Three weeks ago, I had to turn around and walk back into civilisation when poor weather conditions and a dodgy leg forced my hand and I couldn’t make it over the second highest point on the Te Araroa trail.
I ended up in Hanmer Springs, a spa resort town in the South Island of New Zealand, for a week, eating a lot of food (notably the spectacular cinnamon swirl buns from the local bakery) and visiting two local physios a total of three times about my bung leg.
The intention was always to get back on the trail.
But when a week rolled around and the leg was no better, it was clear I needed more time off. As it was, I couldn’t see how I could walk for eight to ten hours everyday on it on the trail when after a mere 15 minutes of strolling I was in pain and hobbling (and that was without the beast of my backpack on).
It posed something of a dilemma.
I did the math.
Another week off would likely have me coming into Bluff at the bottom of the South Island for the finish sometime in mid-May. The official start of the New Zealand winter would be just two weeks later. This is was far from ideal.
And this scenario was based on the premise that my leg would be fine and dandy after a total of two weeks’ rest – something that wasn’t particularly clear. As the second physio said when I asked her how long I needed to rest: “How long is a piece of string.”
So, I made the difficult decision to call it quits on the Te Araroa trail for now – or more accurately push pause, as my good friend described it, because I have every intention of coming back later this year to continue #WalkNZ and to finish the last 1,000km.
Deciding to turn away from finishing the 3,000km adventure was gutting but the right thing to do.
Pushing on and walking the length of New Zealand all in one go wasn’t worth the risk of putting myself in danger from the changeable New Zealand weather or injuring my leg further. And there was no point in rushing the stunning South Island with its majestic mountains and remote wilderness just to reach the finish point. #WalkNZ had always been about the journey, not the destination.
That said, it wasn’t easy for me to acknowledge this was the right course of action. In the back of my head was a flashing neon sign with the word ‘Failure’.
I’d set out to walk 3,000km from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island; not to walk 2,000km this year and 1,000km next year.
In my head, as I grappled with my options, their consequences and the ultimate decision, I couldn’t help but feel that any situation where I didn’t complete my aim of walking the 3,000km north to south this year had to be tantamount to failure.
I mean isn’t that what failure is? At least from a dictionary point of view: an omission to perform a duty or expected action; a lack of success; falling short of expectations.
This was clearly textbook failure.
But was it really?
In the hours and days after I made my decision, I’ve looked at this long and hard. I found it fascinating that comments from my Facebook and Twitter followers all said I wasn’t a failure.
How is that possible when I didn’t feel that way? Who was right?
And so, I explored the concept of failure.
The first thing I recognised was that despite not walking the full 3,000km, I had still walked 2,000km of the trail (or technically 20km short of 2,000km). That’s two-thirds of the trail; more than half. And in that I have achieved something I didn’t initially think I could do.
I don’t think that’s failure.
Furthermore, I attempted a dream, and during those 2,000km I overcame fear and pain and obstacles, both physical and mental. I had plenty of opportunities to not start the walk and then plenty of opportunities to decide to quit when the going got tough. But I didn’t.
I don’t think that’s failure.
So, although by the dictionary definition I failed to succeed in meeting my expected goal, it is a leap to therefore say that, as a result, I’m a failure. It’s a subtle difference but one I think we all get caught up in.
Indeed, I’ve reasoned, it’s not that I am a failure but rather that I just “think” I am. And thinking I’m a failure is not the same as being one. Just as thinking I’m useless is not the same as actually being useless.
It’s ironic perhaps that part of the reason it took me three years before I was able to tie up my hiking boots and start walking the Te Araroa trail was because I was scared of failing, of not completing the 3,000km, of realising that my self-doubt was correct and that walking the trail was something I couldn’t do.
If I failed, I thought, it was evidence that I wasn’t good enough; that I was just as useless as I thought I was.
I feared I wouldn’t be ok; that failing in my goal would dub me a failure; that it was something I wouldn’t be able to move on from; that I’d never be able to succeed; that I’d always be not good enough.
What changed so I took the risk of walking the trail, of embracing the possibility of failure, was the realisation that by not doing the walk I was also failing – failing to try.
Suddenly, for me, failing to try eclipsed the risk of failing to succeed. I had to test myself and see what I was physically and mentally capable of.
2,000km later and I think I’m starting to get a pretty good idea.
I’m physically and mentally stronger than I thought I was – indeed, stronger than I thought was possible. How can that realisation ever be classed as failure?
But now, having faced the fear, the reality, of failing in my quest, how have my perceptions changed?
Well, I know that that fear of failure was ungrounded. I may have felt at first like a failure at having to push pause on the walk but the ground hasn’t opened up and swallowed me whole.
This one setback – if you want to be negative and call it that – hasn’t seeped into and defined the rest of my life.
I’m ok – more than ok really. The funny thing is, I always was and I know I always will be.
And I’ll be back to finish the trail.
Life has a way of working itself out. And that’s why I’m not a failure. This deviation from my intended goal is just part of the wonderful journey of life.