Capes 100: Chapter 1

By Matt Tibbits on August 30, 2023

On Saturday, August 12, 2023, I completed the middle distance of 87 km at the Capes 100 Ultra in Mabou, Cape Breton. Just getting myself to the start line, somewhat healthy and fit, was a two year process. I thought that when I started taking care of myself (I talk about this in depth here) that it would be relatively easy to get back into ultra running. Not so, my friends, not so. The journey to the start line was fraught with injury, setbacks, and frustration. In fact, I “retired” MULTIPLE times, but always found myself lacing those damned running shoes up again.

Early in 2021 we were in peak COVID lockdowns. Most running events were canceled or postponed. One event that appeared on my radar was “A Day In Wentworth”, scheduled for September of 2021. This consisted of an approximately 5 km loop that you could run as many times as you wanted in 24 hours. It was also very flat. That meant it would be easy, right?  I had never run for 24 hours, so I thought I’d give it a go. My goal was to run for 24 hours or 100 km, whichever came first.

In June of 2021, I strained both my right hip flexor and my right adductor. This basically put an end to running for the year. I biked a lot and hiked even more. In September, 2 weeks before the event, a Morton’s neuroma, that I’ve had for years, flared up in my left foot. This is a thickening of tissue around one of the nerves leading to your toes and causes a sharp, burning sensation in the ball of your foot. Much like stepping on a marble every time you plant your foot. Good times.

Despite my injuries, I was determined to participate in this event. For so long, I felt like a fraud, and I wanted to prove myself, to myself. Throwing common sense to the wind I, ahem, toed the start line. Pun intended. I had decided that even if I could only walk, I was going to do it. All I had to do was walk for 24 hours.

Back then, and all through my running career, I’ve often relied on anger and self-loathing for fuel. Especially in a race. When I reached the point where my body no longer wanted to cooperate, I would get so angry at myself. My internal dialogue went something like: “you goddamn, weak-ass, useless fucking piece of shit…etc. etc.”. I would fan the flames of that self-hatred until I had a white hot ball of rage at the center of my being. With that would come a huge release of adrenaline and then I wouldn’t care about my body or how much pain it was in. That was how I pushed myself through these longer distances.

And, that is what I did at Wentworth. I did get my 100 km, coming in at around 15 hours and 31 minutes, but I paid the price. Wentworth mangled me. In the weeks after I had neuroma pain, issues in both adductors, a re-strained right hip flexor, and injuries in my left hamstring and glute.

After a 2 month layoff to recover and heal I was ready to get back at it. 2022 was going to be the year. I was registered for Capes. LFG. I hoped to ride the satisfaction of completing 100 km at Wentworth right through to Capes. My body seemed to have other ideas. Throughout the first of the year, my running was a week on, then a week off. Training was very inconsistent due to pain everywhere. All the time.

Capes 100 2023: I'm not smiling
Capes 100 2023: After 50 km I’m not even smiling on the inside.

I had to face the fact that I had lost a step, and not only that, I could not be laissez-faire about my training any longer. I needed to make some changes if I was going to continue running. So, I made some changes. I transitioned to flat shoes with a wide toe box. I started standing all day, every day. No more slouching in a chair for hours on end. I started focusing on functional strength and mobility, realizing how important these are as we age. None of these changes were an overnight fix, but I believed (and still do) that they will lend to being less injury prone and also towards longevity and health.

In March of 2022, and on one particularly hard day, I went for a really hard, anger and grief fueled run.  I ran WAY faster than I should have, and about a km from home I felt a sharp, stabbing pain in my right hip. Sure enough, a bad strain of my gluteus medius once again had me sidelined.

I was running again by May, but I was seriously behind if I was going to do Capes that August. Then I got COVID, and I got it bad. I realized I was sick about 2 km into the Fredericton Half Marathon. By 10 km I would have welcomed death. I didn’t yet know that I had COVID, but I knew there was something really wrong and that I was really sick.

A couple of virus filled weeks later I ran the Bluenose Half in Halifax. I wrote the following in my journal after that, another extremely grueling half marathon:

“…hip is really, really sore. I counted and I have run 16 times since Jan 1st. Sixteen fucking times. That’s it. No wonder I am so goddamn sore after these runs. I went from no running to doing half marathon races. I have to be realistic about Capes. I don’t think I am going to be able to get my conditioning there in a couple of months. Especially with my hip still giving me issues. FUCK SAKES. I am beyond discouraged. I don’t understand why I just can’t get fucking healthy and run without pain or injury…”

By the first of July I had another neuroma flare up in my left foot. That was it. Capes was out for 2022.

