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.”


Colorado Springs Marathon (August-Sept)

My first marathon was the Colorado Springs Marathon, which took place at the end of September. My logic going in was that, even though I didn’t have a very long build-up (only about 6-8 weeks of focused training), I would race it in trainers at more of my long-run pace anyway and use it as a training run for a later (December CIM marathon) race. The first part of the plan went accordingly, but unfortunately, I never made time to actually get out and do the December marathon (which really was unfortunate since the course, which is already known for being quick, had unusually fast times).

Here is a look at the weeks leading up to the race (dates are off….Race was Sept 29th…):

July 30 – Aug 5

Sunday – AM = 15.5 miles @ 6:30 pace/ PM = off

Monday – AM = 2 hour 40 minute bike/ PM = easy 9 miles

Tuesday – AM = 1.5 hour bike+8 mile run/ PM = 6 miles

Wednesday = AM – 12 miles/ PM – 1.5 hr bike

Thursday = AM – 9 miles easy/ PM – 1.5 hr bike

Friday = 3 mi w.u, 5.22 mile tempo @ 5:41-5:45 pace, 2.5 mi cd/ PM = off

Saturday – AM = 10 miles/ PM = 1 hr 45 min bike

Running = 80.5 miles/ Bike = 9 hrs.


Aug 6 -12

S – AM – 16.5 miles @ 6:30 pace/ PM = 1.5 hr bike

M – AM – 2 hr bike/ PM – 8 miles slow – very tired

Tu – AM – 2 hr bike/ PM 9 miles + 7 striders

W – AM = Rock Creek – ran to top and extra 2 miles; 12 miles total/ PM = 60 min rollerski

Th – AM – 2 hr bike/ PM = 9 miles easy

F – AM – 3 mi w.u, 6 mile tempo (5:41, 11:23, 17:07, 22:55, 28:43, 34:31), 2x1H/1E, 2 mile cd

S – Pikes Peak hill climb – 1 hour 39 minute ascent (bike race) / PM – off

Running – 68 mile/6days; Bike = 9.5 hours; Rollerski = 1 hour


Aug 13 – 19

S- AM – 9 easy/ PM – 1 hr 40 min bike

M- 9.5 easy/ PM – 1 hr 50 min bike

Tu – AM – 2.5 mi w.u./ 10x2H/1:30E @ 5k effort/cd – 10 miles total/ PM – off

W – AM – 9 miles  + 30 minutes of weightlifting/ PM 1.5 hour bike

TH- 1.5 hr bike + 6 miles of running + striders/ PM – 9 miles

F – AM – 2 hr bike ride/ Mid – 10.5 mile total = 7H/2E, 7H/2E, 3H/2E, 3H/2E, 2H/2E, 2H/2E, 5x1H/1E. PM = 4.5 mile shakeout run

S – easy 9 miles

Running – 78 miles; Bike 8.5 hours

Aug 20-26

S- 17.5 miles – slower (6:50-7:10 pace)

M – Am- 9 miles/ PM – 50 mile bike in 2 hr, 34 minutes – averaged 20+MPH last 2 hrs

T – AM – 9 miles/ PM – 2 hr bike + 5 mile run + lifting

W – Am – 9 total – 3x7H/2E (mile splits – 5:36, 5:29, 5:30); 2x1H/1E/ PM = 90 min bike + 4 mile run + striders

Th – 9 miles easy/ PM – 6 miles

F – AM – 9 miles/ PM – XC met – ran 6-7 miles

S – AM – 2 mi w.u., 12×400 – first 6 = 80 sec, second 6 = 76-77 (1:20 jog rest)/ PM – drove to Denver, slept in car

Running – 95 miles; Bike = 6 hours

Aug 27 – Sept 2 (first week of school)

S – AM 8.5 mile trail run + 90 mile bike ride (Golden Gran Fondo)

M – AM – 5 easy/ PM – 9.5 miles

T – AM – 9 easy/ PM – 6 easy+ lift

W – AM – off, PM – 5.5 mile run+3xmile@Cole Park (5:04, 5:02, 4:57….add about 8-10 seconds for actual mile distance as route is just short) + 1k (3:17)…all with 3 min jog rest – ran with high school team

Th – AM – 9 easy/ PM – 7 easy = lift

FR – AM – 9 miles/ PM – 1.5 hour bike

S – 1hr 45 min run in Leadville – trails and hills

Running – 90 miles; BIke – 8 hours

Sept 3 – 10

S – 2 mi w.u (3x10H/2E) (first rep was at 5:40 pace, second was 5:33 pace, third was 5:27 pace) then 3H/1E, 2H/1E, 800 (2:41) all on dirt roads in trainers – 11.5 miles total / PM – 2 hr bike, first 40 minutes easy

M – AM – 18 miles easy/ PM – 80 min bike (shifter broke and had to stop)

T – AM – 9 easy/ PM – 8 easy

W – AM – 2 mi w.u. ; 8 mile tempo (two mile splits = 12:01, 11:32, 11:21, 11:01); 2 mi. c.d./ PM – 9 miles @ 6:45 pace

