Outdoor Failures – What we learn from not meeting goals

A friend of mine wrote something recently about her attempt at hiking the rugged Trans Adirondack Route. Though the attempt took place last year, Liz did not feel up for writing about the journey until recently.

In Liz’s words:

A year ago today, I started the Trans Adirondack Route—a 235 mile hike across the Adirondack Park, the largest forest preserve in the Lower 48. I never finished it—the TADK has a notoriously high drop off rate—and was ashamed enough about it that I never did a write-up about the trail. A year later, I’m able to reflect on its beauty and enjoy the trail for what I was able to complete, instead of what I missed.

Some good advice there.  In our often goal oriented outdoor culture, we often look at what was not completed. The mountain was not climbed because we had to turn around due to weather. Or received a Did Not Finish (DNF’d) at a trail running event. Or not completing a 200+ mile hiking route.


From Zazzle

Goals are good and can push us into accomplishing something wonderful.

But we also need to take stock of why we spend time in the outdoors.

Is it something that is a check box and miles achieved? Or something less tangible?

I wrote Liz on her Facebook page.  I told her to not to be ashamed of hikes not completed.

I think the takeaway is both to enjoy what was accomplished, but also to learn from what was not accomplished.

Any outdoor experience adds to what a  person has for memories, increases the knowledge set, explores what can be accomplished in the outdoor realm and, perhaps most importantly, lets a person find out how they wish to spend their precious free time outdoors.

In my own case, I had to end an attempt on the Uinta Highline Trail. A friend had a shin splint and could not make the mileage with the food we had on us.

Rather than lament not having another bowl of alphabet soup to put on my hiking resume, I can look back at perhaps the most amazing valley I’ve seen in my backpacking adventures. Something I would not have seen hiking the originally planned route.

I also learn from goals I did not personally complete.

In 2004 and 2005, I briefly flirted with trail runs and ultras.

The catalyst, as many events in life, was partially due to a relationship.

My on-again/off-again girlfriend at the time did not appreciate my outdoor absences. As she once told me:  “The outdoors for you is not a hobby, it is a lifestyle”.   Though I do not disappear for months at a time anymore,  the majority of my free time is planned around time spent in the outdoors. And, as mentioned previously, I am attempting to craft a lifestyle where if taking off for months at a time is not feasible, then a few weeks in a year seems realistic.

Ten years ago, this type of balance was not on my mental horizon.

I suspect the girlfriend from ten years ago would still not appreciate fashioning a life so as to create more time outdoors (if in a more sustainable manner).

My thoughts, at the time, were that  50 or 100 mile runs would be a way to spend time outdoors and challenge myself physically in an extreme way.

So I completed trail runs and even road runs. I did some (slow) marathons. I did a 50 mile run.  I signed up for the famous Leadville 100.

But I DNF’d  around mile seventy-one on my attempt.

I trained half-heartedly.  Running and power-hiking took up as much time as my backpacking or long day hikes, but just weren’t as enjoyable for me. A schedule for training felt like work when I was already working full-time. I wanted to look at a map and hike over passes, take some photos and just happen to be out 25+ miles in a day..as opposed to planning to be out 25+ miles to make a mileage goal.

More importantly, though, out of not achieving the goal of completing the Leadville 100, I learned what I really crave from the outdoors.

To paraphrase: “And all I ask is a compass and a topo map to hike by…”

A structured outdoor event, in a large group setting no less, just wasn’t for me.

I realized I needed more than just a physical challenge.  Running/hiking on an established route with aid stations at marked intervals did not fit me. It wasn’t that the racing environment (with its wonderful volunteers, dedicated directors, and very friendly fellow runners) was not good. It was that I was not a good fit for the racing environment.   And perhaps why I am having similar feelings about the current state of established and well-known hiking trails.

Besides the beauty and the physical challenge found at organized trail runs, I found I needed “something else” from the outdoors.

Solitude, wildness, not being on someone else’s schedule, a sense of adventure, the journey….

All things that *I* could not find in an organized race or aspects of the race that did not fit  *my* personality.

Outdoor failures may be failures..but that does not mean they aren’t valuable experiences.

In the example of the Uintas, I have a memory of a valley that will set the bar very high for any future places.


