Bigger Than Buckles – How much fun I had DNFing my first 100 miler.
To: Everyone. Our life is a reflection of those we pass throughout it. I feel that our accomplishments are reflections of those who stay with us. So I thank you all for staying with me and I hope you can enjoy this ride as much as I did.
This ride started a long time ago. For those of you just joining us, thank you for coming and I hope you have a few minutes to see what a group of friends is willing to do when they have the opportunity to help out a worthwhile cause. Grab your Water bottle and Salt pills… This is an ultra-marathon and you best stay hydrated!
By 2:25am we were in Lauren’s car and headed for a start line in Leadville, a brief 45 mins away from our base in Breckenridge. My little brother Jim had flown in a day ago marking the first of my support crew to arrive and this was the thing I was most excited about, what I envisioned continuously as we drove the winding highway with the plan of meeting Matt at the start line. I had read and heard a lot about 100 mile ultras from many many sources from which I had formed a theory months ago. A 100 mile trail race across arduous terrain at elevations reaching 12,600ft. lasting potentially more than 30 hours and requiring every once of focus, determination and will you possess sounds really really hard. I chose to look at it as a party in the mountains with my little brother and dear friends running spectacular trails through that were littered with friends, high fives and coca-cola breaks. This kind of event felt far more palatable on the psyche.
So, on the eve of the race when Lauren, Sarah and Pete arrived it was difficult to stay calm in the excitement of what was to come. I had dubbed them Team Awesome (Jim, Lauren, Neeraj, Sarah and Pete. Matt’s crew was Team Excellent!) and so we had Team Awesome craft time; stitching, ironing and drawing up some team shirts and hats emblazoned with the LiveIt! LoveIt! Foundation logo and our Eload sports nutrition patches. We prepped the race food, salt pills, clothing changes, shoes, lights and those other fine details until the hours were late. Very late. This may have been the first red flag: With less than 2 hours to go before we had to get up, I was in the bathroom shaving a mohawk into my little brother Jim’s head. In terms of being rested for a colossal effort such as running 100 miles, this didn’t fall into the realm of sane. I still maintain that it was the right choice and I feel you will agree when you see the photos. Moving on..
There were 800+ people trying to remain calm and cool on that start line and though the 3 degrees Celsius was helping with the cool bit, the remote controlled flying camera helicopter device was definitely at odds with the calm. Like many, if not all of the others around us, Matt and I had spent most of the last 12 months in various states of planning, training, day dreaming, product testing, night terrors and romanticizing about this morning and what it would hold. The result of this nervous energy was an almost audible hum of like minded focus, visualization, determination….and that crazy robot flying camera thing that looked like it belonged in a James Cameron movie. Familiar faces in this crowd had made the same journey down from British Columbia. Mike, Torbin and Moe The Eagle were a generation apart from Matt and I but our generations had common themes. We hugged each other repeatedly, wishing each other the very best, the years between us bridged by boyish excitement. The traditional shotgun blast rang out signalling 4am and declaring these maniacs be let loose upon this carnival ride of a race course. A sea of headlamps flowed forth as from a levy no longer fit to hold its quarry and cascaded into the darkness of the early morning.
Runners were making their way through the first 10 miles of the course as if it were the last 10. We were wiser, we knew the errors of such behaviour and made responsible pacing choices. Didn’t we? All I can say for sure is that we knew what we were doing, even if we were doing it too fast.I had seen so many videos of race starts in the dark and the images of the ghostly trail of head lamps floating along through the woods. I was in it now. Like twinkling stars weaving along the lake side, up into the trees and back towards the now distant glow of the start line.
Matt had made his way up into the ranks as I chatted with the good people around me on the trail. Aglow from the beauty witnessed on the trail I ran into May Queen Aid Station vibrating with excitement after only 13.5 miles. My friends were the loudest, happiest friendliest people out there and I felt overjoyed to have the kind of friends that everyone wants. I felt like cheering for them as much as they were for me. On top of that I learned that Matt was running strong up ahead and feeling good from Team Excellent who was just packing up to go meet connect with Matt at the next Aid Station.
The sky was glowing to the East as everyone exited the aid station without there headlamps and warmer layers and began the first climb up the amiably named Sugar Loaf. The views opened up, complimented by the sun, as we climbed more than 1000ft. before descending down Powerline (named so creatively for its power lines). On this climb is when my stomach became an issue, sharp pains with each foot fall are something that can hold back the fastest runners of which I am not one so this wasn’t encouraging for my time goals. Most of the runners I talked to mentioned the same issues. It seemed to come and go but I reminded myself to stay focused on keeping hydrated and fuelled until the Fish Hatchery Aid Station (yep it’s a fish hatchery). I was carrying a bottle of Eload Endurance Formula to keep my electrolytes up and large reusable tubes of Eload Gel to get my calories and save on the usual 6-10 wrappers that often come from a 3 hour section of trail running. I’ve recently become very conscious of the trash my running produces and feel really good about this system. Earlier in the race I had unwittingly dropped a wrapper on the trail somewhere and had decided to pick up the trash I came across to make up for it.