TH – AM – 9 miles/ PM – 6 miles

F – AM – 9 miles/ PM – 7.5 miles

S – Joe Vigil meet; 6 am early morning workout – 3 mi w.u., 17×400 with 1 min jog rest; most on dirt, some on grass; averaged 79-80; last 5 = 77-78; 4 mile c.d./ PM – biked with puppies (40 min)

Running – 113 miles (3 speed workouts + long run); Bike = 3.5 hours

Sept 11- 18

S – 20 miles (6:26 pace – last 15 @6:16 pace – last 5 – 6:02 pace)/ PM – 90 min bike

M – AM – 9/ PM – 9 miles in hills in Sanford – kids ran hard; 6:00 pace on way back

T – AM – 9/ PM – 9 with striders

W – 5:30 AM – 2.5 mi w.u with 4 strides, 2×2 mile with 2 min jog rest (10:53, 10:54) (on dirt and in trainers) + 2H/2E (changed into lighter flats) + 2×800 on roads with 1:30 jog rest (2:33, 2:31) + 2×400 (75s); 1.5 cd/ PM – 8 mile shakeout

Th – AM – 9 miles/ PM – 6 miles

F – AM – 9 miles/ PM – 9 miles in Durango – got home at 2AM

S -AM = 1hr 45 min bike/ PM – 80 min run @ Fuchs Res (11,000 feet)

Running – 120 miles, Bike – 3hrs

Sept 19-26 (week before race)

S – AM – 1 hr. 45 min bike – spend all day working on HPPE hw; felt terrible/ PM – 9 miles easy

M – AM – 2 mi w.u. (3H/1E, 2H/1E, 1H/1E) x 4, 2 mile c.d./ PM – 8.5 miles (last 4 progressing to 6:00 pace (MP)

T – AM – off/ PM – 9 easy

W – AM – 8.5 easy/ PM – 7.5 easy

Th – 5:30 AM (cold, had to wear pants for workout— on dirt trails in trainers) 2.5 mi w.u., 2×2 mile with 2 min jog (10:37, 10:42) + 2H/1E, 2x1H/1E, 1.5 mi cd. / PM – 8.5 miles including Paine road (big hills in Ft. Garland) with XC team.

