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How much can a body endure? fitnessathletes test their limits
Athletes test their limits during extraordinary long triathlons

 Arthur Puckrin, 69, of England pedaled for 336 miles during an ultra-long triathlon at Lake Anna State Park this month, eating ice cream along the way.
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Date published: 10/21/2007


Most of what you read about exercise these days is about how Americans aren't doing enough of it. But there's a small group of amateur athletes who can't get enough of it.

Two weeks ago at Lake Anna State Park in Spotsylvania County, 35 athletes from all over the world tested their limits in the Virginia Double and Triple Iron triathlons.

These races multiply the Ironman triathlon distances--2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run--by two and three. So those who do the triple swim 7.2 miles, bike 336 and run 78.6, going two nights with little to no sleep.

These are not events for the casual runner, biker or swimmer who signs up for races a week or so ahead of time. They take months and years of training, and a mind-set that can deal with lots of pain and little sleep.

Jonathan Chang, an orthopedic surgeon and clinical professor at the University of Southern California, said that although these distances sound daunting to the average weekend runner, "The human body is potentially capable of much more."

There hasn't been a lot of comprehensive research done on athletes who cover distances longer than the marathon and Ironman triathlon levels, Chang said. So it's difficult to tell whether ultra-athletes have stronger lungs, more efficient muscles or other physiological differences from other people.

It was clear at the Lake Anna events that not all of these athletes were born to be distance athletes.

Several said they didn't take up triathlons until they reached middle age and wanted to lose weight. The oldest competitor, 69-year-old Arthur Puckrin, didn't start swimming until he was 50. Another athlete in her 40s said she couldn't even do 10 minutes on a treadmill six years ago.

But how can a person know whether their body is strong enough to attempt these events?

"That is something that I would argue is up to the individual to decide," Chang said.

pushing the limits

Athletes at the Lake Anna triathlons often talked about testing their own limits when asked why they attempt these distances.

"It's this constant battle of fear and doubt," said Kathy Roche-Wallace, who completed her fourth triple-iron triathlon this month. "I'm starting to appreciate my own abilities, or just the fact that I can do it."

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