The descent down Powerline claimed a few victims with badly stubbed toes and full on bails. I was not immune to this carnage and in the blink of an eye found myself in some kind of ninja turtle rolling maneuver in the dirt. I managed to recover and didn’t think too much of it when a runner in passing mentioned he was amazed I was still running. I decided, as always, that it looks worse than it feels. This was not the case today once the “as it feels” began to match the “it looks”. I was moving slow due the pain in my belly which was masking the building pain in my knee. I was just excited to get To Fish Hatchery and see everyone again though and due to the number of runners dashing in and out of the woods I felt kinda of normal. Normal is one of the last words I had ever thought of during our preparations of the last year. Happy, fulfilled, excited, dedicated and appreciative are the most prominent ones that spring to mind. But normal wasn’t on that list, nor was it on the list of words that seemed to come the everyone I knew. And at that moment feeling normal was really unpleasant and something I figured would pass soon.
Fish Hatchery was another amazing high-five/hug festival and one of my favourite memories of the whole event. It, at 23.5 miles, was the first time, as I came into an Aid Station, that my little brother Jim met me right at the beginning of the crowd and ran with me to TeamAwesome’s spot. It was hard not to cry at that moment and each one following. Jim and I had planned these moments for the last 6 months, talked about the race, the scale of it, the accomplishment it would mark. But at the root of it we had both been most excited to share these very specific and priceless moments as brothers celebrating together. The realization of this long anticipated high-five and seeing Team Excellent as well as friends crewing the rest of the Victoria gang served as great renewal of my mind and body going into the section I was least looking forward too which was all road running with traffic. I’m pretty sure I have a block about that section apart from how proud I was of myself for running the whole darn thing. I was glad to get off of it, I remember that through all of the things I was thinking about to take my mind off of my stomach pains and the slow searing that was creeping into my knee. Getting to Treeline crew area was amazing again and I was stoked to see Neeraj who had joined up with the crew and would be pacing me from the turn around point. His experience with crewing in previous editions of this race was invaluable as he talked me through how to deal with the problems I was having on top of being as amazingly supportive and stoked as rest of Team Awesome. No matter how I felt coming into those stations I always ran out full of energy and excitement and appreciative of having amazing people in my life. The next section was long, mixed with old roads and high single track trail with a lot of climbing. I bumped into a few familiar faces along the way, the good folks from Arkansas Po Dog and Paul Turner were vets with the disposition of school boys on a treasure hunt, wild eyed talking a 6 minute mile.
To this point I had been up 20 mins of my goal pace (which should have been a waring sign in itself) but along this particularly long section I could find no respite from my tummy troubles and was making trips to the woods every 60 to 80 mins and walking all but the slightest down hills. I had adopted the run, walk, run which was useful for many aims. The most prominent at that time was, run until you can’t handle how bad it hurts then walk and feel relief for long enough that you can handle the pain of running again. It was kinda ridiculous but it allowed for lots of social time with other runners and sharing stories of hometowns and the appreciation for the common place our very different lives had brought us.
I heard it in the distance, at the base of that mountain, well below me. The roaring crowd, the clang of the bells and the wonk wonk wonk noise of the loudspeaker that brought to mind the voices of the adults in the Charlie Brown
cartoons. Team Awesome was at the bottom of that hill. Food and water were at the bottom of that hill. Porta-potties were at the bottom of that hill! Regardless of who or what was down there, my perpetually uncooperative stomach was opposing any increase in pace and my knee was quickly jumping on board. Despite these mutinous acts I hit the approach to the Aid Station at a run. I was more that keen to get my stomach sorted out and spend time in the company of the modestly named Team Awesome. Team Excellent was also there and gave me an update on Matt’s progress, relating that he was facing some oppressive stomach issues in a big way and that he had thought of waiting for me, which was both heartwarming and sad at the same time. By this point I was beginning to chalk it up to the altitude which was the only common theme amongst dozens of the other folks afflicted.
I spent a long time in a porta-potty hoping life would turn around. I decided though that time was better spent with Team Awesome and their incredible energy. I relayed my issues but couldn’t be the least bit melancholy with their wonderful vibe surrounding me. Hugs all around and I was off again. As I ran out, a guy running next to me commented, with a hint of animosity, that I had the most amazing crew and that they were so happy and energetic. I agreed with him with a grin and revelled in the thought that I might be remembered by someone simply for having the most awesome friends in the world. Kudos Team Awesome!