Fri – AM – off/ PM – 9 easy

S – 13.5 miles in Ft. Garland – included Paine Rd. Hills

Running – 92 miles; Bike – 1 hr 45 min

Week of Race

S – AM – 9 miles

M – 9 miles

T – 4h/1E, 2x (3H/1E), 2x(2H/1E), 2x (1H/1E) – 9 miles total

W – 9 easy

Th – 4.5 miles easy + strides

F – AM – 20 minutes easy

Traveled in afternoon to Springs

Saturday – RACE


Takeaways –

  • wasn’t very consistent with long run, but still had a couple of key workouts (20 miler at a firm pace, fasted and without taking water at any point of run). The 20 miler I did gave me the confidence that I could for sure finish the run while running at about 6:00-6:20 pace. I almost did it fasted and without water, and I planned on having a light carbohydrate meal 3-4 hours before and having some fluid on the course. However, I didn’t take anything until mile 16, which is kind of crazy to think about (and it was a small sip as my hands were cold. I tried to drink a little more at mile 20 and got barely any again…)
  • I didn’t really do a lot of true speed work (5k race pace or faster). In fact, at no point did I even go under 5 min pace….even in most of the 400’s. However, my strength was very evident by the long intervals with short rest (3×10 minutes @ 5:20-5:30 pace with a 2 min jog rest). My final 2×2 mile was an incredible workout, as it was basically the equivalent of doing 4 miles, on dirt, in training shoes, at 5:30 in the morning (in full tights!) at 7,700 feet, at the pace at which I raced 5 miles in XC my senior year of college (5:20 pace). After that workout, I wondered what I could have run an 8k in at sea level, or a half marathon. I don’t think 25:50 for 8k and 1:10-1:11 for a 1/2 would have been crazy. My 2016 half (1:14 in Albq) converts to a 1:12 – and I think I was stronger in 2017.
  • Not much of a taper – which was intentional (mileage – 113 miles, 120 miles, 92 miles, then race week (50 miles), as I was hoping to go through another 4 weeks or so of getting into the 100s. Most marathon build-ups in the elite level consist of 3-4 weeks above 100 miles, followed by a down week – and repeat that 2-4 times. I basically did one cycle, giving my body only one chance to supercomensate and adapt.
  • The volume of training coinciding with the rest of my life is pretty remarkable. During this time, I obviously held down my full time position as an elementary music teacher, a job that requires standing and moving all day, as well as singing, scaffolding, planning, and engaging (a lot of mental energy…..). Not only is teaching an exhausting job, it also means that you are at school at 7:30. After school, I coached with the AHS XC team. Granted, this allowed me on most days to get a PM run in, but it still took every weekend away from me (which, in an ideal world, would probably be spent traveling to my own races). I don’t regret either of these investments of my time or energy. Finally, I decided to be a full time exercise science graduate student in the Fall, which meant I had 2 courses (6 total credits) to balance around everything else. This really meant I had to be on top of homework every single night. My days were pretty consistent – wake up early, train, go to school – work, go to practice – train and coach, come home – eat, put the feet up and read/work on graduate work, eat again, go to bed by 9. Saturdays and Sundays had to be spent doing all of my school planning (in addition to the long run and XC meets) so that I didn’t need to do as much of that during the school week.
  • The race itself = I have a pretty detailed description in my training journal, but the quick synopsis goes as follows: I wore training shoes for this race, with the idea that I would run the first 90 minutes at my long run pace, then speed up as I felt able. I didn’t want to risk injury by wearing racing flats, and at this point, not having done anything longer than an 8 mile tempo, I didn’t feel confident running my goal marathon pace anyway (5:40-5:45)…I just wanted to finish. Also, the nature of this course (6,500 feet of altitude, small race – no one to run with the whole way, 5 miles on dirt trail, over 1,000 feet of climbing) were more condusive to just a ‘hard’ long run. I went out at about 6:20 pace for the first 2 miles, then quickly jumped into 6:10’s and held that comfortably until the 11 mile mark. I was in 3rd place at this point, and there was no one in sight behind or in front of me. I came to a turn and a bridge, and while a person was supposed to be directing traffic, they had moved from their post for a very brief moment. This was extremely unfortunate for me, as I went the wrong way and ran for about .8 miles before realizing what had happened. I stopped for only about 15 seconds and then immediately turned around and kept running. At this point, I only knew that I was lost – I still didn’t know where the wrong turn was or where I needed to go! I was in sheer mental agony – do I go on? do I just complete a 20 mile run, drop out and move on to the next race? What would Christie, who was waiting for me ahead, think? I felt like crying – I had worked and prepared so hard for this tiny little race and this is how it repaid me! When I got back to the bridge, a lady insecurely said, “You were supposed to go this way,” all the while knowing she had been the one who was supposed to direct traffic into the narrow trail entrance. The next 6 miles was a steady uphill, with the final portion on dirt. Some group of fans at a water stop cheered for me, saying, “You are in 6th place! Good job!” This only added to my mental turmoil. I tried to stay positive and stay in the moment. I figured I had lost about 8 minutes. It was beyond frustrating. Top 3 came away with monetary prize, which I had assumed would be a minimum takeaway for me. Now, I didn’t even know if that was possible. I actually quickly caught and overtook the 6th place runner. 5th took a little while longer, but by mile 18, as we approached the turnaround, I could see 3rd place. I was gaining on him quickly. When I turned around, I knew that I had about 4-5 miles of steady downhill, and I had been running within myself, so I tried to press on the gas a little. I put in 2 sub-6 miles, but I found I was actually losing ground. Turns out, the two people in front of me were 2:21 and 2:23 guys – they weren’t exactly chumps. Around mile 21, the awareness of my watch showing me that I had run 1.5 miles further than every mile marker was telling me started to wear. The last 6 miles of a marathon are hard enough as it is. Imagine coming to mile 22 and then, 2 minutes later, your watch reads “24 miles completed.” At that point in time, having only 2 miles to go and having 4 miles to go is a huge difference. I felt as though it was the reason that I ran a little more within myself, instead of really overextending to the line. I knew in my head that in order to finish, I would need to run 27.5 miles, and so that became the cornerstone information by which my body judged its pacing. I kept 6:07-6:12 pace going all the way to the finish. My 26.2 mile split was exactly 2:42, and my official time was something like 2:52 (I don’t even remember, how sad is that!). One thing I will say that gave me a respect for the distance – at about mile 25 there was a steep incline. I ran up it at like 8 minute pace – even doing it that slow caused my heart rate to skyrocket, my legs to feel weird, and my breathing to start coming through my ears and head in loud throbs. It felt like the final lap of a 3k indoors! My body had been steadily taxed all the way to its limit. On that given day, I couldn’t have run that distance, in those conditions, much faster.

There were many encouraging things to take away from the race – I had fought through great adversity. I had finished what I started. My 26.2 mile split was pretty fast for in trainers, given my training, and at altitude with hills and 6 180 degree turns…and no competition. Had I not gotten turned off course, I would have been right near 1st and 2nd place, which would have been fun, as I think we could have pushed each other.

Some conversion charts for my race gave me 2:32 when just accounting for altitude. Other, more course specific websites were a bit more generous. For example, my time of 2:42 at Springs converted to a 2:26 at CIM and a 2:27 at Boston, Twin Cities, or Fargo. I think it is safe to say that on a perfect day, on a flat course, giving my best performance, I probably could run between 2:29-2:31. The caliber of the people whom I finished with would at least suggest that, as their PR’s were much faster. However, the nature of the beast that is the marathon leaves a lot of unknowns. 6:05 pace is way different than 5:40’s. I might be able to do 5:40’s for 21 miles and then have nothing left for the final 5. One thing that is likely is that I will need to do a better job of in race fueling (which really wasn’t an issue because of the slow pace I ran at Springs) in order to complete the full marathon at a pace that is more in line with my fitness.