Book Review: A Life Without Limits – A Champion’s Story by Chrissie Wellington

I spent the week in Eugene, Oregon working the NCAA Division I track meet for the 5th year in a row. This place has become sort of a second home for me; going back to 2014, when I made my first visit, I’ve been fortunate enough to work 5 DI meets (5 days each), one US Junior (4 days), an IAAF World Junior (10 days), an Olympic Trials (two full weeks), and a US senior title (5 days). So, basically I’ve spent more time in Eugene, Oregon in the past 5 years than in Moorhead, MN, which is where I grew up and most of my family lives….hopefully my mom doesn’t read this.

Eugene is special because it is “Tracktown” USA. Prefontaine. Nike. The Oregon Track Club. Hayward Field. Bill Bowerman. Voodoo doughnuts. It’s all legendary (ok, I’ve never actually even been to the last thing there). It’s where people go to take a chance on their running career, whether they have a legitimate shot or not. Or it’s where people like me can dream for a week that they are taking a chance on their running career and diving headlong into being a professional athlete. You literally stand a good chance to brush shoulders with an Olympian when you are out running on the local trails in Eugene (but the chance that you will only see pretty flowers along the trail as well – that small town isolation feel – is the balance that really makes Eugene special. It is a tight knit, small community….the U of O campus doesn’t feel that much different than Concordia College in downtown Moorhead…except if you go into the 2.2 billion dollar football locker rooms.).

This was the perfect backdrop to become totally engrossed in 4-time ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington’s memoir, “A life without Limits.” I started it on the plane to Eugene and finished it before leaving on my return flight to Fargo, completely fascinated by the unlikely beginnings, training lifestyle, relatable personality battles, and unrelatable life experiences in the undefeated (at the ironman distance) Brit athlete. It taught me something about my current journey and inspired and gave me hope to press forward in my dream – this is certainly a good read for someone who is or lives with a person who wishes to be a professional athlete.

The overarching theme in the book, the way I read it, is Chrissie’s reflection on how her life journey, which goes way beyond athletics (in fact, the most startling revelation to me was how she really didn’t even discover she had above average athletic ability until she was in her late 20’s. She didn’t decide to give it a shot until she was almost 30.) would shape her athletic career and eventually give her the confidence to spread her wings and fly. She lived a lifestyle that was without limits, but it wasn’t really until her 2nd or 3rd ironman world title, when she broke free of her first coach, that she believed in herself and had the confidence to realize pursuits and passions are maximized when one truly believes in their heart that there are no limits.

She always had a type-A personality, but her value in herself was dependent on her academic accomplishments. She viewed her limited athletic activities as one place where she didn’t have to have such high standards. Gradually, this would obviously shift, but it was a lot later than you might think. She graduated with distinction, had a supportive family, worked in international development, and traveled the world, literally, for several years after getting her Master’s degree. One of her more precious locations was Nepal, where she grew to love mountain biking and developed a reputation as one who not only was physically gifted in the sport, but had the ability to endure physical stress for long periods of time. Her bike leg was a strength, and that is largely due to her crazy cross-Himalayan adventures from this stage in her life.

While growing up, she struggled with an eating disorder. It is interesting in retrospect that her eating disorder came to power when she was really not involved in sports as a professional. She would monitor her weight as she became a professional, but the dark underbelly of bulimia was mostly slayed when she was just a working professional who happened to occasionally run.

The battle with the eating disorder was fascinating to me. Some of her thoughts are ones that I’ve shared as well, and the blunt approach to the disorder (her friend suggested the idea of throwing up after a meal in the same way a teenager might suggest to a friend that they smoke a cigeratte — “no really, it’s sweet.”) had a strange refreshing feel to it. She was innocently sucked in, suffered through it, and then, with the same ease at which she started, stopped, commenting on how it was gross and, to be blunt, “ineffective” at doing what she wanted it to do. Her logical attitude is refreshing, but her sympathy and description of the more “illogical” side of carrying the weight of disordered eating was right on point as well. She didn’t dismiss it or treat it lightly, but just presented the topic in a manner that you don’t always see, while also giving hope to people who struggle that there can be healing.

