We Are Only As Strong As Our Weakest Link

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Team Mito – A unified voice for a unified cause. Photo Credit: Gordon MacPherson Photography

Writing this blog over the past year has provided me with new perspectives while I am experiencing grand adventures – my mind will wander to places of story telling, recounting events in my mind seconds after they happen, looking for what kind of messages I can communicate to a broader audience. You will never create a past event perfectly through words alone, but words can help people travel vicariously through a similar experience.

I find there’s an optimum period of time where putting pen to paper will have the most desirable effect. Writing something immediately following an experience will give a very narrow view of what took place – emotions are high and you haven’t had time to grasp the magnitude of what has just occurred. On the other hand, wait too long and the important details begin to fade. I’m hoping I hit the sweet-spot for recounting these events, because words truly can’t describe our experience on May 28, 2017, spending the day with 112 other runners and countless volunteers and supporters on our unique Calgary Marathon journey.

Here’s the spectacle:

113 runners linked together with surgical tubing

Complete the Calgary Marathon within the race’s time limit

All who start, must finish

We are only as strong as our weakest link.

The dropout rate for a marathon is around 1-3%. Cutoff times are usually very generous (6-7 hours) so the reason for dropping out of the race is either injury or mental fatigue – either you physically cannot move forward without a serious risk to your health, or you reach a mental state where you convince yourself that finishing is not going to happen, regardless of your physical condition. Statistically, with 113 runners participating, our chances of having one or two people dropping out is a likely reality.

First question: Why…? Why would you do this?

Next question: How do you convince over a hundred capable runners that this is a good idea?

Final question: Is it really possible to pull off the logistics required to make this happen?

There’s one simple answer to all of these questions: people are awesome.

No, really. People are just the best. MitoCanada reached out to the running community to help them raise awareness of mitochondrial disease by creating a huge spectacle at the Calgary Marathon. Team Mito delivered by not only breaking a Guinness World Record, but more importantly raising over $150,000 and providing an avenue to create an incredible amount of awareness for this condition which affects at least 1 in 6000 Canadians, and can have devastating impacts to families as the symptoms of the disease can start to show up in young children.

For most runners, training for and completing a marathon can be the greatest physical challenge of their life. It’s something that many aspire to, and the reward that comes from this success is truly life-changing. I’ve run many races and training runs of the marathon distance or greater, but my first official marathon finish stands out as one of the highlights of my life and serves as a benchmark to me for the level of commitment required to do something that changes lives. Training for my first marathon introduced me to how your perspective on life can change when you set lofty goals and fully commit physically, mentally, and emotionally. What Team Mito did this past weekend surpasses that benchmark.

Before getting into the details of the day’s events, I just want to say taking part in this event was a last-minute decision which I am so grateful that I made. The past two months have been a fairly heavy training block, so I didn’t feel comfortable committing to participating without being 100% certain I could contribute to its success. Two weeks out from the race, I was on a long-overdue run with my good friend Dave Proctor, catching up on our busy lives, where he convinced me to sign up for the marathon with Team Mito.

This was not my day. And I don’t mean that in the sense of how my day unfolded, rather I was merely there helping Team Mito raise awareness for those people and families that live day to day with mitochondrial disease; this was their day.

We were asked to show up on race day at 5:30 am, an hour and a half before the gun, to ensure we weren’t scrambling last minute to get everyone signed in and provide the layers upon layers of evidence which Guinness required of us to make our attempt legitimate and verifiable. Thankfully, the morning was quite warm so standing around in minimal running gear wasn’t too much of an issue, though words were exchanged between many runners about what this meant for the mid-day heat.

The atmosphere was very positive. The MitoCanada community and spirit was out in full force this early morning; familiar and new faces were plentiful, yet everyone seemed to have the mutual intention of getting to know one another throughout the course of our adventure. It was easy to see that the focus was on building an even greater community above all else.

It wasn’t long before Blaine Penny, the mastermind behind this spectacle, began speaking to us all with directions to ensure we don’t accidentally disqualify ourselves from the attempt. Blaine was providing us with direction to stay focused, and be mindful of the many issues that can unexpectedly arise when you intentionally shove over a hundred people into a small space, let alone make them run together for the better part of a day.

This speech quickly turned from talking to the group, to connecting with each individual present. With so many people participating, it’s easy to lose a few dozen to the anticipation and excitement buzzing among the group; it was clear Blaine could see this possibility and he gave his next words directly from the heart.

