“Well, those were a bunch of junk miles.” My friend Bob said this to me as we walked to our cars next to the trail on a beautiful fall day. I was new to running and had never heard this phrase before so asked him what he meant. Bob replied, saying “Junk miles are runs that did not add to or improve your overall performance.”

Bob hadn’t been able to run at his race pace because of a nagging hamstring and this clearly bothered him. I thought about it in the car as he drove off.

I just spent time with a friend outside on a gorgeous day and it was ‘junk?’

I didn’t buy it then, and I don’t buy it now. Any day where I can get outside in the fresh air and work my body is a good day, even if things go wrong. Maybe I am slow because I made a bad food choice the night before and my GI system is acting up. Maybe my foot turnover is off because it is icy, or my stride is goofy because I need new shoes. Maybe I bonk on a long run because I upped my mileage too aggressively and did not fuel properly.

This happened to me recently when running with a friend while she was training for a marathon. I jumped up from a relatively low base mileage of eight miles to 15, and did not fuel correctly. The last five miles were a grueling death march and I was left far behind . She kindly waited for me to hobble in, which is one of the great parts of being in a running group with positive, encouraging people. It was a valuable experience that helped me develop mental resilience and reminded me of how blessed I was to have friends who won’t leave me behind.

Getting off the couch and out on the road matters, even if the run is fraught with what could be construed as failure. I often have to relearn things I already know, and these supposed failures are where this learning takes place, especially if you run with a community that is supportive and positive. I want to perform at my peak as much as the next person, and every run is ripe with possibility and opportunities to learn .

When looking at innovation, failure is seen as a positive and necessary part of the process of improving and being creative, and running can be seen as a creative process. Google has mastered this. They try all kinds of things that never take off. Google Lively was a social site no one used and a project Google quickly abandoned.

Google Wave was probably one of the biggest failures the company ever rolled out. It was a collection of features cobbled together in confusing ways that no one really understood. It tried to merge email with chat, and allowed you to convert conversations into music or video. It was a confusing product that after much hype ended up tanking.

The point is, Google tries many things and moves on quickly if they don’t work. They don’t view failure as a bad thing, but a good, necessary part of innovation. Google Maps just plain works and works very well, but could have become another forgotten piece of scrapyard code. Google does not see these missteps with hand-wringing frustration or view them as junk projects. They see them as a natural part of becoming an excellent organization.

There’s also the famous story of Thomas Edison, who was approached by a frustrated engineer who told him that after 100 tries the light bulb filaments kept burning out and they would never be able to get it to work. Edison responding by saying “Nonsense, we now know 100 ways it doesn’t work.” He did not see the previous 100 attempts as ‘junk experiments.’

Our perceived failures on a run always contain lessons we can bring with us next time that allow us to improve. My experience on the 15 mile training run reminded me that I have to manage my mileage increases and pay attention to how I fuel during longer runs. I returned to my next run with a beginner’s mind.

This is why I don’t believe in junk miles. Shoshin is a Zen Buddhist concept that refers to the idea of having a sense of openness and eagerness when learning or experiencing something. If you approach each run with shoshin tremendous value can be created, even if things don’t go as planned.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Zen Master – Shunrye Suzuki

Applied to running, shoshin allows you to enter into a run, drop your preconceptions, and know that the experience holds the possibility of learning something new about yourself, your capacities, your form, or the person you are running alongside. This holds true if the run doesn’t go as well as you would have liked it to. Some days we simply struggle, but we’re still out there, and the beginner’s mind allows us to be fully present to our practice of running.

Shoshin can be applied to just about any endeavor, whether it’s writing a novel, designing a software application, or negotiating with your teenage son about when he has to be home on Friday night. If we are open to learning what the experience has to teach us, the struggles we face provide immense value that helps us grow.

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