I had made some positive changes, and I was slowly noticing improvement, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to SLOWWWWW down. I needed consistency and I needed to rebuild that aerobic base. Also, every time I ran fast, I injured myself. So, in November I started doing “maf” or zone 2 training, by challenging myself to running every day in November, no matter what, a minimum of 5 km per day.

Much to my delight, it mostly worked! I was continuing to stand at work, focusing on strength and mobility, and building my base. I was able to build distance on my long runs and I had been pretty much injury free. There were some aches and pains, and flare ups, but nothing that required me to stop running. Here we were in June of 2023 and I was on track for Capes!

The Keji Backyard Ultra (queue ominous music). This event sees the participants running a 6.67 km loop once per hour, every hour, on the hour, until there is only one person left. My goal going in was a minimum of 10 hours. MINIMUM! I thought I would easily do 10, and if I felt like it, maybe a few more. Ha! What a joke. I barely got 7 hours in and had to drop on the 8th lap. I was very frustrated afterwards, but I realized a few things while driving home: I was cramping bad after 7 hours (46 km) sure, but I also hadn’t eaten breakfast and had only eaten 1 energy bar and 2 bananas all day. No electrolytes. Barely any water. Like a complete rookie! I’m amazed I even did 7 hours!

The other thing I realized was that I had been kind to myself! This was completely new to me! As I continue to work through emotional and mental health issues, I have realized that pushing too hard and having unrealistic expectations of myself are not helpful. Yes, I want to do my best, but abusing myself to get there is only contributing to pre-existing mental health issues. Only through being kind to myself can I start to soften the constant fear, tension, and anxiety that I carry around.

Back to Keji. I was a little frustrated after the fact in my calorie deficit induced haze, but I wasn’t angry at myself. I listened to my body and when I was done, I was done. Rather than berating myself into pushing too far, and potentially injuring myself, I was able to accept my limitations on that day, and also find some positive in the outcome. Look at the things that went right, instead of focusing so much on what went wrong. I did, once again, retire from running, but it only lasted a couple of hours! Waking up the next morning and not even being sore definitely confirmed I was on the right track. It feels good when you notice growth, both physically AND emotionally. It motivates a person to continue putting in the hard work. I needed to figure out a nutrition plan that worked, and get some more long runs in, but I was still on track for Capes!

Capes 100 2023: #worthit
Capes 100 2023: #worthit

On one of said “long runs” in July, I stepped on a rock the wrong way and instantly felt my old nemesis, “That Fucking Neuroma”, flare up. Fuck me. Here we go again! I was able to gingerly continue through the last 3 weeks of training, also the heaviest weeks. Everything felt good, except for my foot. It was a dull ache on the best of days, and other days each step was like landing on a spike.

I felt very apprehensive going into Capes with the foot issue, and even more importantly with the mental uncertainty. I have talked about how I used to fuel myself with anger and uncompassionate, internal dialogue. How could I manage to run almost 90 km while also being kind to myself?  Especially with this foot injury! I was already pissed off that I even had an injury to begin with! This whole way of thinking was (and is) very new to me. Was it possible to do something this physically hard without mentally and emotionally beating the shit out of oneself?

Worries aside, I was determined and very focused on my goal, which was to run the race and finish before dark. I knew it was going to hurt, and that the foot would most likely become an issue, but this seemed like a reasonable goal.  I reminded myself of the monks who would put a pebble in their shoe so as to have a continual source of discomfort, and a reminder of their dedication to their spiritual mission. This was the “pebble” in my shoe. A reminder, if you will, to try being a little kinder to myself throughout the day, and to accept, and yes, actually feel the inevitable pain. I am learning to allow myself to feel rather than avoiding. Even if it is a pain in the foot. To let go, rather than tensing up. To push myself towards my goal, but to be kind while doing it. A little yin with my yang.

So much for all of that.

I was only 30 km in and I already wanted to curl up in a ditch.  The pain in my left foot was agonizing, and not only that, but I was tensing with every stride in anticipation of landing on that nerve. My calf was already cramping and so were my left quad and adductor. My determination was already wavering. As I headed down into Inverness and the Broad Cove Banks aid station, I really didn’t think I could make it to the finish line. I was at 38 km and walking downhill was very much a struggle.  There was a really long way to go and a lot of hours of suffering ahead. Fuck that. I was already coming up with excuses and explanations for dropping out.