And in the Leadville example? It solidified my feelings of how I wish to spend time in the outdoors and my free time in general.

The time bank is limited.  Once I spend my time from this bank, it is gone.

And out of this Leadville failure, the concept how I wish to use my limited time bank became clear.

Embrace our failures. Learn from them. Cherish the memories that were made.

The failures help transform us into the kind of outdoors people we wish to become.


12 Replies to “Outdoor Failures – What we learn from not meeting goals”

  1. When I had to leave the Colorado Trail due to an injury, the pain of not finishing what I set out to do lasted longer and was much worse than the injury. There was no taking a week off to heal up…my hike was simply over. I felt lame for getting hurt….I felt lame for blaming myself for getting hurt…I felt lame for ending my partner’s hike because this was OUR deal….and on and on, back and forth just like that. Yes, there are worse things in this world, but the moment the doctor said ‘Your hike is over for this year’ I was devastated.
    Of course, I knew all of the reasons why I should be thankful for the experience, but it took a long time for me to reconcile what I ‘should’ have felt with what I actually felt after knowing our hike was over. I’ve never set out on a long(er) distance trail, or any trail really, thinking ‘well, if it doesn’t work out the trail will still be here’ the only option in my mind is finishing what I set out to hike. In some ways that little distinction is a bit necessary in my mind when taking on a long hike on a tough trail. It is a form of determination I suppose.
    I have had almost 1 year to reflect on both what I did and did not accomplish on the CT. My desire to finish the trail is stronger than ever. I have learned a lot from the experience of ‘failure’ (and even that word has been the subject of debate between me and my partner – he toughed out all those pity parties and roller coaster lame blame mentioned in paragraph 1). The truth is that the trail really has not gone anywhere (imagine that??). While scheduling and other commitments would not allow us to get back out and finish it this year, the plan is to go back next year.
    I read and enjoy your blog because you touch on topics like this and others that give some perspective that I always seem to relate to. I know that I’m probably not going to take off for 6 months anymore to do a long trail and I’m ok with that too. Your blog has given me good ideas about how to get what I need from being outdoors and on the trail without the commitment of months and months and I like it! I generally don’t post comments – I’m more of a lurker 😉 and my own failure is obviously still on my mind. I just had to say thanks for sharing your ‘failures’. It is another bit of perspective I can add to my brain files for my future ‘outdoor adventure failures’ – no matter what shape or form they may take – and how I deal with them.
    Happy Hiking!

  2. Great advice, thanks for sharing. I heard someone say recently that they hoped to fail more because it meant that they were pushing up against their abilities and that they learn so much more by trying and failing than by doing something they know they can do.
    Please though, try never to DNF a good beer 🙂

    1. One weekend I was pushing down the Manistee River in Michigan via canoe… I rested at a launch were a fellow was putting in. I tols him I hopped to be at the highway bridge by evening (about 30miles down stream) He looked at me like I was crazy and told me that IS NOT how you do a river. He would make 15 miles that weekend – fishing favorite spots – swimming favorite spots – joining parties along the way. I realized that I was missing a lot of good fun from being in a hurry to LOG miles. I just like to experiance them now – older and wiser I hope.

  3. No such thing as a bad trip, just takes a bit sometimes to see it.
    You know I like my songs…lately had this one stuck in my head relevant to the subject at hand me thinks.

    “Back, back, back” by Ani Difranco

    Back back back in the back of your mind
    Are you learning an angry language,
    Tell me boy boy boy are you tending to your joy
    Or are you just letting it languish
    Back back back in the dark of your mind
    Where the eyes of your demons are glaring
    Are you mad mad mad
    About the life you never had
    Even when you are dreaming.

    Who are these old old people
    In these nursing homes
    Scowling away at nothing
    Like big rag dolls just cursing at the walls
    And pulling out all of their stuffing
    Every day is a door leading back to the core
    Yes, old age will distill you
    And if you’re this this this full of bitterness now
    Some day it will just fill you

    When you sit right down in the middle of yourself
    You’re gonna wanna have a comfortable chair
    So renovate your soul before you get too old
    Cuz you’re gonna be housebound there
    When you’re old you fold up like an envelope
    And you mail yourself right inside
    And there’s nowhere to go
    Except out real slow
    Are you ready, boy, for that ride?

