How my first cross country race changed what it means to win
The buzzing crowd of runners around me is providing some shelter against the biting wind. I want to step into them, inappropriately nuzzling in for some extra warmth but I manage to restrain myself. The ground beneath my feet is a soft mud sludge, and a cloudless, blue sky stretches in front of me – unusually clear for an English November morning. My cousin and I chat to her running friends about what lies ahead.
Standing on top of the chilly hillside with the race course sloping sharply out of view in front of me, I feel like I’m at the top of a rollercoaster in the moment before the car propels forward at full speed. It stops for a couple of seconds and you’re full of anticipation for what is about to come, breath caught in your throat for what feels like forever. I see nothing in front of me but blue sky and other runners, hopping from foot to foot to stay warm. The crowd’s chit chat hums of stories from previous years’ races and my idea of completing it in a fast time fades as it becomes clear that staying upright for the whole run would be an achievement in itself. “Stay on two feet, and we’ll call this a success”, I mutter aloud.
And then suddenly, the crowd lunges forward and my first cross-country race has begun. My cousin half-runs, half-falls down the hill in front of me and immediately disappears from view, our plan to run together instantly abandoned in the chaos. Mentally adjusting to this reality is immediately interrupted by my feet sliding out from beneath me, as I hit the ground and slide three or four feet down the hill. As I struggle to my feet again, a guy in front of me pulls his foot from the muddy bog beneath us, but his shoe stays embedded in the brown gloop as if the ground sucked it from his body. My definition of success today is immediately redefined: Keep both shoes on.
The hillside evens out and the crowd narrows to pass through a country gateway, lined by barbed wire on both sides. I am nearing the brown, liquidy path when one runner’s dog stops right in the middle and decides to relieve himself right there in amongst the stampede of runners. I manage to divert around just in time, wondering if the runner has a poop bag with him. It just goes to show that when things are already messy, there can always be more sh*t on the way.
Downhill almost immediately becomes uphill, and my feet skid and slide on the wet, trampled field beneath my feet. I try to maintain some speed while obsessively focusing on keeping both shoes on. A grey-haired man’s voice interrupts my thoughts as he kindly encourages me in a thick Derbyshire accent. “You’re alright, love,” he half-yells at me. “Keep on going!” He’s running next to his wife. They’re holding hands and adorned in matching costumes – she as batman; him as Robin. My heart melts.
As I adjust to the chaotic scene around me, surrounded by 1,500 other runners also just trying to keep their shoes on, I start to notice the glee on their faces. They laugh, they joke, they fall, they get back up again. They scream in pain like I do while we cross the waist-high cascading river. They skip over stones and around the piles of excrete that belongs to the cows that call these fields home. When you slide, someone tries to grab your hand. When you fall, five people ask: “You alright, love?” 1,500 strangers in the mud, we are all in this together.
A little over halfway through the 4-and-three-quarter mile course, I see a man sitting off to the side, wrapped in a metallic body warming sheet and nursing a cracked knee and bleeding nose. The medical staffer with him speaks sternly into her walkie-talkie.
I am suddenly less focused on keeping my shoes on, and instantly grateful for my safety and the safety of those around me. Running across the rocky trail, I laugh to myself how quickly my definition of success today has altered. I started out with an aggressive time-goal, and quickly my goal became to finish in one piece. What would be next, I wondered? What if I fell and hurt myself? How would I define success then?
And what I was thinking of as “redefining success” could also be called “failed goals.” What’s the difference? If you set a goal that you don’t meet, can you also be called successful?
It made me think of my first year as CEO of Javelina, which is coming to a close. The year has been full of goals – generate a certain amount of revenue; reorganize the team; tell the story of our change engineering services; gain a set percentage of social media followers; and so on and so on. Some goals will be met, some will be exceeded and a fair handful will not even be touched. Does this mean the year is a failure? Does it mean I am a failure?
And as I jog-walk-slip through the muddy English hillside, I know that I’m not going to meet a bunch of the day’s goals, but that it can also be a successful excursion.
Because the truth is that we all define success for ourselves. In a world full of competing perceptions and opinions, no one is considered subjectively and universally successful. This means we get to decide what success is. And what if success is not defined by meeting a goal, but by a way of being? What if today is successful because I laughed, and I appreciated the vast blue sky, and I was helped by a 60-year old man dressed as Robin?
If success is defined by being grateful and kind and seeing the fun in things, then I can be successful every day. We could fail to meet every single goal we’ve set for the company and still be successful.
This isn’t to say that goals don’t matter. We should set goals, and we should strive to meet them. Goals set agendas, unite teams, and drive progress forward. But goals and success don’t have to be directly correlated, because meeting goals doesn’t define success; I do. If I live into old age, it’s unlikely that my last day will be spent meeting goals. But if I am grateful, joyful and kind on my final day on earth, it will be a successful one.
The race ends with a steep uphill. I attempt to sprint finish, but instead do a sort of nymph-like skip on my tip toes, just trying to stay upright. “Go Catherine!” my cousin yells, safely on the sideline at this point. Huge grin on my face and unable to feel my toes and fingers, I successfully limp across the finish line – two shoes firmly on my feet.