A lot of people are afraid to fail. And sure, a part of me truly understands that. Failing is not nice. Failing is not pleasant. Failing hurts. I have failed several times. And at some point, I also thought failing might break me. Even though I have loved the motion and pure joy of running for as long as I can remember and still love it today, I have to admit that there were times when the love for running felt more like a damning curse on me.

However, in retrospect, I would not want to miss any of those setbacks because they have shaped the sportsman and person I am today. And I am happy about that.

This is a story about failing – and how to deal with it.

Dream big

I’ve always felt that running is one of the greatest talents I have been given and therefore I aspired to give it my all. When I first watched the Olympic Games in 1996, I can remember that I told my parents that one day I would become an Olympian. Even though I was just nine years old and didn’t even understand the full extent of my dream, it was something that I internalized for the following twenty years and something that affected every big decision I took in my life.

Would I have followed the path if I had known what fortune had in store for me? I don’t know – maybe, maybe not. But I’m glad that I didn’t have a crystal ball.

Marathon athlete running on a track with cheering people in the back. Phillipp Pflieger_Marathon_Running, adidas, Berlin, Berlin Marathon, athlete, competition, setbacks, failure, self-improvement
The Berlin Marathon was the scene of a major disappointment but it won't stop me challenging myself again.

The myth of invincibility

As a professional athlete – especially when you are young – you think that you are kind of invincible and that there are no limits to what you can do. Maybe this form of naivety is necessary to follow a path so unpredictable and so anti-mainstream that any other way of thinking would frighten you away.

Some athletes have the bodies to undergo heavy training regimes but lack a small percentage of talent. Other athletes are very talented but their bodies are limited in their loading capacity and training volume. Athletes’ bodies that incorporate both are potential world-class material. I tend to be the second species, meaning I soon had to learn to cope with injuries, rehab and coming back from adversity.

Throughout my running career, I’ve had stress fractures, undergone many surgeries and collapsed from just sheer exhaustion: The first was on my marathon debut which was especially hard to overcome and then go out and tackle that challenge again. The second time, at the Berlin Marathon, it was a race where I had set myself the goal of becoming a 2:11h runner, which would have taken me into the top 15 German all-time ranking.

Fortune favors the brave

How did I deal with those hardships? Well, to be honest, it was never easy and certainly never will be. Just because I managed to overcome all those injuries and setbacks there is no magic cure for overcoming these each and every time. In the moments of misery, there will always be the ‘Why?’ question. This is absolutely human but questioning myself time and time again won’t change anything and definitely doesn’t make things better. The sooner one understands that the better, because it will level out the process of dealing with it.

The second step is to see failure as what it really is: Failure is indeed no defeat but rather a part of the process. The sooner you accept that, the more prepared you are to face adversity. The mental game is key.

Winning is not about avoiding failure. I will not force failure, that is for sure, but the higher you aim the more likely it is that there will be setbacks. Nothing comes easy and success is no exception.

Will I limit myself because of the fear of failure? Definitely not. This is not how I approach goals. Neither in sports nor in life in general and I would not recommend it to anyone else either. There is only one life to live and, in my eyes, there is only one way to do that:

The writer Paul Coelho once said: ‘There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.’

In this sense: Fortune favors the brave.


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