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October 23, 2008

The limits we impose on ourselves.

Don’t say that. Don’t wear that. Don’t drive like that. For most of our lives we’ve been taught to live within confines, not just accepting the rules, but very often anticipating them and adapting to them before stepping out of bounds. We frame it as what’s appropriate.

The limits we choose to respect define us as surely as the ones we don’t. We are loyal to friends and family. We follow traffic laws (most of them). We pay taxes (whatever the accountant deems necessary), and sometimes we attack even when we know we’re riding on borrowed legs. Who cares if there is a run to follow, right?

Each training session or race we go on is defined in concrete terms. We have a finite number of red-line efforts. Our endurance is measured in a hard number of hours. We know how much we have to eat and drink each hour to stave off the bonk. We know how fast we are willing to go in a corner before we apply the brakes. We know how hard we can run this next hill before your ears pop from the effort. It’s a peculiar calculus, where each variable affects every other variable for no session comes with an unlimited budget.

Each of these dimensions taken individually doesn’t mean much. Taken together, they form a picture of a athlete. From strength to staying power to metabolic rate and nerve, we can be certain we each session or race with someone who knows our limits as well as we do.

These limitations not only define the sport, they dominate it. Every dimension of triathlon has the potential to liberate as well as constrain. An 11-23 cassette gives us seemingly endless gear options, unless you’re not a PRO and find yourself in the Alps and then we all wish for more gears … or a rocket pack. Carbon fiber handlebars absorb vibration but if you crash, they are strictly single-use. Nike`s famous Mayfly racer was rocketspeed on feet, but only for 10 runs. It didn’t matter.

But training is a bit like digging for buried treasure. You never know what you might find. For weeks and even months, our progress can be predictable, sometime frustrating, but then we peak and suddenly there truly is a new you. You catch the competition off-guard. Your friends suggest you pee in the cup. But for you, the surprises are endless and the deepest efforts fun, even long after you pin the needle. These moments are rare but all-encompassing in terms of joy.

The mere concept of succeeding in competition, of winning a race is to believe in surpassing limits. And that’s the trick isn’t it? It’s un-training your mind to exploit that fitness to its fullest measure. How far from the line can you attack and hold it?

Each time we surpass an old limit we must reassess who we are as an athlete. The further we surpass those old limits, the greater the surprise. Who would have thought that after months and years of work, what we find at the end of a sprint is a person we barely know?

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