With less than a half-mile to go at the Indianapolis 500—a blink of an eye when you’re traveling 220 miles-per-hour—J.R. Hildebrand was in the lead. The rookie had clocked a brilliant day for Panther Racing. He had survived five hundred miles of breakneck speeds and near collisions and the general chaos that ensues when you have thirty-three cars racing on a narrow track at over 200 miles-per-hour. At twenty-three years old, Hildebrand led the way in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Hildebrand headed into the last turn before the final straightaway. Maneuvering into the corner, he caught up to driver Charlie Kimball, who was rapidly losing speed. Hildebrand took the high side of the track to get around the slower car.
And then, the unthinkable happened.
With the checkered flag in sight, a split second from victory at the most iconic event in auto racing, Hildebrand’s tires slid on the heavy marbling that covered the track. His car went crashing into the wall. The late Dan Wheldon, driving in second place, passed Hildebrand in the brief moment between the crash and the waving of the yellow caution flag. Wheldon crossed the finish line, the winner of the Indy 500, as Hildebrand’s mangled car skidded down the wall of the final straightaway, sparks flying. Incredibly, Hildebrand finished second, his speed before the crash carrying the flaming wreckage across the finish line. But the crash had been costly.
Hildebrand had held victory in his hands with the finish in sight. And it had slipped away.
It was 2011. We were sitting in the stands behind pit row, along the final straightaway, when the crash occurred. I remember looking at the giant screen across the track and seeing Hildebrand cover his face in dismay as he climbed out of his car. The smoke from his collision with the retaining wall still hung in the air, the heavy stench from the fumes trapped by the warm, humid air. I felt devastated for him. I couldn’t comprehend how disappointed he must have been. He would relive the final moments of this race for the rest of his life. And there was a good chance he’d never get this close to victory again.
I’ve watched enough sports to know how fickle they can be. Yes, Hildebrand was young. Yes, it was his first Indy 500. Yes, you would assume he would have many more trips to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But sheer numbers don’t guarantee success. In fact, most of the time, they do quite the opposite. Sheer numbers highlight just how rare victory really is.
The St. Louis Blues reached the Stanley Cup Finals in each of their first three seasons—1968, 1969, and 1970. In all three series, they were swept. They haven’t been back since.
Dan Marino was one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time. In only his second year in the league, he led the 14-2 Miami Dolphins to the Super Bowl, where the Dolphins lost to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers. Marino would finish his Hall-of-Fame career without another Super Bowl appearance.
As for Hildebrand? The year after his soul-crushing second place finish, he returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He crossed the finish line in a disappointing fourteenth place. In 2013, he returned again. He finished last.
Every year I realize more and more just how precious it is to reach a goal. Of all the marathons I’ve raced, only two have gone exactly as I hoped. I’ve trained thousands of miles only to fall behind pace, to walk at mile 23, to miss my goal time, and to feel dissatisfied. I’ve trained for months on end only to become intimately reacquainted with disappointment. Perhaps that’s why I felt Hildebrand’s loss so personally. Watching his car careen against the wall and slide to a soul-crushing second place, I was struck by just how difficult it is to win.
Let me clarify, winning doesn’t necessarily mean coming in first. For Hildebrand, it did. But for a lot of us, winning simply means hitting our A-goal. I go into every race with an A-goal, B-goal, C-goal, and D-goal. The D-goal is usually just to finish. I’m fairly proficient in the B, C, and D department. The A? Not so much.
What’s ironic, however, is that for a long time, I didn’t appreciate my A-goals when I hit them. I was excited about them, but subconsciously, I took them for granted. Even after a great race, I’d think to myself, “Yeah, that was great. But I could have gone faster if…” Instead of acknowledging the moment for what it was, I wanted more. I could think only of how I could have made the race better. Yes, it’s good to seek improvement after each performance. But our desire to move forward shouldn’t come at the sacrifice of where we are now.
For all of the glory in sports, there is a heckuva lot of disappointment. In professional sports, each season ends in disappointment for every team except for one. One team goes home happy. That’s it. And the Olympics? Can you imagine training your whole life for a single moment only to miss the mark by a fraction of an inch or a thousandth of a second? I don’t know how I would handle such disappointment. I don’t know how I could keep from being overwhelmed by a flood of “What ifs…”
I’ve never been in a situation of historic caliber, nor will I ever be. But my own races, my own goals, have Olympic significance to me, and I do know that every time I am let down, every time something doesn’t go as I had hoped (which, I regret to say, is dishearteningly often), I am imbued with a heightened appreciation and respect for those things that have gone according to plan, or even better than I could have imagined. I am more grateful. I am more appreciative. I am greatly humbled. I realize just how precious those times are. I realize what a privilege it is to have a race go right.
Reaching your A-goal is a great feat indeed. Relish it. Get excited. Think about all of the crazy things that had to come together to make that moment possible. Think about all of the things that didn’t go wrong. Remember that it’s hard to win, and then celebrate your victory.
Because, as backwards as it seems, sometimes the best way to handle disappointment is to make sure we truly appreciate every success.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014. This post in based on an original post on www.TheLolaPapers.com.