On the weekend of May 17-19, 2013, seventeen fellow runners and I embarked on an epic amazing adventure so gargantuan in scope, Homer would have whistled an epic haiku about it. The empirical notion that ‘haikus’ are in fact prosaic and not musical is not lost on me. But if that grants you an air of bemusement and consternation, fear NOT, gentle reader. The Human Adventure of our Keys100 Race Weekend is only beginning. Strap yourselves in. We’re about to run the gamut of emotions, in a story that normally I’d like to call “Triumph of the Will”, except that name was taken by a supremely odious endeavor. So let’s just call this tale “Puny Mortals! You Cannot Destroy A Scalloped Border!”
OK more on that later.
First off, a little background about the event. The Keys100 is a point-to-point ultra-marathon, 100 miles straight down the Overseas Highway (US-1 for you Yankee types) in the Florida Keys. Starting from Mile Marker 100 in Key Largo (in the Divers Direct parking lot!), the course shoots straight down to Key West, with a Finish Line 100 miles away at Higgs Beach. There are three types of races going on at once: the 50-Mile Individual Ultramarathon, the 100-Mile Individual Ultramarathon, and the Six Runner 100 Mile Team Relay. If you think for a second that I might have attempted either of the Ultramarathons, bless your heart for retaining such a high opinion of my abilities, and I promise to let you win at checkers when I visit you at your local booby hatch. No, I and the aforementioned 17 fellow runners were running the Relay.
How does the Relay work? In a nutshell, each Relay team has six runners. Each runner runs a leg of the race, handing off a baton to the next runner at predetermined hand-off points. These legs were usually about two miles in length. By the end of reach full round, we cover about 12 miles, via quick 2 mile runs per runner that don’t burn you out and give you plenty of time to recover for your next leg. The only deviation from this plan occurs with the legendary Seven-Mile Bridge, a span that connects Marathon and Little Duck Key (which was also famously blown up in the 1993 James Cameron/Arnold Schwartzeneggar movie ‘True Lies’. Wasn’t Tia Carrere a PEACH in that flick?). Since cars are not allowed to stop on the bridge, there can be no hand-off points. One runner from each team must run the complete 7-mile span on their own.
Which brings up the topic of support vehicles. To ferry runners from the end of their last leg to the start of their next (usually about 10 miles away), each team requires a support vehicle to shuttle runners about. We had three vans, one for each team, decorated with the team name, as well as caution signs and other cutesy decor concepts, such as scalloped borders. Our vans not only took us to our next legs, but housed our coolers, water, food, first aid, changes of clothes, towels, and de-stinkifying agents.
Our intrepid leader and brilliant teams organizer Brett worked out the entire span of the race to a science: assigning runners to teams, choosing paces for runners, selected mile marker stops, estimating times, and so forth. Any event like this requires a TON of coordination, ingenuity, patience, and booze. Just kidding about that last bit. Maybe. But by Friday, May 17th, we had rosters, team names, vans, and schedules all worked out.
Our teams were arranged as follows (with individuals listed in running order):
Fast & Furious
Moovin’ & Groovin
Smooth & Steady
Driver: Pat (with Kathy)
Easy, right? In each team, five of the six runners will run about 16 miles apiece, with the fastest runner doing 20 miles (this includes the 7-mile bridge span). This means that we will have feet on the ground the entire span from Key Largo to Key West.
So how would I describe the experience? Only the best way possible…
FROM THE BEGINNING
On Friday the 17th, Boots and I left Fort Lauderdale and trekked down to the Key Largo Holiday Inn, located right next to the Start Line at MM100. After checking in and heading down to the registration area, we met up with the group around 7:30ish for dinner and our team meetings. Then it was off to decorate our vans with our team logos and other accoutrements, such as borders of a most scalloped sort. By the time van decor was completed it was well after 9:30PM, so we bid everyone a good night and headed off to our room. One Xanax and banana later, I nestled into bed and by around 10:30 I was out for the evening.
At 4:00AM on Saturday the 18th, a familiar Samsung-y melody erupted from my Galaxy phone and we were in business. I got up, showered, shaved, and dressed in my first gear of the day (I packed two changes of running clothes in separate large Ziploc bags for scheduled wardrobe changes throughout the day). I bought a bib belt specifically for the race, as I didn’t want to have to keep unpinning and re-pinning the bib throughout the day. AND in the process of attaching the bib to the belt, it accidentally tore at one corner. DOH! Thankfully Boots was able to do some quick surgery on it while I was busy having a near-mental breakdown trying to organize all my supplies for the day.
