The Freedom in Failing: Coming to Terms with Fitness Setbacks

Why reaching your goals shouldn't always be the goal.

Eliza Shirazi

Shirazi strikes her signature pose on the mountain/Photo provided

Eliza Shirazi, founder and creator of cardio kickboxing workout Kick It By Eliza, led a team up Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro in July and raised $22,000 for the nonprofit Flying Kites. Here’s what happened on the mountain:

It was the end of our third day trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro. We had just hiked as high as we would go before summit night—14,000 feet—and, little did I know, this was a night that was going to push me to my limit.

As I battled aching knees and a headache, Flying Kites leader and hiking expert Mike Chambers gave me a high-five and asked how I felt. I lied with a forced smile and said I was fine, making my way to the tents where the rest of my team was waiting. Within the next 15 minutes, I had no choice but to stop putting up a front and start accepting how I felt.

I threw up three times that night. My cousin sat by my side and hugged me during the eight-hour stretch when a migraine set in so badly that the right side of my face temporarily went numb. Chambers calmed me down as he reminded me this was all due to altitude, and even told me my puke looked beautiful as I pathetically cried, “Ew, please don’t look at it!”

The next morning, after a few hours of sleep, I peeled myself out of my tent and took in the most beautiful view of the mountains. I remember being so grateful for feeling, even if that feeling was discomfort, because feeling meant I was living, and what a place to be alive. That morning, I sat at breakfast trying to prove to myself that I could get through the next day. Seated with my head between my legs and Kick It instructor Emily Crocker’s hand on my back, I tried to keep it together—but I was vulnerable, still sick, and felt like a disappointment.

Thanks to the brilliant scholar Brené Brown, I knew that now was the time to be brave and scared. I had to be brave enough to make a decision and own it, even if I was scared to live in this truth. I turned to my team, told them I was going to descend that day, and had a heartbreaking goodbye. Knowing I had rallied some of the closest people in my life to raise money, fly all the way to East Africa, and climb Kili, only for me to turn around, was torture.

With every anxious stumble during the steep eight-hour descent, my guide held my arm and continued to say, “It’s okay, Eliza, be free.” The third time he said it, he stopped and looked me in the eyes to make sure I understood. I had to stop hesitating and feel freedom in the decision I had made. I had to change the dialogue in my head from guilt to gratitude—gratitude for what I did, and for the fact that my team was going to make it to the top.

And so, my message to you is to be free and own the decisions that you make, even if so-called “failure” is the outcome. If it is, focus on whether you fully showed up for yourself and the people around you in that moment. If you did, you are courageous, not a coward. In a world—especially one like the fitness and athletic world—where we focus on comparison with others, we end up cornering ourselves into either winning or losing. We push ourselves into thinking that if we didn’t reach our goals, or didn’t make it to the finish line, then we failed. But what if, instead, we evaluate the in-between, the process, how much we showed up for others and ourselves?

Whether it’s Kilimanjaro, relationships, careers, fitness goals, I encourage you to whole-heartedly give it your all, and whatever the outcome, be proud of how you adapt and grow from it. And when you think you have failed, be grateful for it—because those low moments and vulnerability are when you open yourself up to confidence, creativity, and life-changing moments. There is freedom in failing.