Imagine training for months, maybe years, with the goal of finishing an Ironman triathlon and then after swimming 3.8km, cycling 180km, and running 42km you miss the cut off by 56 seconds.  Would you be distraught, or happy? I suspect that most people would be distraught, but I’m hoping to offer you an alternative perspective. One where you find happiness in this result. OK, it might take a few days but eventually you see this as a success.

The cut off time to finish an Ironman triathlon is 17 hours, at last in the majority of races. Surprisingly the number of people who DNF (did not finish) is extremely low, less than 5%, and many of those are due to injury, illness, or mechanical issues.

There are other cut offs:  Finish the 3.8km swim within 2hrs 10 minutes, and then arrive back in T2 (Transition 2) at the end of a 112-mile cycle before 10 hours and 30 minutes has elapsed. There are competitors who miss these deadlines. But even if you just beat the T2 cut off that gives you 6 1/2 hours to cover 42km, an average speed of 6.5kmh or roughly 4mph.  A challenging pace for must humans, but we aren’t talking about normal humans. These are people wanting to be an Ironman.

As a coach my job is to help people achieve their goals. Often these goals are lofty.  Remember Big Hairy Audacious Goals as popularised by the book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies?  Of course, these were supposed to be “strategic and emotionally compelling” goals for business but somewhere along the line they have been hijacked by coaches and individuals seeking to push their boundaries.  “Shoot for the moon and you might reach the stars” means that even if you only reach the stars it’s likely to still be a profoundly satisfying journey. The alternative is to remain in your comfort zone, which personally seems like a life unfulfilled.  These goals do not have to be sporting, however the people I work with generally do choose challenges which are going to push them mentally and physically. Often, they have tested (and continue to test) their limits in business and feel that there is still another gap to be filled.

Everyone has limits. In this context we are talking mainly about physical and mental limits.  It’s true that the mind can go much further than we either give it credit for or have ever explored. Occasionally one will observe an athlete blacking out before the finish line of an endurance event (think Ali Brownlee at the 2010 London WTS triathlon run, or his brother Johnny in that famous “he’s not heavy he’s my brother” incident in Cozumel 2016). There are other instances, but they are rare. Most humans do not have the mental capacity to push to the point where the brain calls a halt. Prof Tim Noakes has done some research on this subject, which is known as the central governor theory.  If a person did push to that point, then they would find their mental and physical limits.

What is your physical limit? Even with a super strong mental strategy you can only work with the tools you have. As I mentioned earlier, it is possible to push the body further than you think it can go, but each person has a physical limit and when most people say they are wanting to find out what they are capable of this is what I think they’re referring to.

Is it possible to run a 3-hour marathon, swim the Channel, or finish an Ironman? Many people have achieved these goals, so of course it is physically possible.  But what about for you?

If you are 50, and have only ever run marathons finishing around 4 hours, then it might be a goal too far, but should that stop you? Or might it be possible?  What about swimming the Channel? I know some very capable swimmers who have tried and not quite made it, and others who seem much weaker but who managed to step onto French soil.  The same with finishing an Ironman.

You need grit, determination, months or years of training, some genetic talent (even swimmers who conquer the Channel and say “I’m not a good swimmer” have some genetic talent, even if it’s not to the level of Michael Phelps), a good strategy, and a large helping of luck.

So, let’s go back to our Ironman competitor who narrowly missed the 17-hour cut off.  He set himself a goal of covering 140.6 miles in 17 hours and missed this by 56 seconds.  Clearly on that day, on that course, he gave everything he had, and it wasn’t quite good enough. (By the way, the course he chose, IM Wales, is exceptionally tough. Choosing a different Ironman event might have had a different outcome).

On the Monday morning after the race, this gentleman probably woke up feeling like a failure.  But why should he? He missed his goal by 0.0009%. That’s a tiny margin over 17 hours.

Here is my alternative view, which instead champions his success.  First, he probably chose Ironman Wales because it’s one of the toughest Ironman races in the world. He must have known it would challenge him right to the core. He pushed and pushed and collapsed across the line, nil more to give.

He found his limits!

If his goal was to find out what he was capable of or where his limits were, then he is a spectacular success! Most people never get to find out.  It doesn’t end there. These were just his limits on that particular day.  I know one lady who did try to swim the Channel and ended up swimming against the tide for 2 hours, all while just 3 miles from France. Eventually she succumbed to exhaustion, having found her temporary limits. After licking her wounds, she refocussed and built up to another attempt where she swam the Channel in 11 1/2 hours. New limits reached!

Thomas Edison failed 9,000 times before succeeding. Failure should not be feared. If we do not fail, then how can we learn what we need to do better to achieve our goals?

As for our hero in this story, I do not think he failed. Sure, he won’t get a medal for finishing the Ironman in under 17 hours, but time is just one measure of success.  This guy, like many of you reading, set out to find his limits and he did just that.  We are all on a journey. It doesn’t always go according to plan. Dealing with setbacks (if you can call this a setback) is part of that journey. Medals are just trinkets. The real prize is the experiences and lessons learned.

Keep on seeking your limits. One day you will find them, and that will be a success not a failure.