The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible. Arthur C. Clarke
Don’t get too comfortable with who you are at any given time — you may miss the opportunity to become who you want to be. Jon Bon Jovi
Every time you create a gap in the stream of mind, the light of your consciousness grows stronger. Eckhart Tolle
I couldn’t get enough of it, my daughter-in-law Shelly’s story of her half ironman race at Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho. Although the race had occurred a year ago this past June, Shelly just shared the details with me when I was in Idaho recently visiting our kids and grandkids. Listening to her account, I found myself with a burning desire to hear the same tale over and over again. “And then what happened? Tell me more!” I knew there was something deeper for me in all of it, something I couldn’t quite grasp at first telling, something more profound than a newspaper just-the-facts article of a sport event.
The story starts smoothly enough in the cold northern waters of a mountain lake with the swim portion of the race, smoothly because Shel is a smooth swimmer, a strong swimmer, a Division I college champion and a member of the Masters program who has kept herself swim-fit over the years. I’ve witnessed the way she glides through the water, stroke after stroke, barely creating a ripple. She said that the first third (the swim) of the half ironman was easy for her, and I’m sure that it was, that she ran out of the water with a smile on her face and an abundance of reserve stored up for the next portion, the fifty-six mile bike ride through town and up over the mountainous terrain. She shared with me that she had been nervous about the bike ride, especially about a hill, not just any hill, an incredible monster of a steep mountain decline at the bike race conclusion that would lead her back into Coeur d’ Alene. She shared that she had obsessed about this hill for weeks, scared of the speed that such a decline would invite. But when she climbed onto her bike after the swim, there was that smile on her face and the reserve of energy and the cheering crowds lined up along the town’s streets. And the spectator’s enthusiasm and the ease of the swim carried her forward through the town of Coeur d’ Alene and up into the mountains, and up and down and up and down the hills for miles and miles and miles — miles with barely a spectator in sight and barely an aid station to behold, just Shelly and her bike. And although it was grueling, she did okay, pedaling along, for hours, pedaling and pedaling and doing okay — until she wasn’t anymore. Something had happened.
“it was at about Mile Fifty that my legs just stopped working,” Shel said. “The quad muscles weren’t firing. It was as if I didn’t have muscles at all — my bones were the only thing I could feel.” It was then that she took her friend’s advice to heart, a friend who had experienced many an ironman race: “Don’t stop. Don’t turn around. Don’t get dead.” She said this mantra over and over. And it makes sense. If she had stopped, she would never have started again, and, besides, there she was in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. And why turn around when you’ve already pedaled your quad muscles into jello for fifty miles? And don’t get dead. Well, that one is self-explanatory. So she kept her legs moving somehow, bone-pedaling from telephone pole to telephone pole to telephone pole, alternating her friend’s mantra with her own command to her noncooperative legs, “Up, down; up, down; up, down.” Her mind let go, and her brain went into primal survival, and sheer will propelled her forward. “Up, down; up, down; up, down.” And then, through some miracle, she was there, at the hill, the dreaded monster hill, the one she had obsessed about for months. And it was crazy steep and long, and she was on it, and she was flying, flying down it, unable, unwilling to slow herself, knowing without a doubt that she wasn’t going to fall. All the way to the bottom she flew — and, when it was time to dismount and prepare for the third leg of the race, the run, she just knew her non-firing quad muscles would not hold her up. She was sure of it. But they did. “I got off the bike and I couldn’t not run. My legs had a mind of their own. I was sprinting, passing people, feeling the best I’ve ever felt.” Shelly ran the first miles of the third leg, the half-marathon, with a gusto that seemed to come out of the ethers. And she finished the ironman with a smile on her face and a remark to her husband that she had been transformed in a way that she couldn’t put into words.
I love Shel’s story, want to glean its gifts, bring them deep into my own bones and share them loudly with the world. Maybe we will never participate in an ironman race, but we all have dreams and visions, and we all have boxes we place around ourselves, too, self-imposed limits that sometimes seem impossible to bust through, keeping us from these cherished dreams. Sometimes our limits feel physical. “I couldn’t possibly make it up that mountain. Or ride my bike down it at the end of a race” “I’ll never be strong enough to carry that load.” “That yoga pose is beyond my capability. I’m not flexible.” Sometimes our limits feel mental. “I’d love to write a book, but I’m no writer.” “I don’t have an engineering mind. I couldn’t possibly figure that out.” “I’m not a happy person. That’s just the way I’m wired.” And sometimes our limits feel spiritual. “I don’t believe in what I can’t see.” “I have to do it on my own.” But I believe that it’s all one package, the package of who we are — body.mind.spirit — and Shelly’s story reminds me of this, the remarkable way our wiring is meant to be interconnected, and the remarkable way that our limits are just a line traced across the road that we can pedal ourselves over. Shelly kept going when her body shut down, and, to her astonishment, her bones kept pedaling. And her mind stayed out of the way. And there was the wind of spirit blowing through her, and that amazing flight down the mountain carrying her to renewal and the best-feeling run of her life. In what ways am I holding myself back from that feeling of freedom and the pursuit of my dreams? In what ways are you?
Soon after the half ironman, Shelly got pregnant and didn’t find herself on her bike again until a few weeks ago, during my visit to Idaho, when she participated in the Moscow triathlon. It was after this triathlon, a race in which she placed second in her age group, that she told me her half ironman story. And there was a postscript to the story, an addition that I found fascinating, one that Shelly couldn’t have discovered until that particular day due to her bike-riding hiatus. “Today, I had no fear on the bike. Because of the Coeur d’ Alene race, I’m a different bike rider. I’m forever changed.” Once we bust free, there is no turning back. We are forever changed.
Shelly starting her run in the Half-Ironman, Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho: June 2016