And boy did I need supplies. I brought both a gym bag and a small cooler with me on the van. The gym bag had two towels, two changes of running clothes (tech shirt, shorts, running socks, running manties), IT compression bands, iPod, phone, arm-band phone holder, headphones, CLIF Blocks, Power Bars, sunscreen, Band-Aids, Tylenol, trail mix, three PB&J sandwiches, sunglasses, cooling band, buff, night gear (head lamp, LED armbands, reflective vest) and God knows what else. My cooler held my food and drinks for the day: turkey/ham sandwiches, pasta salad, chicken and fruit salad, Gatorade, Vita Coco coconut water, and the much-needed chocolate milk. Much of this was overkill, but I’d rather be over-prepared than ill-equipped. After all, we were scheduled to be in this van for 18 hours.
After loading up the van, we posed for a few pics and then headed across the street to the Start Line for the festivities. As mentioned before, the Start Line was literally in the Divers Direct parking lot. There we bumped into Marcela and Brooks, our friends who were both running the 100 Mile Individual Ultramarathon. ONE HUNDRED MILES. BY THEMSELVES.
Can you even begin to imagine this? That’s just over four marathons, in a row. Marcela is the head coach of our running group (Friends In Training) and she’s kept us in the loop with all of her and Brooks’s training over the past several months. The amount of time, energy, sweat, pain, and commitment that goes into that sort of training cannot even be properly charted. We took some more pics, chatted a bit, and finally things began in earnest.
Hands went over hearts as a woman sang the National Anthem… and not only changed keys mid-song, but bungled a word or two of the lyrics. Still, a mostly admirable job. Then the Relay runners jockeyed into position, and as 6:00AM hit the countdown began and they were off, to much cheering and celebratory geshrais everywhere. The Keys100 event had begun!
Well, no time for complacency. It was time to load up in the vans. Our van had all six runners for the first two legs. A runner from each team ran together during each leg of the race, organized by pace. For example, R.J., Jimmy, and Mike ran the first leg together. Meredith, Ilene, and I ran the second, and so on. So in a nutshell, you were running with the same two people for the duration of the event. Thankfully, Ilene and Meredith are buddies and fun people, so we had an entertaining time together.
We jumped into the van along with Pat (our driver) and his wife Kathy, a fellow runner who was sitting out the event because of an injury, but came along to support us anyhow. We drove to Mile Marker 98, got out, and headed over to the paved trail we’d be running on. After a few minutes we saw R.J., Jimmy, and Mike approaching, and as they slapped the baton onto our wrists at 6:16AM, Meredith, Ilene, and I took off on our first run of the day.
The first run was pretty much a blur. While it was technically just before dawn, there was enough light to make this leg pretty easy. We agreed the night before that we would do 10:1 intervals throughout the race, as to not tire ourselves out too quickly. Our scheduled pace was supposed to be a 10:30 minute mile, but we finished the first leg averaging 9:58. I was worried that, coming off two weeks of bronchitis and very little running/training during that time, my breathing would be severely compromised and affect my performance for the event. But I felt fine during the first leg. Of course, that’s adrenaline for you. At MM96 we handed off the slap bracelets to Matt, Jamie, and Sheri and leg one was completed.
Back in the van with us, which was when it dawned upon us that we had nearly an hour and a half to kill before the Group 1 runners in our van had to be ready for their next leg. So we drove down the highway and stopped at a McDonalds for a bathroom break, along with quick and easy access to coffee, orange juice, and chocolate milk. There really wasn’t much else to do, so we chatted in the parking lot, stretched, took a few pics, goofed around, and generally just sat around waiting.
These were good peeps. Finally we drove to MM88, the hand-off point between Group 6 and Group 1. Right around here, I finally managed to get HUGE props from the crowd.
Please hold off on throwing any tomatoes until the completion of this blog, please…
Anyway, Norm, Melanie and Gay soon came sprinting up, bracelets were slapped once again, and Group 1 took off like bats outta hell. Back in the van, a quick jaunt to MM86, and we waited for about 10 minutes until Group 1 appeared and handed off to us. The next 2-mile leg gave us a nice preview of the day. Which is to say it was, (1) sunny, (2) hot, (3) clear-skies, (4) breezy, and (5) HOT! It was actually a picture-perfect day in the Keys, but there would be no showers to cool us off anytime soon. But that’s OK. Running on a beautiful sunny day? I’ll take it. We took off at 8:23AM down State Highway 4a and Old Highway (running parallel to US1), past a few lodges, motels, bars, homes, and natural scenery. I started to feel my breathing about now, still not fully healed, but healed enough. I knew I wasn’t going to be running my best, but I was *RUNNING*, and that was important. We finished up passing the legendary Postcard Inn and Tiki Bar at Holiday Isle. No one was out at the sandbar to cheer us on. Durnit.
