2017 broke my heart twice. First, amid the raucous din of Boylston Street, in the finisher’s chute of the Boston Marathon, a malfunctioning Garmin beeping manically on my wrist. And again, not long after that, on the corner of a quiet residential street in Toronto, orange street lamps illuminating the last page in a bittersweet love story.
Athletes are supposed to be good at heartbreak, and marathoners especially so. Ours is a sport that demands months upon months of gruelling, thankless preparation. Even then, there’s no guarantee that the gods of illness, injury or fair weather will be on your side come race day.
That’s why resilience, for a distance runner, is utterly essential; in the marathon, as in love, you can do everything right and still get burned. But in 2017, in the wake of an epic heartbreak double-feature, I felt my characteristic marathoner resilience start to falter.
Redemption stories have always captivated me. When you look below the surface, it’s incredible how many dazzling accomplishments owe themselves to a doggedness born out of heartbreak and failure. Perhaps nothing in recent memory comes close to Shalane Flanagan’s historic New York City Marathon win this past November, less than a year after a stress fracture forced her to withdraw from Boston — an epic, untouchable moment of redemption, bought with the pain of an unfortunate setback.
When we talk about heartbreak, this is often how we frame it. We’re a culture that’s comfortable with failure in the narrowest possible sense of the word. Failure is a trope, an origin story. It’s the thing that happens during the opening credits of the movie, the inciting incident setting our hero up for a greater triumph yet to come. There’s precious little room in that narrative for the reality of what heartbreak so often brings — for the paralysis that grows out of self-doubt, for sadness or anger, frustration or fear.
Embrace your setbacks, people tell us; use them as fuel and come back stronger. But what happens when what doesn’t kill you doesn’t really make you stronger?
What happens when failure is just failure?
It’s a question I’ve wrestled with a lot this year, while struggling to unpack the subtle, quiet, simultaneous collapse of both my relationship and my race in Boston. It’s a question that’s dogged my road-weary steps through innumerable false starts and first dates, through Netflix binges and missed workouts and halfhearted pledges to “get back at it.”
What does it mean when you can’t find the silver lining?
For the better part of a year, my running devolved from competitive training into what can only described (shudderingly so, I should add) as “jogging”. Out of shape and out of excuses, I eschewed racing in favour of long, contemplative runs through the city at night. I fixated endlessly on the contours of my own heartbreak, struggling to shape them into something redemptive, something that might pass for inspiration.
Resisting the urge to rationalize my failures as part of some bigger plan, I was forced to look at them for what they really were: the end result of a series of random, mostly arbitrary events outside of my control. Boston wasn’t great, but it wasn’t for lack of training. My relationship ended, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Give me clear sinuses, cooler weather and (let’s face it) slightly better taste in men, and both outcomes might have been entirely different.
Sometimes, the tipping point between success and failure has little or nothing to do with you. In a way, that’s a profoundly scary thought, because if our failures ultimately hinge on chance and luck, that means our accomplishments might, too. And so we plumb our heartbreaks for lessons that aren’t there, instead of celebrating the nobility the attempt. But in the end, we’re all at the mercy of the whims of luck.
And so, if you’re like me, and you’ve had a profoundly unlucky year, I’d like to take this moment to celebrate that: to celebrate every dream job you didn’t get, every PB you didn’t set, every meet-cute that never happened, every spark that failed to fly.
Here’s to quitting (at least you started). Here’s to heartbreak (at least you cared). Here’s to failure (at least you tried). Here’s to you — not your potential, not your goals, not your (still-pending) comeback. Here’s to you, right now, exactly as you are: defeated or down-and-out, injured or just plain cynical.
Here’s to 2017: the year I fell in love (with the wrong guy), the year I ran the Boston Marathon (way off pace). Here’s to the year that broke my heart twice. Here’s to the year that didn’t break me.