One thing that is mystifying about the “pre-pro athlete” portion of the book is the sheer amount of travels that Chrissie undertakes. 6 months in Australia turns into 11. She is in Nepal for like a decade…she flies to South America, then back to Saturn, then off to Pluto – how does she afford that. I get the feeling her folks were well off, and, granted, she was a highly successful woman herself, and her job often brought her places, but it still seemed like a long time. I think some of it is a culture thing as well. In Europe, they really embrace the college and young adult years as times to explore, be a little wild, and really find the thing you are passionate about so that you are happy for the rest of your life. If that doesn’t happen until you are 30, that’s ok. In the U.S., our American dream, invest, acquire, and accumulate attitude seems to choke those years between college graduation and family starting (24-30’s). It would be seen as irresponsible if a 26 year old decided to take a couple of years and travel. It was to Chrissie’s benefit at this time, and in her early years as an athlete, to not have a family or spouse, I suppose, as she could really live pretty nomadic. Overall, it was fun to follow all of her journey’s meet the interesting and different people she came in touch with, and later on, see how some of those experiences made her the athlete she was as well.

Her entrance into pro athletics is the part that really leaves me with chills. Here is the end of the story: world record holder in the ironman distance, 4 world ironman titles, undefeated in 13 ironman races, ran a 2:44 marathon at the end of an ironman. Like I said, she really didn’t start being a pro until she was 30, and it was months after that that she won her first major race and a short time later that she was a world champion.

The fun part – the details that struck a chord with me – were the things like her bike that was given to her (no regards to proper fitting or being brand new and all the bells and whistles) she named and rode in a pro race. It makes those of us who line up at the start of a race with equipment that isn’t as “official” or top of the line as the people next to us remember that the magic is “in the man.” She rode that steed until it fell apart – then she finally received her first bike from her contract.

Or her build-up to her first marathon – no training plan involved. She just went out and ran, by feel, every single day. She ran a lot, because she is obsessive in personality (another certainly relatable trait for me), but she didn’t do any speed work or magic training formula based on her VO2 max. She paid the entry fee, trained while working a job, entered, and ran a really nice time (3:08). That time showed that she had ability. But let’s be honest: 3:08 is a far cry from 2:44 after 2 miles of swimming and 112 miles of biking at 24 MPH average speed. Still, she stayed a “normal” person, working a full-time job and training in her spare time. Biking to work, being sweaty from a run – but rushing into a formal gathering – they all rekindle memories from the past 3 years of me as a teacher, fitting a 55 minute run into a 60 minute lunch/duty time frame; running loops around the playground for 15 minutes to watch kids, then doing 40 minutes on the roads nearby, finishing, washing my face, slipping back into my clothes, and teaching for 3 hours without anyone knowing the difference!

Bottom line, this progression makes the everyday grinder like me think, “Hey, why can’t I do this? What is different about her than me? If I believe in my ability and I don’t put limits on anything, I can run X time.” This is the most inspiring element in the book, in my opinion. As dominant as she became, she started out as just that person who entered into a road race. Even in her first ironman, which she eventually won, she was a complete unknown. It wouldn’t be much different than if I showed up at the NYC marathon, took the lead after 14 miles, and never looked back.

She finally had to make the call – the risky turning point that every athlete must come to – and jump full-time into her athletic pursuits. This, I will say, must be a scary time. Luckily for her, she had something to fall back on if it didn’t work out, but she still had to make the big break.  Following her through this stage of life is one that causes me to feel excitement and inspiration as well as envy. I envy her freedom to focus on sport, but it excites me to dream about maybe one day being able to do the same (or maybe those feelings were just enhanced by the daily runs in Eugene and the fact that school is out so I’m really not focused on other things!).

Anyway, I feel like I didn’t do a great job of clearly articulating this book, but hopefully I didn’t give too much away or deter you from reading it. It certainly deserves a look. I enjoyed it. I’m inspired. And now, I’m approaching life trying to shed the limits I’ve previously put on myself. First things first – doing handyman home improvement projects, though strenuous, do not have to hurt the afternoon workout, even though they ideally should be replaced with “feet-up-couch-time-naps.”

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