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Sidney Clarke: Pain brings strength and feelings of failure are winning proof

March 30, 2017 GMT

I’m a rower for the Rochester Rowing Club, not a runner. However, to my weekly dismay, rowing workouts include running.

Although I loathe running, I’ve done some pretty good thinking while I crawl along, no less than five minutes behind my team, my knees burning. Most of these contemplations are the negative variety — everything from “you can’t do this” to “fake a leg injury so you don’t have to keep going,” and “jump off the bridge to put yourself out of this misery.”

On these runs, I’ve learned just about everything EXCEPT how to run. I know how to make sure I’m actually running when within eyesight of pedestrians before the merciful trees can shield my hobble-walk from public eye once again. I know how to pretend that everything is fine, offering a wave to my teammates lapping me, and how to arrive at the finish line last with pride.

On a metaphorical level, these skills are exceedingly depressing, but recently, I’ve discovered how important the graceless finish is.

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You may see me huffing along around Silver Lake, tripping over my soggy shoe laces, wondering how far behind the others I’ll finish. As a passenger in a car, you might use your facial expression to ask if there is anything you can do to help, or if you should call an ambulance.

However, I can assure you that I’m just fine (in an excruciating way). I’ve changed my mind about running and decided that there is no shame in finishing last, no matter how long it takes. There is only shame is in giving up.

As I run, the oxygen levels in my brain must become critically low because my thoughts are loopier than usual; making up metaphors about life while at the same time hoping for mine to end with sudden grandeur. In my mind, life is like a run. Most of the time, you’ve got goose poop from Silver Lake in the treads of your sneakers, your ears are frozen, and sometimes your friends completely disappear from sight. You’ll be lapped by beautiful people, easily sprinting while also maintaining relaxed conversations, wearing colorful spandex leggings.

Maybe the only reason you’re still running is for your coach or the peer pressure. If you’re like me, you’ll spend a lot of time walking and feeling like a failure, then temporarily collecting your resolve to run once again. You’ll play games: promising that if you just make it to the mailbox at the end of the block you’ll reward yourself by walking across the street.

Years ago, as a below-average swimmer, I talked to a coach about my running insecurities. His response was simple. “That’s why we do it. We run because you hate it, and because it’s hard. It hurts because it makes you strong.”

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I understood the concept on a literal level. The mechanics made sense, and my blind devotion to the coach forced me to nod my head and act like I truly understood. Since then, I’ve learned that every athlete’s goals are in a slightly different dimension, and accepting that is the first step to improving.

Getting strength hurts. In order for muscles to grow, first they have to be destroyed. To become self-sufficient, first you must be abandoned. Sometimes just to finish, you have to come in last.

Whoever said ‘life is a piece of cake’ had no idea what they were talking about. Life is going to make your knees, your hips, and your lungs fail — but that’s the point. The feeling of failure is proof of effort.