Erin Hazler was used to running in the back of the pack, but this race was worse than usual.
She struggled for most of the Indianapolis 15K, and when she rounded the last turn, she saw to her horror that she'd taken so long that the awards ceremony had already begun a few feet from the finish line. When she thought the embarrassment couldn't get any worse, one of her friends started screaming her name. Her other friends took up the cry, raising their arms to form a victory arch for her to run through.
"You must have a lot of fans," the announcer said, and dozens of people turned to Hazler, waiting for her to say something in reply.
"Take that, fast people!" she screamed in jest, and the crowd erupted in laughter.
Losing gracefully is an important life skill that can yield benefits both personally and professionally, but it isn't one that gets a lot of attention beyond youth sports.
"We live in a PR world where we want to know who's going to win the presidential race, or who's going to be the final winner or have the most money or have the most box office," said University of Michigan psychiatry professor Michelle Riba. "You hear about the winner, but there are so many people along the way who are winners. It's just not set up so we see it that way."
Part of losing gracefully is just what coaches tell young athletes: Have fun, do your best and be a good sport, Riba said. But adults also can benefit from doing their homework before their fate is decided.
She recommends preparing yourself for any type of high-risk challenge by talking to friends and family members and asking some direct, meaningful questions.
If you want to apply for a job promotion, for instance, find out who else wants the job, and what it will mean if you get it. Will you have to work longer hours? Will your relationships with your co-workers change? What if someone else is chosen for the position? Will that person view you as a threat?
Also seek out people who know what sort of skill set you will need in order to tackle the job. And ask friends and relatives if, in their honest opinion, you have what it takes.
The goal is to develop a more realistic and nuanced sense of what's at stake, one that will help cushion the blow if you lose.
Hazler, 39, of Ellettsville, Ind., said that losing well hasn't always come easily for her. Running that fateful 15K in 2012 helped her learn to deal with losing in other arenas, in part because she blogged about the experience (persistentrunner.blogspot.com), which allowed her to explore it more objectively.
"In 2010 I applied for a job I didn't get, and it just broke my heart and made me question every aspect of my life and who I was and what I was capable of," said Hazler, who is a staff auditor at a nonprofit. "I look back on that time and I think, 'I wish I could have gotten a better perspective.' "
Knowing what she knows now, Hazler said, she would have her 2010 self make a list of the things that were working in her life. She would also advise her 2010 self to limit the time she allowed herself for a (well-earned) pity party, and to quash the self-criticism.
"Why was I being such a jerk to myself?" she said.
She also vowed to be less of a jerk to other people. "I would never tell my husband, 'You're such a loser!' " she vowed.
Chris Winton-Stahle, a commercial artist in Richmond, Va., has written insightfully about losing at work at the American Society of Media Photographers' Strictly Business blog (asmp.org/strictlybusiness). He was disappointed when he didn't land a big freelance project at Warner Music Nashville, but he found a way to see the experience of vying for the job as a win: He was invited to Nashville to make his pitch, he met some great people, he networked with other clients and potential clients and he established a good rapport with people he hopes to work with in the future.
"There's a mourning process, and that's healthy and important," he said of losing. "Take time off — a couple of hours, a couple of days — and just work it out within your own head until you can say, 'I'm not going to take this personally. It's not my time, but it will be.' "