Blaine began his speech with details of the record attempt and finished with a message to keep the eyes on the prize. And no, that prize isn’t a World Record. This day was for all those who suffer more than most can imagine, people like Blaine’s son Evan. This day was only going to be as successful as our collective mentality and direction would allow. We were there to create one loud, unified voice for those suffering from mitochondrial disease, and the only way to accomplish this was to leave no person behind. The only successful day was one where everyone who started was able to finish.

We are only as strong as our weakest link.

The gun goes off for the official race start and we began our tethered attempt by walking from our sideline staging area to the race corral for a delayed start. Even this was no easy feat as we needed to navigate a hairpin turn, complete with large ankle busting potholes, even before the race had begun. Once we arrived at the official start line, a countdown began to the start of our great adventure… and off we went!

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Quite the spectacle, Team Mito! Photo Credit: Gordon MacPherson Photography

Surprisingly, things got moving quicker than expected. Being near the back of the pack, I was expecting a bit of a delay while waiting for the people-train to begin moving in its entirety. The camaraderie began showing immediately as everyone was in-tune with one another and paces were consistent; we were moving as one.

The pacing strategy was as follows:

7:00/km pace, ~5 hours of running

3 x 15 minute scheduled bathroom breaks

Four distinct sections of running at ~90 minutes each

Total projected finish time of 5:45

Section #1 – 0 to 12 km

The team’s energy was positive and optimistic. We were still within the vicinity of many runners at this point, giving us great opportunities to cheer other runners on. We even got the opportunity to cheer on a few coffee-sipping onlookers, sitting on their porches, wondering what on earth this massive group of runners were doing. We generally followed this up with a few Team Mito chants to get our message across!

Right on schedule, we pulled up to our first dedicated aid station with a huge group of cheering supporters. All the volunteers were so incredibly helpful. I could see each and every one of the volunteers wanted to give their all, just like each of us runners.

With five minutes to spare, we were off ahead of schedule!

Section #2 – 12 to 25 km

The stoppage at the first aid station must have caused some tightness to form in a few runners as it didn’t take long for Blaine to be informed a modified pace was needed. Without hesitation, Blaine began directing us to walk some of the more difficult hills to mix up the pace to help out any struggling runners. Our unwavering positivity prevailed and we continued being a loud, unified voice running for those who can’t.

The second aid station came along with more supporters and volunteers, giving us a much needed boost after recently passing the halfway mark. The extended time on feet started to show with most runners at this point. You could hear many groans from tight, sore legs being coerced into moving once again as we left the aid station.

Section #3 – 25 to 36 km

Leaving the second aid station, I knew this next section was going to be tough. We would be entering the hottest part of the day, on the most exposed section of the course, with enough distance remaining that the end would not be in sight. I was expecting this to be where the breakdowns would start happening so I mentally prepared myself to ensure I could provide as much encouragement and cheering as I could muster. If we were going to be successful, the strongest of us would need to lift our collective morale through cheers and support.

Throughout the run, we had several volunteers riding bikes alongside us to provide support and help document the feat. However it wasn’t until this point in the run that these people truly became integral in the success of the day. Especially Tony, who really owned the position of Team Mito Cheer Captain.

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Our lovely cyclists were cheering us on the whole way! Photo Credit: Gordon MacPherson Photography

Tony and the other cyclists accompanying us could see our spirits declining just before hitting Kensington and Memorial Drive at around the 28 km mark – approaching the toughest part of the course, mentally speaking. Tony started really hammering on the cheers, calling out each individual pod of 15 runners to get everyone talking again. The stronger runners started carrying these cheers, making a game out of it to see which pod could cheer the loudest. Morale started improving, though the physical challenge and heat was taking its toll on a few runners.

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Moving strong and steady along Memorial Drive. Photo Credit: Gordon MacPherson Photography

As we approached the next aid station, there was a sense of optimism in the air as the finish line was now in our sites. Unfortunately, this was cut short as word spread of a runner dealing with symptoms of heat exhaustion. As we made our final stop, Blaine immediately ran over to assess the situation. Support was plentiful as everyone was focused on making sure he had everything he needed to address the issue so we’d be able to finish as a team.

Throughout this whole incident, what stood out most was the mentality of the runner who was experiencing these issues. He immediately reached out for help, yet was 100% focused on making sure he could recover to continue contributing to our team. The struggle he was facing at this point was huge and very apparent, yet his resolve to take the time to recover appropriately before continuing was even greater.

We spent an extra fifteen minutes or so at the aid station while medical personnel ensured there were no serious health risks with continuing. We were then on our way, with our pace being directed by our freshly recovered friend.