As the road out of the Aid Station turned to single track through a grassy meadow I was well behind any time advantage I had made up in the first stages but was never too concerned with the splits anyway. I thought of Matt and his goal going into the race and sincerely wished whatever needed to happen would do so for him. I knew that once he was over Hope Pass he would meet Jed on the other side and that it would be a much needed boost.
Winding through the meadow and across the river, I was more than a little overwhelmed but the panoramic beauty of the valley we had all descended into at Twin Lakes. Ahead of me and a few runners was a string of mountains and passes who’s names I’ll never know save for Hope Pass, but I had No idea which one it was so I took the wise Italian mans advice from over my shoulder and stopped searching for suffering while surrounded by beauty.
If you run this race, you may likely see someone holding a sign that reads “hope Pass is my Bitch”. Pay no attention to this sign. Hope Pass has been around a lot longer than you and like every mountain, there is nothing in this world you can teach it and everything in this world that it can teach you. Hiking up those lush trails through tall thick timber I was reminded of home. A group of 4 of us climbed together, every now and then sparing enough oxygen to chuckle about this monster we were grappling with and attempting to make lighthearted comments but it felt as though the runners ahead had already used up the scarce bit of oxygen on this mountain. Two by two the race leaders made their way by us each with a pacer. The racers focused as we cheered them, the pacers calmly reciprocated our encouragements.
Hopeless Aid Station, as it is known, is a magical place. I can only describe it as amazing and intimidating at the same time. Just when you feel like your lungs are about to rebel and your legs might forfeit all control to gravity, the
now shorter, stalky trees open into an alpine meadow with a gypsy encampment as a centre piece. The amazing people responsible for this O2 oasis pack everything in on lamas year after year and are one of the spectacularly unique things that has built up the mystic and legend of the Leadville 100. They serve food and fluids, first aid and fist pumps all to the tune of Bon Jovi’s greatest hits. I searched and searched but was unable to find the cotton candy that would have made this a legitimate circus. I wish to thank these people one by one some day.
Making my way over Hope Pass itself offers a whole new level of vistas that can make for a dangerous descent down the narrow, loose and technical path to Winfield Aid Station. The traffic coming up causes a lot of congestion on the trails and my complete inability to run downhill left me struggling to find room on the non existent shoulder giving way to runners in both directions. My right knee was swollen and throbbing. The points at which the muscle attach from the thigh to the knee were tightening rapidly on the descent and creating a sharp and fiery pain that was beginning to concern me given that I had not quite made it half way through this run.
Reprieve and repair were waiting for me at the Aid Station I told myself. There was only 5 miles to go until I was back in the good company of Team Awesome and the skilled hands of Dr. Lauren Wills who has a history of fixing me when I break and is a vital component of the team’s awesomeness. Navigating the dust, vehicle traffic and hoards of spectators made it hard to find the correct path into the aid station but Jim and Neeraj navigated me to the right people and places for weigh-ins and washrooms. As soon as I was with the whole crew again Lauren went to work immediately to quell the pain I had described in my knee. I was standing there being handed drinks and high-fived and acupunctured at the same time. People glared in envy and admiration of my team who went above and beyond again and again to be the best damned crew that ever graced the events history. Again, Team Awesome, you are not the just the grease that kept the wheel rolling, I would argue that you were the spare wheel that replaced the broken one and permitted that broken down cart to keep going.
Hugs all around. Winfield marked the turn around and by far the hardest point to part with my friends on that run so far but also the long awaited time that I would run with Neeraj all the way back to Fish Hatchery. I cautioned him that there would be little if any running for a while until my knee could let go and the pain subsided. Neeraj is one of the best people you could ever ask for in this situation. He understood and did everything he could to get me moving as quickly and painlessly and possible including fashioning a pair of walking sticks of some large branches from just off the trail and doing repeated muscle activation and massage techniques to try to get the right muscles working and relaxing to allow my knee to move properly. He did more than I believe anyone else could beg for let alone be offered on our 2500ft high hike up and back over hope pass inbound to Twin Lakes. With his coaching he got me using the right bio mechanics to hike at a pretty respectable pace…for having two trees in my hands and hardly any use of my right leg.
We were optimistic, Felt great aside from the occasional, almost blinding pain in my right knee and figured that we had a system that would carry us on the finish line. After 3 more hours and another brief scanning for the cotton candy at the Hopeless Aid Station the descent proved to be a real obstacle. The extra energy used in my new gait took a toll and my hopes for a finish began to sink with the setting sun. Together we made our way awkwardly down the mountainside both now experiencing stomach issues but even as my pace dwindled more and more, Neeraj remained a constant companion and made no complaints and accepted no apologies when I offered them. We talked about many things, getting to know more about each other and what makes us do these things. I tried to tell him enough times how much I appreciated his friendship and companionship along one of the hardest journeys I’ve ever made and although he obliged I suspect he, like the rest of Team Awesome are still not fully aware of just how powerful the event had been for me and what a positive, joyous and heartening ride it was.