    Your arrogance is gaining on you
    And so is eternity
    You better practice happiness
    You better practice humility
    You took the air, you took the time
    You were fed and you were free
    Now you’d better put some beauty back
    While you got the energy
    You’d better put some beauty back, boy
    While you got the energy

  4. Thanks for the article, Paul
    I’ve been needing something like this. I’m planning my first attempt at a thru hike. I chose the Colorado Trail because I’m familiar with most of the area from my summit attempts of the Colorado 14ers. The Colorado Trail Guidebook led me to your site. You’ve been a great help in my planning. I’ve turned back on enough summit attempts to be familiar with the syndrome that comes with that decision. The possibility of a “DNF” on the thru hike has been in the back of my mind. Your article reminded me of the saying, “It’s about the journey, not the destination”. I’ll keep that saying at the forefront of my planning from now on.

  5. We like to go winter camping (wintercampers.com) and sometimes have to stop short of our initial objective. More and more we strive to just enjoy our time in the backcountry; “It’s the journey, not the destination

  6. I definitely want to get back to the Northville-Placid Trail and finish this season! I bailed because of a chest cold. When I started feeling better, I was running short of vacation time and leapfrogged forward about 60 miles, finishing the other end of the 135-mile trail. But that wasn’t a failure, that was a great trip that was a little shorter than I’d planned.

    My peakbagging expeditions almost always run less than my itinerary calls for, but that’s because I never do more – I stick fairly closely to the safety plan that I’ve left with my wife, except for the possibility of cutting it short. So the plan is always overambitious, intentionally.

    I have nowhere near your abilities on the trail – in fact, I probably don’t aspire to hike with you someday because I’ll be holding you back if I do. But I like what I do. 🙂

    1. And I came back in June, and Did Not Finish again. But boy, did I learn a lot from that trip. It was a wet, wet spring, and the trail was “submerged logs and quicksand”. I tried to rock-hop one mudhole, slipped, broke my glasses and sprained my knee – 15 miles from the nearest road. I thought briefly about lighting my PLB, and realized that if I had, what the searchers would have done would be to put an Ace bandage on my knee and walk me out. Well, I can put an Ace wrap on my knee and hobble out myself.

      I camped about a half mile down the trail, and then hiked out the 14.5 miles the next day on the bad knee, squinting through busted glasses, and with feet turning to hamburger from the mud. (Body Glide didn’t work!)

      So I learnt that I can hike a 15-mile day even on a trail with a few challenges (a ford, a lot of mud, a lot of wet granite), even hurt. That’s a long day for my usual style even under ideal conditions! And I learnt, afterwards, about Gurney Goo, a much more effective water repellent and skin lubricant.

      And after an enforced six-week hiatus for my knee to heal up, I climbed back on the horse one more time. Third time was the charm. The hike turned into a tangle of out-of-order sections rather than a thru hike, but I managed to finish. Not much for you, I know, but the first “name” trail that I ever managed to hike in its entirety.

      Thanks for sharing your awesome “failures” and listening to my puny ones.

  7. You ran 71 miles? That’s beyond my wildest dreams.
    You ran 71 miles, holy cow!

    Self knowledge is worth it at any price.

    Be grateful for your (failure).
    It would be worse to have completed the race, and then another and another, mistaking success for happiness.

    1. Well 11 years later, I am not too hung up on it. 🙂 Truth be told, even at the time I was only mildly disappointed. I did not have the fire to really complete it. p.s "run" is a strong word..plodding is more like it! 

  8. Good points Paul. My biggest let downs are not when weather, etc. prevent me, but when I didn’t have enough foresight to train or prepare for them. That said, I learn for the next time!

  9. not sure I understand the concept of ‘outdoor failure’.. given that limited time bank, and the amount of time I spend in a cubicle earning a crust, any time spent outdoors is already a win 😉

    we DNS’ed (did not summit) a peak on a Scout backpack trip, due to weather. This bothered me not at all, but it was interesting to see (and curb) summit fever in the boys. I tried to explain the idea of experiences rather than simple pass/fail goals, perhaps they will understand later.

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