We finished the leg averaging a 9:57 mile, so we were consistent with our first leg, even with the encroaching heat. Cool. Now we had another 100 minutes to kill! Thankfully Pat and Kathy were spot-on in their knowledge of excellent hang-out spots. The folks at the Florida Sea Base, a Boy Scout installation, were more than gracious in allowing us to use their restrooms (air conditioning!) and park and stretch in their lot. I was running with my IT compression band straps to ensure that my knees would be fully functional all day, and while I’m almost entirely sure I didn’t need them, I was taking no chances. I did my stretches in the grass, ate my second PB&J of the day, relaxed and chatted with the rest of the group. The Boy Scout Sea Base definitely felt like quite the oasis.
Soon we dropped Group 1 off at MM76 for their leg, and after they were off we were driven to MM74 for our leg. This, coincidentally, was right next to the Sea Base. Also quite fortuitously, we realized that not only did we have to slap on our electronic bracelets for the Mile 74 team check in, but that we were now in fact over a quarter done with the race, and it was only 10:34AM as we began our leg! At this rate, we’d be done by… (counts fingers)… midnight. I was shooting for 11:58PM. Two minutes to midnight. Can anyone begin to guess why? There’s two bags of Egyptian sand at stake here…
According to my Garmin stats, as we began Leg 3 it was already 90 degrees with 56% humidity. We ran down the Overseas Heritage Trail, passing several bridges adjacent to Matecumbe Harbor, dodging dozens of avid fishers who thought nothing of littering their poles all over the bridge, leaving us to weave around them. Thanks guys! *grumble* While it was hot, the weather was so unbelievably pitch perfect that it hardly mattered. With the ocean on our left and the bay on our right, it was an inspiring sight. And with that, our leg ended rather abruptly. My pace slowed to an agreeable 10:02 minute mile, still under our prescribe 10:30mm. I was comfortable around the 10mm pace, and feeling pretty strong.
Handing off to Group 3, we went into our third “layover” of the day, and probably the best of them all. We parked at right before the Long Key Viaduct just around MM65, walked down a path and found a remote, shaded beach area right next to the Long Key Channel. This was the closest thing to paradise! We sat in the shade, rested, stretched, waded into the water, ate, and refreshed ourselves considerably. Ilene even changed into a bikini and went for a long swim. This was my favorite moment of the entire relay, and one we knew would heap upon us endless scorn and envy from the other groups. Sorry guys!
Boots, driving our car down from the hotel to Key West, even stopped to meet me here for some some hugs and encouragement. It was so great to see her. Yay personal cheering section!
Soon after we were off and began our 4th Leg at Duck Key, right around 1PM, over more bridges with spectacular views of the water, basking in a punishing sun but buffeted by cooling breezes. It was damn hot, but it was so perfect-looking out. Right around this leg I was really starting to “feel” the race. We weren’t slowing down… as a matter of fact, we maintained a 9:57 minute mile pace throughout. But the lungs were getting taxed and the calves were starting to stiffen. The on-again, off-again running schedule plays differently with your body than simple consisting running over longer distances. Our leg ended at a volunteer tent staffed with many of our FIT friends, who came armed with plenty of ice, water, and sponges. VERY much needed and appreciated. The sun was high and pounding, but I felt great. Furthermore, we were right across the street from the Dolphin Research Center, who also (and graciously) allowed us to use their restrooms and bask in their air conditioning.
After stretching and eating some lunch, we drove over to the Marathon Airport, another great hangout spot that Pat and Kathy recommended. More air conditioning in an almost empty terminal! It was so cold inside that we ended up sitting outside in the shade, where a few of us napped, most of us lay down, and all of us recovered. In fact, we recovered for far too long, as we watched Group 6 run past us, and realized that we were overdue to line up at our next hand-off location! We hurried back into the van and made it to the hand-off point with moments to spare. Group 1 was due to run the Seven-Mile Bridge soon, so they had to skip this leg in order to prepare for it. Thus Group 6 was handing off to Group 2, and soon enough at Mile Marker 51 Mel, Norm and Gay handed off to Meredith, Ilene, and me. We began our 5th leg at 2:48PM, passing the halfway mark at MM50 and checking in electronically via ankle bracelets.
This stretch took us through the heart of Marathon, passing strip malls, convenience stores, local bars and commercial businesses. It was probably the least “scenic” portion of the run, and maybe the hardest. I was definitely slowing down, averaging a 10:16 minute mile. Meredith was pretty much like a gazelle, running way ahead of Ilene and me. My philosophy was simple: as long as I was keeping it under a 10:30 minute mile, I was doing fine. And we were. By the time our stretch ended, it was around 3:09PM and while I felt hot, sweaty, and pretty drained, my next leg wasn’t scheduled to begin until around 5:45PM. Two and half hours of downtime to replenish my energy stores, cool down, and get ready for the next jaunt. Plus there was going to be some beach and swim time involved. RIGHTEOUS!
I mean, I wasn’t about to be attacked by sea life or encounter a pretty damn scary automobile-demolishing event or have any kind of thermonuclear anger-fueled meltdown, right?
END OF PART ONE
(And here’s the video):