The Other "F" Word: A Lesson in Failure

The Other "F" Word: A Lesson in Failure

By: Jenny Burden, Saris Brand Ambassador and Competitive Mountain Biker

Let’s talk about failure.

Blog posts about cycling are about victory. Epic rides, tales of triumph where hard work and persistence are all you need to see success. Blogs are inspirational, aspirational, and meant to spur readers into taking on their own challenge and seizing the day. What we don’t talk enough about is what it feels like when things go wrong. How do we cope when a dream dies, dried up in a puddle of sweat and vomit in the dirt as you lay there worried about everyone you just let down? Let’s talk about what it takes to get out of the dirt, dust yourself off, and realize that you’re not dead. You can believe those who tell you it’ll be ok. Trust me, I know all about failure. I’m beginning to be a bit of an expert.

For the past two years I’ve had the goal of finishing a 100-mile mountain bike race. I race XC MTB races, and have competed in, and completed, XTERRA’s across the country, as well as Ironman-distance triathlons, century rides, marathons, and super long, tough hikes up desert mountains (swearing to my husband the whole time that it’s just a little bit further.) I fancy myself a diesel engine – not necessarily the fastest, but able to go on for quite a while. Endurance challenges are my thing, because I like seeing if I can do it. Turns out, sometimes I can’t.

In 2018, a friend from college signed me up for a giveaway entry to the Maah Daah Hey 100. A race that starts in Watford City to Medora, North Dakota, through the Badlands surrounding Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I’d never heard of the race, had never ridden my mountain bike more than 25 miles, and never really thought about trying. So I registered my free entry and started making plans with my coach to get ready for the 11,000 feet of climbing the best I could living in Austin, TX.

I became more determined than ever as the training rides got longer, the heat higher, and the wear and tear on my butt more severe. I was going to make it happen – cross that finish line dirty and ecstatic and ready for a beer! I visualized it during every ride, pushing to 40, 50, 60 miles in the 100+ degree Texas heat. When race day came, I was excited, lining up mid-pack sure of my success.

Up until mile 35, I felt great, but then mile 35 came, and my stomach revolted. Mile 50 came and I knew I was dehydrated, but hoped to recover at the aid station. I knew all I could do was take it one checkpoint at a time. At mile 55 I lost hearing in my right ear and had a spectator give me a ride to where my husband was waiting. I was done, vomiting on his feet as he got me to sit up on the truck tailgate and ending my race day. I was sad to miss my goal, to have the purpose of the trip negated, but I was alive and had been having a blast until I started feeling ill. We went on to see eight national parks and monuments while were there and had a great time. I already had my redemption race picked out and emailed to my coach before our plane touched back down in Austin.

One year later my resolve brought me to Bend, Oregon, for the High Cascades 100. I felt stronger, smarter, and more experienced. My nutrition had been flawless in training and I thought if I could stay hydrated, I could make it happen this time. Although last year’s failure was my body’s doing, I knew I could control the outcome this year. Still, a quiet, simmering terror lined my stomach that hadn’t existed a year before. I felt sure I could do it, but was terrified of what it would feel like if I couldn’t.

When the starting whistle sounded, I was at the back, ready to race myself and myself only. “It’s just me against that clock,” I told several people who chatted with me a bit as they passed by along the paved road start. It truly was. The race website said if you averaged 7.5mph you would finish, and I was ready. I rode strong and steady on the flats, climbed in high gear, spun easy and bombed the downhills with abandon, because they were so much fun.

I was over an hour ahead of the first checkpoint, an hour at the second, and 45 minutes ahead at the 3rd at mile 42. My speed was right on target and everything looked good, but as I refilled my hydration bladder and looked at the map, my heart sunk. I had two hours to ride 16 miles, which on a flat would have been hard but doable. However, there was a 2,500ft elevation gain between mile 42 and mile 56. As I set off, I knew It wasn’t mathematically, physically, even divinely possible. I tried anyway. I rode harder as the math went through my head over and over again, my head spitting out numbers that my heart wouldn’t accept.

Even with the climbing, I still hit mile 50 at 7:13, on pace to finish in the 14.5-hour time limit. The course had 9k ft of climbing, and 2/3 of it was done by mile 56. I knew there was a 2k descent after the next aid station and I just had to make it there. If I could just make it to the station, just beg them to let me continue, I knew I could do it. The minutes ticked by and the climbing kept on, and when the clock struck 1:30pm, I was 2 miles away and I knew it was over. I texted my husband and told him to meet me there. When I rounded the last corner and coasted to him, I high fived him and told him I never wanted to do this again.

I’m pretty sure he rolled his eyes hard enough he almost fell off the mountain, but he told me how much he loved me and how proud he was of me anyway. As the volunteers told us it was over, I didn’t argue – they were just as bummed to cut us out of the race as we were to be cut.

I rode in the car back to the start/finish in a daze. I felt fine, my legs still had so much to give, my stomach was solid, and my heart was in it, but it was out of my control. Failure slapped me in the face again, and this time, it wasn’t of my own doing. It wasn’t something I could reevaluate and fix and come at from another angle. I felt robbed. I was mad. I was angry that my months of training and hard work fell through my fingers, once again mingling in the dust and sweat at my feet. I vented on social media. I went over it many times with friends as they texted to check on me. I had now spent two years visualizing that finisher feeling, and it felt like it had literally been stolen.

Despite all these feelings, I wasn’t sad. The trails were beautiful and the experience was fun. Once again, I started scrolling new races, looking for the next adventure while we drove to explore Crater Lake and Oregon’s coastline. (My husband obviously knows me better than I know myself, and was right to roll his eyes.) We had an amazing time exploring new places and escaping the Texas heat for a few days.

I kept thinking that although I was mad that I hadn’t finished, I never felt like any of this was a waste of time. Training for a race like this just means hours and hours on awesome trails, most of the time with my even more awesome friends. That’s never time wasted. I became a better rider, and in fact, this attempt got me two miles further, 1,000 more feet of climbing, in almost an hour’s less time. That’s all positive!

So, let’s talk about failure.

It isn’t easy, and it isn’t fun to admit it’s happened, but it isn’t the end. Not at all. It’s an occurrence, one we can learn from and live through and move away from much faster than we think possible. Failure doesn’t have to be devastating, it doesn’t have to leave us with our heads down, and it certainly doesn’t mean you have to give up.

Failure happens, and what we do with it matters. If we don’t fail from time to time, then it’s obvious we aren’t trying something new or stretching our boundaries. This time it was harder than last time, because I’m having to let go the feeling that I could have made it happen if, if, if. There’s always next time, and I’m happy that the work is hard, but fun, because that’s how life should be. Failure will never be my favorite F word, but it’s one I’m learning to say without spitting, because it doesn’t define me.


A competitive mountain biker and XTERRA triathlete from Austin, TX. She is grateful to have been representing Saris for two years and loves sharing the power of bikes with others in the community. She volunteers both for the Austin chapter of Little Bellas, where she mentors young girls through riding bikes, as well as for the Ride Like a Girl program, a women's-only ride group of the Austin Ridge Riders, Austin's local IMBA chapter. When she isn't riding bikes, Jenny is hiking with her two Blue Heelers, Ranger and Hammer, or working on a house remodel project that quite possibly will never, ever end. You can follow her adventures on Instagram.