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By Gene Cherry
March 5 (Reuters) - After perhaps the greatest year ever by a high hurdler, world record holder Aries Merritt has visions of conquering another barrier.
The American Olympic champion, whose whirlwind 2012 brought him every major hurdles title and the outdoor world record, believes running under his top mark of 12.80 seconds in the 110 metres hurdles is an accomplishment just waiting to happen.
"I don't think any limits should be put on one's self," Merritt, 27, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"We have definitely seen that with Usain Bolt. He's put that limit talk to rest. Every time someone says no one can run faster than 9.6 (in the 100 metres), he goes out and runs 9.5."
The first person to run eight sub-13 second hurdles races in a season, the braids-wearing Merritt knows records do not just pop up on demand.
But he also feels his world record race in Brussels last September could have been faster.
"My first unit was just terrible because I was so concerned about false starting," the former U.S. collegiate champion said. "So I sat in the blocks."
The result? "I was 4/100ths of a second slower than my normal first unit. So if you take away those 4/100ths that is already 12.76," Merritt said.
But Merritt understands that last year, during which he won the U.S. and world indoor titles, the U.S. Olympic trials and London Games gold medals and the world record, is one that might not happen again.
"I don't think anyone in the history of the sport has had a year where they won every major championship of the year and then broke the world record," said Merritt. "It was so surreal."
A 13.09 second hurdler going into 2012 with a personal best dating back to 2007, Merritt had vowed things would be different after tying for fifth at the 2011 world championships.
"It really did not sit well," the 2004 world junior champion said of the loss to people who he had beaten earlier in his career. "I had to do some soul searching and look and see what did I need to do."
The answer? Changing his approach to the first hurdle from the traditional eight steps to seven.
Like any experiment, this one had its ups and downs but by the 2012 U.S. indoor championships Merritt had begun to master the approach.
Proof came in the world indoor championships where Merritt, his braided-hair flying, surprised Chinese former world outdoor record holder Liu Xiang for the title.
The string of sub-13 second races outdoors only heightened the buzz of how a switch to seven steps had transformed Merritt.
True, the Texas resident said, the switch made a major difference but it was not the only ingredient in the medley of changes that made him the world's fastest hurdler.
"The key thing for me was staying healthy," Merritt said. "That is why the times were so consistent because my training was very consistent."
Years earlier, when he showed so much promise, "I would run extremely fast (and) a week later I would get hurt."
Merritt also grew up, he said.
He began taking better care of his body, started taking supplements and changed his diet.
"Those are collectively things that led to success, not just one thing," he said.
A cautious approach to recovering from a minor cramp in his right leg in February wiped out his indoor season.
"It is just going to make me more hungry to open up outdoors," said Merritt, whose major aim in 2013 is to take the world title away from 2011 champion Jason Richardson, who was runner-up to Merritt in London.
Contrasting hair styles has only embellished their rivalry.
"I have braids and he has dreads (dreadlocks)," said Merritt, who can take hours to prepare his cornrows and braided hair for a race. "In my opinion there is not much you can do with dreads, but with braids you can switch it up and do all kinds of crazy."
Not so fast, said Richardson, whose hair reaches down his back.
"I definitely think I am a kind of Samson," he said of his dreadlocks. "There is a lot of power and majesty in my hair." (Reporting by Gene Cherry in Salvo, North Carolina; Editing by Frank Pingue)