Shattering Our Limits By Accident: What We Can Learn When We Don’t Have A Choice

June 24, 2016
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I think the hardest part of self-improvement is the slow creep of self-doubt; the ease of giving up gradually stretching its tentacles into the goals we set. That first time we skip going to the gym makes skipping the next time that much easier. The only reason we start going in the first place is usually willpower and let’s be honest; willpower falters quickly. In the modern world, we are no longer required to be strong to survive. We now have to choose to be strong, to test our limits, to push ourselves in physical and mental ways, and many of us–a growing majority–choose not to. Even those of us that choose to push the limits of our physical endurance with marathons or mud runs–or any of the other self-imposed challenges we pay for today–rarely discover our true limits in such ventures. We can still walk part of that run, we can still decide not to finish – when we haven’t trained or our knees have been bugging us – we can still forgo that $50 entry fee and go out for pizza instead. The conveniences and comforts of the modern world have diminished the importance of survival of the fittest. We can survive just fine by barely lifting a finger and have whatever we need is delivered straight to our door or to our minds.

So how do we test our limits? And perhaps more importantly why? Well, I happened upon my own limits five years ago, purely by accident. I had no intention of seeking out my limits on that day, but I found them and it changed my life forever.

Before that day my limitations were self-imposed. I joined the gym but found only minimal success in the fact that I would go 3-5 times per week. So I overcame the desire to stay home and sit on my ass, but I never left the gym feeling like I had nothing left. I started running, but again small incremental improvements in speed or distance were not even approaching the outer boundaries of my physical abilities. If a lame, but determined wolf were chasing me I’m sure I could have run a marathon, but when I felt winded 3 miles in or the instant I felt a twinge in my foot I backed off. I have friends that seem to have limitless mental fortitude to push themselves to the next level, but I was born without that ability. What I can do well is rationalize quitting – when I can’t catch my breath over the course of a few minutes and my throat begins to heat up I just can’t go any further or any faster, I’m not a runner by nature. When my foot shoots a tiny jolt of pain up my spine I think I must have a minor injury and probably should take the next day off. By having a natural tendency to think this way, I often impose limits that are well short of my capabilities.

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Despite my acceptance of those self-imposed limits, I found myself at the Grand Canyon and on my first backpacking trip. I had hiked before, but only during the day – carrying the necessary water and food I would need, but nothing else. This time I would be hiking down into the Grand Canyon–accompanied by my girlfriend–and we’d be carrying everything we’d need for those four-day on our backs – food, shelter, everything. We made a lot of mistakes in packing, that we’ve since learned from, and our packs rounded out to between 40 and 50 pounds each. The plan was to hike down seven miles into the canyon and camp then hike down another seven miles and camp at the bottom of the Canyon, next to the Colorado River. We planned to then reverse back the same route, breaking the return trip into the same two seven mile days we did coming down.

The first half went as planned and, despite our inexperience and poor packing, the hiking we’d done before had us feeling great and enjoying every second of the day. Then, upon arriving at the mighty Colorado, we were told a storm system was blowing in over the next few days with the likelihood of lightning increasing each day. We were 14 miles and one vertical mile of elevation gain from safety and our only option was to see if we could hike those 14 miles as quickly as possible and beat the worst of the storm.

So just before sunrise, we got up and quickly packed everything into our backpacks. We were on the trail before the sun touched the distant, towering tops of the canyon walls that loomed above and despite the fact that our first section of trail–called the box because it’s known for holding heat–would reach well over 100 degrees that afternoon, it was in the 30s and it took a mile or so to shake off the shivers and warm our taught, cold muscles into stretching and contracting normally. But we hobbled as quickly as we could. The sky was a brilliant blue, the storm yet making its presence known, and so far things were looking good.

The sun slowly crawled down into the abyss of the grandest canyon of them all and as it did we shed layers of clothing and slathered ourselves with sunscreen. We were both thankful for the weather and a bit spiteful, so far the skies were clear except for a few fluffy clouds, pure white, light and non-threatening. As we cleared the first seven miles we seriously considered stopping. We weren’t tired, but if the weather wasn’t going to hit we had no reason to push on, but we decided things could change pretty quickly and the small window of sky we could see from deep in the chasm was only a piece of what might be going on in any direction. So we passed the camp and continued.

Lightning Storm in the Grand Canyon
Lightning Storm in the Grand Canyon

Like the church bells ringing just after you ponder the time, as we considered the weather a low and distant rumble of thunder rolled through the maze of canyon walls and warned us of what was just out of sight. We hiked on and the thunder continued. It gradually got louder and closer, but we had yet to see lightning. We continued up. The temperature began to drop and our bright blue sky was swallowed whole by the mountainous, ashen clouds of a big storm. Then came the lightning. The depths of the canyon offer no shelter from lightning and the walls only echo and reverberate the thunder until it becomes a deafening roar that rattles your insides and sets off ancient alarms of distress that you didn’t know existed in your brain.

