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Exploring Our Physical Limits
I was rolling through the finish chute of the Ironman 70.3 San Juan on my cherry red Kestrel road bike, smiling at the crowds lining the final few meters to the transition area, when I felt my bike slip out from under me. The next thing I remember is lying on the ground, one leg wedged under my bike, a spectator rushing to my side to help me up while a volunteer shouted that no outside assistance was permitted. Rising to my feet, I surveyed the damage: bike looked fine and I could stand upright without pain which meant nothing was broken. I had a few cuts on my legs but nothing that would require immediate attention. “Walk your bike into transition, then walk the first bit of the run course until you feel steady,” the race volunteer suggested. If he didn’t think my situation was dire, I must not look too terrible.So off I went.
I took my first few jogging steps gingerly, noticing twinges of discomfort here and there but nothing that screamed “STOP,” so I kept going. When I felt tired, I looked down at my wrist where I’d written in permanent marker two pairs of initials: those of my husband’s best friend who had just died from breast cancer, and those of my grandmother who was back home in New York in hospice care. I had been reluctant to leave her but knew she would have wanted me to finish what I started. I walked, shuffled, and jogged through the winding streets of Old San Juan watching the mile markers go by, sucking back energy gel packets and Dixie cups of Gatorade.
Other than some stinging in the cuts on my legs from where they scraped against the pavement, I felt no pain as I made my way through those 13.1 miles to the end of the race. Until, that is, the moment I crossed the finish line. My lower body stiffened, my quads as taut and rigid as rocks. I moved like the Tin Man before he finds his oil can, joints locked into place, and I could hardly bear weight on my left side. I limped to the medical tent where a volunteer cleaned and covered my cuts. “I think I might have some kind of other injury around my hip,” I told him. The suggestion was to send me to a local hospital, but I was on vacation and not about to waste time sitting in an emergency room, so off I waddled to where my friends were waiting.
Things got worse over the next few days, and by the time I attempted to climb into the back of the SUV waiting to pick me up from the airport, I had to wrap both hands under my left quadricep in order to lift my leg into the vehicle. When I finally made it to a doctor, he sent me for an MRI, although knowing that I had completed a 13.1 mile course after my fall, he didn’t expect to find any significant injury.
A few hours later, he called with the news. “I have the results of your MRI,” he said, in a slow measured tone. “Your hip is cracked in three places. I have no idea how you finished that race.”
“How else was I going to get home?” I joked.
I was half serious, but in the aftermath of the injury and diagnosis, and the months of physical therapy and running on an anti-gravity treadmill, I also wondered how I pulled that off. When I stub my toe or smash my elbow on a doorframe (both of which happen with concerning regularity) there’s a lot of yelped expletives and grunting and sometimes tears. And yet, I caused actual fissures in my bone during that fall and felt no pain while I slammed the connecting bones and tissue into the pavement for two hours. How on earth is that possible?
Does the brain choose when to interpret pain as a challenge, and when to see it as suffering?
How is it that the pain we feel during a physical feat that we’ve willingly submitted to is somehow less than one we’ve stumbled into?
Some of the answer may have to do with purpose and some of it may have to do with fear. When I crashed my bike, I would have felt two strong emotions: fear of having to admit defeat and take a DNF (Did Not Finish) in the race, and an intense pull to finish the race so that my trip there, away from my family, would be worth it.
In the book Extreme Fear, Jeff Wise writes, “When we find ourselves under intense pressure, fear unleashes reserves of energy that normally remain inaccessible.” He goes on to explain that in situations in which our fight-or-flight response is activated, one of the changes the body goes through is the release of pain-deadening chemicals into the brain.
It is also possible that in some scenarios, our purpose for doing something overrides any limits our bodies sense. Perhaps that’s why a professional basketball player remains on the court during a playoff game, despite an obvious injury, or how a strongman athlete literally tears a biceps muscle off the bone before dropping a weight. Or how one of the most memorable Ironman finishes in history played out.
“The legs are there, you just can’t feel them. The eyes see but through a gauzy veil of delirium,” the announcer says, as we watch athlete Sian Welch stumble towards the finish line the 1997 Ironman in Hawaii. She crumples to the ground, her right leg buckling under her like a baby deer. She gets back up. “At this point, Sian Welch is aware of two things: the finish line is so close. And someone is so close behind,” the announcer says.
Less than 100 feet from the finish line, and with her closest competitor, Wendy Ingraham, quickly gaining on her, Welch falls again. She gets up and takes a few more stumbling steps. Then she falls again. She stands with the aid of a metal barrier, then tumbles to the ground. Ingraham, whose legs look in as much if not more pain as Welch’s, duck-walks her way towards the end, then falls to the ground directly behind Welch. For an agonizing 15 seconds, they both press their hands into the pavement, hoping to rely on the strength of their arms to rise to standing, but their legs won’t hold. Finally, Ingraham begins to crawl and you see just how close they are to the end: a mere few feet. Ingraham crosses the line on all fours, and Welch follows closely behind. Neither can stand up. As we watch race volunteers hoist their limp bodies, the announcer suggests: “Their bodies were obliterated, but the spirit held firm.”
I’m not suggesting we all play through injuries, but the notion that we can choose when to see discomfort as a limiting factor and when to see it as a chance to persevere is captivating. There’s a sense that maybe our perceived limits are just that: our perception. Maybe we have more in the tank, can go further, harder, and faster than we believe. What if the only thing limiting us from what we can achieve is our mental game?
“You can never give up the fight for pain—that is only temporary,” Ingraham told Triathlete Magazine in 2013. “I would not have known how to do the race any differently. It was the day that was given to me; it ended how it was supposed to.”
Alyssa Ages is the author of Secrets of Giants: A Journey to Uncover the True Meaning of Strength (Avery, 9/12/23), a journalist, and a strongwoman athlete.