Tag Archives: limits

Just a Little More

WAY BACK AT THE dawn of history (around 2007), I was on the mat at the start of a weeknight Aikido class. Our instructor worked us through the warmup routine until we got to the wrist stretches. Then he stopped for a moment.

“I was asked recently how far one should take a wrist stretch,” he told us. “Everyone is different, so there isn’t an absolute answer. But in general, take it to where it begins to hurt. Then push it just a little further.”

I’d been taught in exercise class not to stretch into pain. But his approach made sense to me. Where it begins to hurt is the limit of what the body is used to. To become more flexible requires pushing into the uncomfortable, just a little. Not enough to cause injury, but enough to trigger an adaptation. And we were to determine that point ourselves. The intent was to reach and push past our own limits, not someone else’s.

Okay, perhaps this is more than "just a little"?

Pushing past my limits of pain. Whether or not I asked for it.

I soon found that the principle of “just past your limit” carried over into every part of Aikido training. You can sit for five minutes in seiza? Great, how about six? I’ve never been the most flexible guy, but with practice I could eventually manage twenty minutes in that posture during Sensei’s lectures in advanced class. Leg-numbing, agonizing minutes, but I did it. The pain sometimes diverted my attention from what Sensei was saying, but as was explained to me, that too was part of training.

For my next trick, I will stand up. Or try to.

For my next trick, I will stand up. Or try to.

Later on I was introduced to the complementary concept of “just one more.” Think you’ve done as many breakfalls, or buki strikes, or whatever, as you possibly can? Well, you could probably manage just one more. Repeat until you’ve reached your goal. The brain knows it’s a scam, and yet it works remarkably well. To this day I use it at the gym during particularly brutal workouts.

Just one more - or 40 more. I forget.

Just one more – or 40 more. I forget.

During more than ten years of Aikido study, I’ve had many opportunities to use both “just past your limit” and “just one more.” Sometimes I use them consciously, but the excellent teaching and the example set by the senior students have already built them into the class atmosphere. You push through the challenges because that’s what everyone does. And pushing your limits little by little adds up over time.

But there have been a few occasions where my limits were not only pushed, but blown out of the water. Sometimes, like with a test or a race, I know what’s coming; there’s time to prepare, to psych myself up.

And then there are the ones that drop out of the sky, smack me upside the head and dare me to beg for mercy.

It’s July 2010, near the end of an intense, two-hour advanced class. 90 degrees in the dojo. Sensei calls for a series of breakfalls. We begin with backward falls and progress to forward rolls. Sensei calls out the first sixteen (two series of eight), and then each student in turn calls out another sixteen. There are six or seven students in the class and I’m the most junior, so I count last.

My attempt at a forward roll.

My attempt at a forward roll.

The set isn’t all that bad, but Sensei immediately begins another. I’m now really tired and sore, and my form is slipping. But I keep up as best I can. At my turn to count the adrenaline kicks in, and I complete the final sixteen rolls. I stand in dizzy, triumphant exhaustion. I’d pushed past my limit.

Except Sensei doesn’t call a halt.

“One more set!” his voice cries though my fog of fatigue. “Hajime!”

WTF? This isn’t “just one more,” it’s dozens more. I’m already past my limit! But the other students start the breakfalls, and there’s nothing for it but to go along.

My world shrinks to a small rectangle of canvas, the sound of my labored breathing, the mat quivering from the slapping of arms and legs to the inexorable “ichi-ni-san-shi...” cadence of whoever’s counting. My pants are untied and coming loose. I can barely push off the mat enough to roll instead of drop flat on my face. Just one more. Just one more.

Then, finally, it’s my turn again. I’m ready to collapse into a soaking pile of dogi-clad bones, but I call out those last sixteen rolls like a Marine. If I’m going down, it won’t be with a whimper, dammit. “Roku!” Roll and stand. “Shichi!” Roll and stand. “Hachi!” Roll and stand.

Yame!” Sensei calls. It was over. We lie flat and relax, then stretch. My head clears, and we line up for end of class. Sensei smiles at us. “Excellent work,” he says. “Four hundred! And no one quit!”

Four hundred continuous breakfalls at the end of two hours of hard work. I’m stunned. From the accomplishment, yes, but also from what Sensei has just said. Quit? As tough and as painful as those sets were, the thought of giving up before Yame had never entered my head. Never an option.

Looking back at it now, those roughly twenty minutes were truly life-changing for me. My body had put out the effort and endured the pain to push past its physical limits, and I’d had the mental discipline to hold myself together during it all. Out of it came a sense of inner confidence that I was capable of far more than I’d imagined before.

'Nuff said.

‘Nuff said.

The class took place years before I became a marathoner and then an ultrarunner, or started cycling centuries, but I think that my Aikido training, and in particular that one breakfall session, made all that possible. All that “just a little more” and “just one more” had set the stage to go well past, and many more than, my previous limits.

Thanks to my wonderful Aikido family for the lesson.

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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?