As we walked across the meadow on the final stretch back to the Twin Lakes Aid Station, well outside of the cut off time and beyond any chance of being allowed to continue we paused and turned off our headlamps. Staring up at the moonless night sky we both agreed that we saw the most incredible sky either of us had ever known in our lives. I was taking it all in, nothing I had planned had gone right but everything I had hope for had come true and more. I was crying, in the dark night, staring into the endless starry sky and life was perfect. I thought of Matt, where we had come from and where Project Talaria could go if it had lead us here already. I thought of Team Awesome and Team Excellent and what they had put off, put up with and put themselves through for this moment. I hope that there’s was as perfect as mine, I can only assume that it could have been nothing less. My family and friends, who have done so much, said so much and given so much to something and someone they believed in. I thought in an instant of everything I had regretted in life, resented in life and accomplished in life and I was thankful for it all and for it all bringing me to that beautiful moment as the stars shining with reckless abandon reflected in the the joyful tears slipping down my cheeks.
We continued in the dark, we talked about running for the first time in a while. I asked when Neeraj needed me to crew him for his 24 hours race and we envisioned other adventures to come. As we crossed the river we met a woman with no headlamp who had heard she might be able to make an extended cut off but had no way of seeing the trail so Neeraj, being the noble gentlemen he is, ran with her to the Aid Station in the hopes of extending her race day. I appreciated the solitude only because I was re-living the connection with Jim at the Aid Stations, the hopeful conversations on the trails, the cheers, the helping hands, the hugging arms and uplifting smiles of Team Awesome.
I wanted to find Matt and I wanted to be his crew. Team Awesome had inspired me in the most amazing way and I wanted to be on Team Excellent and return the favour. Neeraj came back along the trail to find me and shortly after I saw a glowstick-crowned Mohawk in the growing lights of the town. Hey brothaman! It was every Aid Station combined to see my brother again, both of us embracing the other in excitement and relief. I told him we needed to find Matt, he was on top of it and had been communicating with Kyle. I found Lauren, Sarah and Pete with the usual fare of hugs, smiles and encouragement. We all knew that finding Matt at the next possible Aid Station was the next step and we made good time on the roads for May Queen where he would have 13.5 miles remaining around the lake and up into town. He was with Jed and I was indebted to Jed for how important that partnership was, on that course, under those conditions.
We found Kyle at May Queen setting up for Matt and Jed’s arrival as Robyn and Lynda caught a few moments rest in the car. Kyle is a monster, and unbelievable crew chief and one of the most solid guys I know. He lead Team Excellent unflinchingly through that whole event with a smile on his face, truly impressive and admirable. As runners came and went we huddled in the cold night and cheered them in and out of the tent. Seeing Matt coming into the light was amazing and inspiring. I tried to be encouraging and be what Team Awesome was for me. I wanted to tell him what it meant to see him go so far, pushing so hard and drawing every last drop from the well. Unfortunately, if there are words to express that, they are in a language I don’t speak so I just gave him a hug and the usual way to go man keep it up, dig in, you’re gonna do this. Jed still looked very strong, he was in good spirits and was doing an incredible job of keeping Matt safe and moving. They made their way back into the night with one final 13.5 mile stretch until the finish line. I was so excited Matt had made it happen, pulled together things that I’m sure he never knew existed in him and turned them into foot steps. Jed had gone with him through experiences I can’t imagine and walked by his side.
We waited on the Boulevard as runners slowly conquered the last 500 meters of their 160km journey. Finding a place of triumph in what was once only a destination. We all wanted to cover that final 500 meters with him but I couldn’t walk fast enough so was happy to just observe the final few strides as he, from I can’t imagine where, pulled out a run to cross the finish line in the fashion of pure grit and courage that I recognize as Matt Cecill.
Congrats Matt and Team Excellent. My most sincere thank you and congratulations to Team Awesome for sharing the best experience of my life. An extra special thank you to my little bro Jim for really making it all possible. Thank you to the friends family and influences in my life that cause me to make these amazing choices of wonderful people and places.
Thank you so much to Dr. John Douglas for your diligence, mending and maintaining us throughout. To Anne Boschman RMT, CBP for keeping things balanced. Thanks to Eload Sports Nutrition for fueling the fire with the elements we need to keep moving. To All Sports Recovery Club for all your help and teachings in fixing and preventing the wear and tear, teaching me how to recover right. A huge thanks to the LiveIt!LoveIt! Foundation for giving us inspiration and giving so many folks the chance to LiveIt! And LoveIt!
Love to you all, I am indebted to your kindness and awesomeness!
(What you Love Doing) x (For A Really Long Time ) = (Joy And Fulfilment) x (A Really Long Time)