I have never felt such lingering and intense fear. Besides a few close calls in traffic, where just for a split second I thought this might be it, I’ve never been scared for my life. There was no escaping this clear and present danger. We scanned the area for somewhere to hide, but there was nothing. Not a tree, not a shrub, not a cave, or an overhanging rock, nothing. We walked on. The rain began, the lightning and thunder continued, we walked on. We walked on and on and on, up and up and up and up and up and up and up and up–and just when you thought it was getting absurd, we walked up some more. And up and up and up and up and up and up–and now you’re like “we get it already, it was a long way up, you walked for a long time,” but you probably don’t get it. We had already hiked for 4 hours and we were roughly half way. So consider this when you’re sitting at work on Monday – we walked from when you arrived straight through to lunch without stopping. The rest of your day will be the rest of this story and we will still be hiking up when you leave. Non-stop, scared shitless by the weather, wet, cold and hungry we walked up.

I have never wanted to give up so much in my entire life. I have never wanted to click my heels and magically be transported home this bad. I would have paid $10,000 at that moment for a helicopter to come and whisk us away from all of our troubles, but this was not an option. So, repeatedly, I simply put one foot in front of the other and inched closer to safety, closer to warmth, closer to the end of my misery.

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Supai Tunnel

Eventually, the storm seemed to pass; at least the visible lightning. The thunder still rolled in the distance and the rain came down harder than ever, but the lightning that was striking less than a half a mile from where we walked passed over. But we were not out of the weather yet. At about the 12 mile mark we passed through a spot called Supai Tunnel – a short hole in a big rock – we stopped for the first time all day and devoured a couple of granola bars out of the rain, but stopping reminded us of how cold it was and so the relief of getting off our feet and taking our packs off was short-lived.

We quickly re-saddled ourselves with our fully saturated packs–that by now had probably soaked up ten pounds of water weight–and continued up. Besides the tunnel this area has another wonderful feature we were quickly reminded of as it continued to pour – this two-mile section of trail is used about six times a day, by teams of twelve mules or more to carry those not willing to hike down into the canyon a short distance in and back out. These beasts of burden are well fed and watered before each trip and the remains of their food and water are deposited all throughout the trail. With the heavy rain seeking out the easiest channel to drain the trail became a literal piss and shit river that flowed ankle-deep all the way up to the top.

I didn’t care. I was zen. I was nothing. Piss, shit, rain, thunder, lightning, my pack rubbing my fully soaked skin raw, my feet screaming bloody murder, covered in blisters, my legs burning, cramping and threatening to buckle with every step – it all simply faded away in these last two miles. I was reduced to a machine.  My inner dialog, my fear, my pain, my past, my future, all of it was gone. I was the shore of the ocean; waves crashing and receding in a lulling, destructive rhythm. My movements were automatic, my mind was silent for the first time ever. I have not felt this way since because it is one of those feelings – like love or guilt – that never feels the same way the second time, but I will never forget how I felt that day.

Eventually, we made it to the top. Eventually, we stripped off all of our wet clothes and cranked the heater and curled up in a blanket. Eventually, we gorged ourselves on mac and cheese and indulged in distilled spirits to alleviate our pains. Eventually, the trials of the day faded and the glory of what we accomplished glowed from every pore of our body like the bright sun of a clear dawn. And upon reflection, I realized I had approached my limits. For the first time in my life, I was not afforded the option of quitting. Without that storm, without putting myself in that situation in the first place, I would never have attempted such a feat. I would have never had the faith in my ability to do so. But now, now I know my boundaries are farther than I can see. They reside somewhere on the horizon, out of my view, and further than I could have ever imagined. So when I find myself challenged by life–physically or mentally–I always remember that moment of pure suffering and how grand it was to overcome it and it puts my current challenges in perspective.

Surprisingly, I still crave and seek out these moments. I prefer to avoid the life-threatening nature of that day, but I often find myself bounding out towards the fringe of my limits, seeing if I might ever reach the edge to peer over and see what lies beyond. And when I feel like I’m getting close, and that last mile feels like the worst and longest mile of them all, I question whether I could go two miles more if I had to, or ten miles more if I had to. And I know I could. I now know that all the limitations I think I see far out on the horizon are just mirages and the will to live and experience is much stronger than any self-imposed willpower I can muster on my own. And so I try to put myself in places where I have to go beyond my self-conceived limitations and continue towards my will to live at the outer reaches of what I think I can accomplish, because that is where my strength will grow. That is where everyones strength grows.