Limits vs. Limitations

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.”
- Richard Bach

This week I achieved a milestone (technically speaking, a “half-milestone”) in the pool. For the first time ever I swam 800 meters, or about a half mile, which is the distance to swim on June 18 when I plunge into Kent Lake to begin my first triathlon.

I'm not sure which seems longer - 800 meters, or 32 times back and forth across the pool.

I’m not sure which seems longer – 800 meters, or 32 crossings of the pool.

For a veteran swimmer, 800 meters is pretty routine, and Ironman participants do five times that (2.4 miles), but just last month I couldn’t swim more than 50 meters at a time. So I headed to my favorite ice cream place to celebrate, flushed with success – or maybe it was the chlorine in my nose.

Jamie, a fellow runner, was behind the counter. She told me that her uncle is going to run the Athens Marathon (the original route that Pheidippides ran after the battle), something he’s wanted to do since he was seven years old. What’s particularly memorable about this is that he’s diabetic. In addition to the usual training and fueling needs for a marathon, he will have additional challenges balancing his blood sugar and care of his body while training. His disease is a limitation, to be sure – but he’s not going to let it limit him.

It occurred to me that we often use the terms “limit” and “limitation” as though they are identical. They aren’t. As applied to our abilities, a limit is where we happen to be at the moment, and is subject to change. A limitation is something that defines and bounds us forever – if we let it.

Here is what Dr. Denis Waitley has to say about this:
You cannot surpass certain limits because you simply are not physically or mentally equipped to do so, but that doesn’t mean you have to squander and stifle your real potential by living according to certain limitations inspired by yourself and others. You can learn to live without limitations.

I agree; perhaps “certain limits” are unsurpassable. But do we really know what those limits are – or are we just making assumptions? If Jamie’s uncle had decided that Type I diabetes made it impossible for him to run a marathon, he’d be right. But his limit would be self-imposed rather than truly “unsurpassable”. Later this year he’s going to challenge that limit, and my money’s on him completing that marathon.

Can I run a four-minute mile right now? No. Will I ever run one? Probably not, but I’m a much faster and stronger runner than when I began this blog three years ago, and I continue to improve. Sure, my age and body type establish limits to how fast and how far I can run, or bike, or swim. But I haven’t found them yet. And even when (or if) I do, there will be room for improvement somewhere else.

Three years ago, six miles was a long run and I’d run one half marathon. The Dexter-Ann Arbor race on June 1 will be my third half marathon this year, in addition to three completed 50K trail ultras and a 5K in showshoes. Still to come are three sprint triathlons and my first 100K run in the fall. Will I complete them all? I hope so – but I won’t know if I can or can’t do them until I try.

Frankly, I'd rather snowshoe a half mile than swim it. Anyone for a winter tri?

Frankly, I’d rather snowshoe a half mile than swim it. Anyone for a winter tri?

What’s holding you back from something you’d like to do, – or become? An actual hard, unsurpassable limit? Or is self-imposed uncertainty, or fear, telling you it is? As Richard Bach and Denis Waitley point out, there’s no difference – unless you decide to find out. Why not find out?

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2 responses to “Limits vs. Limitations

  1. Between training for my first half marathon and being old enough to be the father of everyone I wrestle with in BJJ class, I’m learning a lot about limits and limitations.

    • Perhaps, but you’re still going to run that half, and you’re still on the mat practicing BJJ. And as far as age goes – in two of my races this year, the overall winner was over 50. (The snowshoe 5K and a trail 50K.)

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