Thursday, May 30, 2013

"Checkered by Failure"

As the start date of a substantial hike (about 220 miles) approaches, I have been contemplating various possibilities of failure relating to physical challenges and exercise. When I did a similar hike two years ago, my body didn’t fail me in any way, though I did experience serious blisters. My companions and I completed the hike on schedule. But in between that hike and this one, two of those companions had to curtail a long-distance hike because of serious knee problems (too ambitious a distance on hilly terrain on their first day). Their hike, in a sense, was a failure.

In other ways, of course, it was a success: the time enjoyed in each other’s company and the impressive first leg of the trip. Failure and success are relative, and with exercise, they can be two sides of the same coin. In most of my weightlifting, I do a set of an exercise to failure. So not 10, 12, or 15 bicep curls, but as many as I can do until my strength gives out. I usually plan the amount of weight in hopes of doing an approximate number—that is, I don’t randomly choose a weight and shoot for the stars—but I nearly always plan to fail. The success part of this is either a personal best number of reps or the best effort I could give.

One potential failure that stands out in my experience is an aborted cross-lake swim. Three years ago, some cousins and I decided to swim across Lake Alexander in central Minnesota, where the cousins have a lake cabin. We didn’t have total confidence we could make it across, but we felt reasonably sure of ourselves. Others were boating alongside us, just in case. Unfortunately, we had made it perhaps a third of the way to the opposite shore when tornado warnings blared from the boat’s radio, forcing us to abandon the mission and get back to the cabin’s storm cellar.

I have wondered several times since then if we would have made it across, and I wonder if any of us will try it again. The lake is still there. I go there about once a summer. Will the mood strike again to try, to risk failure? In general I don’t think I take that risk enough. Although I regularly set myself up to fail with my weightlifting routine, it’s really a safe way to fail, by now well within my comfort zone. I should push myself to failure in different ways, especially while I’m still fairly young and physically resilient.  

To return to my upcoming hike, I can only hope that the training we have done and the general good health we’re lucky to have will prevent knee problems, muscle strains, and any other injuries that would force us to discontinue the journey. Since the hike will be in North Dakota, I’ll conclude with a quote from someone who loved that state, Theodore Roosevelt:

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in that grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.1

1. From “The Strenuous Life,” a 1899 speech to the Hamilton Club in Chicago, according to