Section # 4 – 36 to 42.2 km

At this point, we are behind schedule and going much slower than anyone had anticipated. This is where I started truly noticing the impact Blaine had on us all through his early morning speech.

Going so slow, and no longer completely confident that we’d make the record, you would expect some impatience to build from the team’s energy, which was no longer required for moving forward as quickly as we once were. A drop in morale at this point could have serious implications to our finish, but more importantly would result in safety hazards if runners began to lose focus. Instead, all this excess energy was focused directly at boosting our morale and making our unified voice even louder. The cheering magnified and the positivity flowed in full force as we crossed the Bow River for the final time. As our collective organism moved underneath the Centre Street Bridge, we created one booming echo that could be heard for miles. This unexpected weakness became our strength.

We are only as strong as our weakest link.

With four kilometres to go, we are notified that we’ll be soon entering the 5k race course during the start of the event. Blaine attempts to work the logistics out with the race marshals on the fly to ensure we don’t cause issues for the top competitors. Confusion begins to set in as directions are given from several sources to all of us severely fatigued runners. I can’t imagine what Blaine was feeling at this point – we are SO CLOSE, yet logistically this has now become a whole new beast.

As we get another half kilometre closer to the finish, we finally have more clear directions to stay to the far left to allow the elite runners to pass freely on the right as they come from behind us towards the finish. This becomes very challenging as we start passing the non-elite 5k runners as they are running in the opposite direction to us. All of these incredible people were wanting to show their support for us by running over and giving high-fives, blocking up the elite corridor we just created. This was so difficult to manage as we wanted to show our appreciation but didn’t want to encourage runners moving in and out of the open corridor.

As we approached the 2 km mark and made a 90 degree turn before the final stretch of the race, we hear shouts to stop from the back of the team. This became a more immediate request as our tether started to stretch too far. A slightly less immediate response and our record attempt would have prematurely ended way too close to the finish.

One of the runners in our last pod got a severe cramp and was forced to stop right before making this sharp turn. We were now stuck in the middle of our final challenging turn, making communication very difficult. We desperately needed to maintain composure, control our enthusiasm, and focus on getting to the finish.

The next kilometre was a combination of walking, stopping, even more runners cramping, miscommunication, and lots of confusion. It was easy to tell everyone was ready to cross that finish line, yet we needed to focus on the present situation. Thankfully, Blaine could see through these distractions and got everyone focused on what we needed to do. It wasn’t about the finish, it was about moving forward as a team. Every stop was followed by a check to make sure every pod and every person was ready to move forward. Without Blaine’s unrelenting drive to remain focused on the true goals of our feat, this last kilometre could have unravelled the whole event.

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Turning onto the final stretch! Photo Credit: Gordon MacPherson Photography

As we entered the Stampede Grounds for the final few hundred metres, the crowds and cheers began to build. At this point everyone in the team began running in-tune again just as we did from the beginning, all holding the mutual understanding of why we were there. We entered the grandstands and picked up the pace for the final 50 metres to finish as strong as we had started six hours and twenty five minutes earlier.

We are only as strong as our weakest link.

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Crossing the finish line!!! Photo Credit: Gordon MacPherson Photography

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Celebrating one incredible day! Photo Credit: Gordon MacPherson Photography

There was an incredible struggle that came and went throughout the course of this day. Not just physically and mentally with each individual, but the struggle to maintain a focused team that was able to complete this marathon together, turning our weaknesses into our strength. Without this mutual respect and shared goal of raising our collective voice for those suffering with mitochondrial disease, we would not have had such a successful and memorable day.

Since race day, I have had dozens of people ask me about the race and most of these discussions ended with a greater awareness of the cause we ran to support. I’m sure every runner who participated has had a similar experience. That means thousands of people have been exposed to the challenges that people like Evan face on a daily basis. Without question this was more successful than anyone envisioned. And to top that all off, there was an incredible amount of money raised to provide tangible support for those suffering from mitochondrial disease.

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Evan and his family – one of the many who must deal with mitochondrial disease on a daily basis. Photo Credit: Gordon MacPherson Photography

Oh ya, and there’s a few new Guinness World Record Holders too 🙂

I would strongly encourage everyone who took the time to read this to take a few more minutes and go learn a bit more about mitochondrial disease and what MitoCanada is doing to help. Also, I would also encourage everyone to consider donating to MitoCanada. This is a great foundation that does fantastic work to help the people and their families that suffer from mitochondrial disease.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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