Inevitably, there were setbacks and races where the result didn’t seem to match the work I put in. I used to think I could set a personal record (PR) in every marathon, let alone race, I ran. I was distraught when I ruined my intentions or ‘perfect streak’ on a perfectly idealistic race day. But that disappointment, you need to let it fuel you.

Running has an incredible way of humbling you. I approached the All American Marathon in Fayetteville, like every race, with the best of intentions and expectations. Truly, I was on my way, I was hopeful. It’s been a long road to comeback from layers of setback, but I took all the necessary steps for future success: A revered training plan, epic training buddies, substantial weekly mileage, a fixed routine, early to bed, early to rise, proper nutrition and hydration, diligence, determination and maintaining a positive mindset despite challenges along the way. Preparation meets opportunity, in its most conventional state.

The race disintegrated rapidly. It was one of those races where you grasp for your back up plan and comprehend ‘this is not going to fall into place as I had originally intended”, as in, right from the start. After several weeks of battling illness, self-doubt, humility and missed training opportunities, I made my peace with the situation and just metaphorically, ‘went for it’, come what may. My goal time quickly diminished, my 26.2-mile race turned into a 13.1 run, my morale was waning and I felt like a colossal disappointment. I was trying to make intelligent decisions despite an unideal situation. “Just keep going,” I told myself. “Just keep going.”

The road to success can be long. In 2002, I was diagnosed with stage III medullary thyroid cancer. This determination was then followed by relapse, remission and then an ischemic stroke in 2014. These circumstances came with the perfect combination of highest highs and lowest lows, including the feeling of failure. I had to refocus and rebuild over and over again, while keeping my eyes fixed in the right direction. Strength really is a decision. It can be raw and muscular and powerful. But the way we often remember it, and the times it inspires us, are when we witness strength as a response to despair, difficulty or defeat. Strength can be seen when people lift themselves up after falling down, when they ask more of themselves than they think they are capable of and when they are honest with their vulnerability. I recollect the past when facing present struggle. These experiences have redefined strong for me.

Failure is our greatest teacher. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, and sometimes we get so lost along the way that we realize we don’t even know what we’re working towards. That’s the beauty of our unique experiences, and a goal, it’s not about the end result, but every step you take towards it — not giving up along the way.

There is something to be said about reframing your perspective; to embrace failure as not frowned upon but an inspiration. I’d like to think that human beings shouldn’t need to experience all struggles first-hand to have empathy and respect for the struggles of others. With all the pain and suffering around us, pain is far more serious than a crisis of confidence in sports, we have to be able to respect the infinite paths through darkness that are part of the human experience if we want a healthier Family, city and world. As runners, we all come together on the trail, road or track with our unique wounds, scars, and experiences that guide our understanding of the planet and the human condition. To pursue your individual potential as an athlete requires a willingness to face your shadow, to see things in yourself that are ugly or unideal before you are ready to, and to respect them. The repeated act of doing this for ourselves can help us develop the skill of abstract empathy for others.

Hard work doesn’t evaporate with one bad race result. And tremendous dreams and goals are not achieved overnight. All American wasn’t a failure, it was a foundation. So, here I am, back at it, putting races on the calendar and checking off the boxes; prepared to do whatever it takes to get back at it again for the next goal. The miles and paces are still there when the next season starts, combined with the armor and stronger determination to beat whatever demons had gotten me last time.

Elective hardship is the ‘thing’. It’s the thing that turns iron into steel, and humans into something greater than the sum of their parts. I am grateful to have a body that somehow withstands the torture I put it through. I am grateful to have like-minded friends. I am grateful for those who endlessly support my endeavors. I am grateful to toe the line next to thousands of other runners who are all reaching for their fullest potential. It’s not something most human beings would give a moment of consideration to, that it is actually possible to be living for years in a constant state of betterment; to consider that you are better today than you were yesterday or even a year ago, and that you will be better still the next day. If you are doing it right, you will be constantly evolving toward some version of excellence, for you. And that’s what we have to do. We have to get through whatever life deals us, dig deep for those silver linings and keep reaching for the best version of ourselves, even if we seemingly fail. Because in the end, it’s not about what we go through, it’s about how we come out of it.