife. I’m not any of it. I don’t have a book published. I’m not you or you or you. I am here, trying, working, thinking, cycling, running, playing, wondering. I am.

Two weeks ago at Nickel City training it was only ashes inside of me. It was coals simmering. It was black and grey burning there in my stomach, whispering in its smoldering breath, “You can’t. You can’t. You can’t.” Inside I’m burnt up; I’m spent. That fire is extinguished and I’ve gone out with it. I can’t get my head into this space: the winning space. The space where you know you can go fast.

“I’ve got one match to light,” says my teammate. She’s racing against a man who has joined us for our training. “You’ve got about three, but I’ve got one.” She tells him as they are racing, drafting off one another for a couple minutes, taking turns. She thinks he’s pulling her along more than she’s helping him, but from where I am, she looks like she’s keeping up pretty damn well.

Me on the other hand: I’m lost. I’m a mile behind and the space is growing. Usually I can keep up. Usually I’m in it. Today, this morning, I’m not. My legs are slow. My breath is weak. I’m tired. I’m flat out tired. I’m pushing my legs and I’m angry with them: why aren’t you stronger? Move! Sprint! Succeed!

My teammate has .2 miles to go and she storms it. She lights that match and she’s off. She’s through the finish line and she’s won against this man, who’s a good sport, who’s a good cyclist, who seems like an overall really good guy. She’s won though and she’s smiling ear to ear: out of breath.

I have to stay on my bike longer than everyone else. They’re off, but I’m still trekking along. This is the part that sucks. This is the red in the face embarrassment that comes with failure. However, I remind myself: I am not these women. Not yet anyway. These women run half marathons and full marathons, Ironmans. The most I’ve done is 5ks. That’s it and I’ve never even timed myself at this. Actually at one 5k I thought I was going to cough up blood. That was a cool experience.

But then I remember the chrysalis of myself. I remember what my bike mentor told me in the café, “compare yourself to who you were not who you want to be.” I remember when I was tired all the time, when I was sort of depressed, when I barely made it to spin class. Now, I am in a nascent state. I am in the learning state. I am in the failing state. I will fail and I will fail and I will fail until I don’t fail.

But really this day, this Monday, I have won something at this bike training session. A lovely kind of friendship—the kind you only find in teams. It’s not about making competition cruel and ragged. It’s about the art of the sport: being friends with those you are racing against. It’s about the community of competition. It’s about the next day and the message on Facebook that is from my teammate. She says, “I’ve been there. I’ve struggled. It’s about the journey.” I noticed yesterday that she stayed on the bike next to me and pedaled along: her feet out of her shoes, her socks resting on the tops of her shoes. She’s riding there right along with me even though she doesn’t have to—she’s been done for ten minutes.   When I am finished, it doesn’t feel great, but it feels okay. It feels okay to fail because I know I have learned. I have gone to the training. I have shown up. I have tried. I have not been too shy, too scared, too weak.

I ended three miles behind to the applause of my teammates and the men training with us. Sometimes I don’t know what winning will be. It won’t be winning the race, not this year at least, but it might be something else. It might be winning the respect of myself.

The other day it was thirty-nine degrees out. I got home from the café and I put on all of my warm clothes and I looked it mirror and thought, “I can do this.”

I got on my bike and I was off. Twenty-four miles per hour felt good.   My legs could do it. I didn’t go for that long because it was effing freezing with the wind chill, but I went to Delaware Park and I did it. I did a few laps and then made it home, chilled to the bone. It wasn’t a long distance—a quick eight miles. I hadn’t conquered anything grand, but I got back on my bike.

When I was out there in the park by myself, I saw the beauty of our city. I rode past the bison. I rode through the molecules of the cloudy day. I looked at my life and I realized: I am so happy. It’s not about the down hills. It’s not about always succeeding. It’s about the challenge. It’s about the uphills, the hard grind, my legs pushing and pushing and pushing through. It’s about the failure. Failure is what makes us who we are; without failure, we would never risk anything. Without failure, we would never learn. Cycling. These moments in my mind. These memories. This time in my life. It’s just all so damn beautiful.

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This is for you.

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This is for you.  For you with the heart that beats for something bigger.  For you with the legs that wants to race and race and win.  For you with the taste of victory on your tongue: sweet like ripened plums.

This is for you, you elementary, middle school, high school girl.  For the races you want to win.  For whatever sport you pivot, you cut, you turn in.  For the yearning to compete with a team of other girls: to slap hands on the field, the court, in the pool.  This is for you who wants to sprint against a boy.  And win.

This is for you who knows exactly who you are.  For the self inside of you that isn’t grown up yet, but knows exactly who she’ll be one day.  For the girl who knows she’s got years and years of childhood left.  For barefoot summer days.  For biking through your neighborhood at dusk in the fall.  For snowboarding quick down the hill: heel turn, toe turn, heel turn, rush, rush, rush, and your smooth like Sunday jazz.   For looking in the mirror at your muscles.  And smiling.

This is for you who has failed.  For you who hides in the lime green bathroom stall and lets tear plummet to the floor.  For you who sulks to a room full of Mia Hamm posters and thinks how badly it sucked when the other team won because you missed the pass.  You lost.  You were crushed.  You were favored to win and you failed.  When you didn’t make it quite in time.  When your parents told you, “But you tried really hard” and it felt like glass under your tongue.

This is for you who wears LuLu lemon yoga gear, North Face, Mountain Hardware, Nike, Ibex, the most expensive sneakers.  This is for you who doesn’t own a pair.

This is for you who thinks “I can.  I will.”  This is for you who ran a 5k when she was eleven years old and told her Dad, “Sorry, I’ve got to go faster than this” and beat adults through the finish line.  This is for you who smashed the window practicing lacrosse in the backyard.  This is for you who was a string bean of a thing, a split between her teeth and a dream.  This is for you who wanted ground ball after ground ball.  Assist after assist.  For you who is squirrelly out there. For you who ran suicides in the gym before the season started.  This is for you.

This.  This.  This.  This moment in this room with these four women.  Legs moving fast: up and around a circle, pull through, no dead space.  Six percent incline and then drop to a descent.  Muscles tightening together and sweat breaking and we in the back of a bike shop and there is a screen and I’m in second last place, but to me it feels just about damn victory because it means I’m keeping up for twenty-five miles.   We are racing each other and racing ourselves.  We are women aged thirty to fifty.  We are grown up versions of our childhood selves: of you.

This.  This.  This. My watts are increasing.  My heart is beating.  My thighs are burning.  I can feel it in my chest.  We all want to win.  This motion and grit and hard work and hair up in ponytails above sweaty necks. As a team, we are training now so we might stand a chance.  We are unity.  We are individuality.  We are poetry.

This is for you.  For you.  For you.

This is for me.