It was so early in the day, not even noon yet, that it seemed too early to quit. I had made pretty good time so far, in spite of the pain. The wheels were coming off though. I decided to run through Inverness and back to the Broad Cove Banks aid station. If I couldn’t go any further at that point, then so be it. I would just consider it a big training day, and limp off to lick my wounds. I made it through the town, down that beautiful, goddamn beach, and up a very long hill back to the aid station. 

I had to sit down for a few minutes at that point. I kept thinking about quitting all while preparing to head back out. The aid station folks were so helpful, as always! I decided I would head for MacKinnon’s Brook Bridge aid station.  Once I got there I would have 58 km on the day and then I would stop. So, I headed down the road back towards Mabou.

I immediately realized that I couldn’t run. I would run for a few minutes and then my left leg would be screaming in pain and I would have to slow to a walk. Everything hurt. My foot, my calf, my quads, adductors, even my hip. Not only did my leg hurt, but it wasn’t even working right. I didn’t have any power and my run was more of a hobbling shuffle.

As I got closer to MacKinnon’s Brook Bridge, I couldn’t handle the downhills at all. By the time I limped into the aid station I was in rough shape mentally. All of the thoughts and excuses running through my head were a cacophony of voices screaming that I had to stop! I wasn’t going to make it! I don’t know who the wonderful person was working the aid station, but they were instrumental in helping me get myself sorted out. I don’t know why I was even bothering because I was done, but I decide to at least change my socks and think about it for a minute. I thought, “well, you can’t even walk the downs, but you can still climb. So go climb that fucking Steep Mountain”.  I would deal with the descents when I got there.

The minute I hit the trail to climb the mountain the negative self-talk kicked in: “Fuck you suck. Why do you even try to do these things. You aren’t good enough. You aren’t strong enough. I work so fucking hard for nothing, and blah blah blah”. My former favorite place to be, wallowing around in self-pity and being a victim. This time, however, I was able to recognize what I was doing and stop. Show myself some compassion. It was hard, but I thought about some positives – some things that had gone right today. I was still able to climb! That was something!

I thought about how I had gotten here. How this was supposed to be a celebration of life and almost 3 years of sobriety! How I had to fight so hard to save myself, and now I am going to fucking quit just because I’m slow? Because my fucking legs hurt? Remember, one tiny step at a time? That’s how you got sober. That’s how you got here! Maybe I couldn’t run anymore, but I could still take another step. “Can you still put one foot in front of the other”? Yes. Then keep doing that.  STOP THINKING. The kilometres will take care of themselves. The same for the climb. The time also will take care of itself. Who cares when you cross the finish line. You made a determination to do this thing, and there is no satisfaction in a job half-done. Just stop thinking and take one motherfucking tiny step at a time. The same way you did when you decided to live! That was way harder than this. This is just pain physical pain. Embrace the pain. Surrender. And keep fucking moving.

As long as I could do that, as long as I could take another step, there was no valid excuse to quit. With that, a peace settled over me. Joy and gratitude flooded through me. Some blubbering ensued. As I descended the mountain for the last pass through MacKinnon’s Brook Bridge aid station, I was still hurting, but I had a newfound determination. Have I found a way to push my limits AND be kind to myself? By the time I headed out for the last 20 km, I was even able to start running again.

One of the reasons I like to push myself to do these things are for the lessons learned through discomfort. Lessons forged on the anvil of pain. The lesson here is that in running, and in life, to take all things one step at a time. To let go of all worries about the future and regrets over the past. Just be present in this moment and take another step. It is so simplistic, but I seem to need a constant reminder. 

The other take-away here is that being kind to oneself, rather than using self-loathing and anger as fuel, seems to be just as powerful, if not more so. Part of that is accepting and being grateful for what we are given. Maybe this is how it will always be with me. With the body I’ve been given. The injuries and the struggle to stay healthy. I guess I accept that, and I will keep trying, keep doing whatever I can do, while I can, and with gratitude. (Gag me 😉 )

With these thoughts in mind I crossed the finish line at 8:34pm, in 14 hours and 34 minutes, and arriving just MINUTES before dark, meeting my goal in spite of the difficulties along the way!

When it was over, in speaking to someone close, I said “never, EVER, fucking again! I don’t need to ever need or want to do that particular race again.” This was late Saturday evening. By Monday morning I wrote in my journal, “Capes might need to be a yearly thing”. Stay tuned for chapter two.

Author’s Note:

I wrote this over the 2 weeks that have passed since Capes, while recovering and hobbling around. This week, I received xray results indicating a stress fracture in my foot. I don’t know if this is a result of Capes, or if I had this going in. It would certainly explain the ungodly amount of pain in my foot. I was initially very discouraged by this news, but now I am looking at it as another learning experience. And so, the struggle continues.