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The Keys 100 was a challenging and beautiful 100 miler held in the Florida Keys on May 17-18, 2014. For those of you unfamiliar with the event, it is a 100 mile point to point run from Key Largo to Key West. The course follows almost the entire length of the Florida Keys. The individual 100 mile race was the most challenging but participants could also cover the distance as a relay team or choose the 50 mile option. 166 people were registered for the individual race, but several hundred more participated in the other categories. It is an incredibly flat course with the only elevation changes coming on several of the bridge crossings.
I had heard many good things about the race from runners I had met over the years. This would be the 7th running of the event. Participation has steadily increased each year. Check-in the night before the race gave you the opportunity to see just how big an event this has become. The first running of the Keys 100 in 2008 had only 19 starters and 7 finishers. This year, 138 would start, 107 would finish. Because more people were participating, safety requirements were also increasing. 30% of the 100 mile stretch would be run on the shoulder of US 1 facing oncoming traffic. The other 70% was run on bike trails and pedestrian walkways. Bob Becker, the race director, repeatedly stressed the importance of following safety precautions.
The starting line was just below mile marker 100 on US 1, right by the Holiday Inn in Key Largo, which also served as race headquarters. What a great location! Big Wave Ale on tap at the poolside Tiki Bar, temperatures in the 70s, and the starting line almost just outside your door. Mile markers would count down for the entire race so you always knew how far you had left to go.
The race was off to an early start. Relays went first, beginning before 6 AM. The individuals started later. 5 heats of individuals beginning at 6:15. Heats were separated by 5 minutes. Heat 1 was composed of the elite runners who were expecting to finish in under 23 hours.
As far as I could tell, I was the only 100 mile runner from New Jersey. This was a very southern event. Most competitors seemed to come from Florida. Perhaps the next largest representation came from Texas. These were runners who were accustomed to heat and humidity, both of which would challenge all of us throughout the day.
I was in Heat 4, scheduled to start at 6:30 AM. Temperatures were supposed to be between 75-85 degrees and there would be a strong tail wind the entire race. However, the sun would still be a brutal challenge for a Yankee coming out of one of the coldest winters in the Northeast. Although pasty white people (like me) don’t do well in the tropical sun, I did find ways to protect myself. A baseball cap with a protective neck flap and wrap around face cover may have made me look like I belonged in the French Foreign Legion, but it served its purpose and kept my neck and face relatively burn-free. My arms and legs were a little more challenging. Spray on sun screen doesn’t always land where you spray it when the wind is blowing. And who knew that your elbows could get so burned?
I went out far too fast, covering the first 10K in 51 minutes. I felt good but realized that I would never be able to maintain that pace. My goal was to break 24 hours, not win. I slowed it considerably, conserving energy for later in the day. I hit 50 miles in 10:20, comfortably within reach of achieving my desired finish time.
It is difficult to describe this course because it changed constantly. We were on bike paths, pedestrian paths, and the side of the road but it was always beautiful. Since we were traversing 43 islands on the journey, we were usually in sight of the ocean, both the Atlantic and the Gulf. Sometimes it was scary to be close to the oncoming traffic, but drivers were generally aware that a race was taking place and did not cause much of a problem. Pedestrian bridges connecting islands were my favorite part, being free of cars and offering wide open vistas of the water.
Two major challenges were Hell’s Tunnel and 7 Mile Bridge. Hell’s Tunnel was a stretch of bike path that was enclosed on both sides by trees. There was no breeze for several miles and the monotony of the same vegetation on the sides. It became hot and tedious. My distraction became the wildlife. It was the first time I saw a hermit crab in the wild and I learned that the really big geckos were actually iguanas.
7 Mile Bridge was a completely different challenge, occurring around mile 53. It was a two lane car bridge that connected two islands over a distance of 7 miles. We had to run on the shoulder for 7 miles with only an occasional traffic cone between us and the oncoming traffic. But even more challenging was timing one’s bathroom breaks. There would be no place to go for 7 miles. (A special thank you to the race directors for having a port-o-san at the end of the bridge!) I was lucky enough to get across before the sun set. It was an even more challenging experience for those who made the crossing at night.
By far, the greatest challenge of the Keys 100 is fluid intake. Dehydration could easily ruin an attempt at running 100 miles. Between the wind and the sun, it was difficult to maintain hydration. I had just read an article by Jimmy Dean Freeman in Ultrarunning about this topic and the picture from Western States 100 that kept coming to mind was the beer/urine chart at the Michigan Bluff Medical Aid Station. (For those of you unfamiliar with the chart, Coors Light is the optimal color of your urine. Be on guard as you work into IPA and get medical help when it looks like Guinness!) I had reached the IPA stage by mile 50. I forced myself to drink twice as much as I had been for the next 10 miles. This helped a little but what helped most was the setting of the sun and the cooler temperatures. (By the end of the race, I was back to Coors Light!)
Sunset was amazing. The sky took on an incredible array of colors over the Gulf of Mexico. I even stopped to take a picture and send it to my family. I wanted to share the beauty of the moment.
After the sun set, all runners required to wear a reflective vest and blinking lights on both the front and back. A necessary precaution so that oncoming traffic would see us. The race director was very clear that it was dangerous to be out there without the gear. Too many people would be driving home after a Saturday night spent partying in Key West. Luckily, the closer we got to Key West, the more we used dedicated bike lanes removed from traffic.
I was blessed to have my friend, Kevin Long, as a support crew. (Of course, I think he was more excited by the beer and the Keys social life than the race.) This would be a tough race without a crew. Aid stations were located 10 miles apart. Carrying enough fluids for ten miles is a challenge even in temperate regions. Of course we passed many small stores and fast food chains, so there was usually someplace to get aid in an emergency. I was impressed with some of the hi-tech crews I saw in this race. GPS systems and two way radios were common. I always crave a little more than aid station snacks by the time I reach mile 70. Luckily, Kevin was able to find a Subway sandwich shop. Turkey and cheese kept me going into the early hours of the morning. On his end, I think he drank about 17 cans of Coke Zero staying awake for the entire race. (I wouldn’t give a lab rat that much, but he survived.) He was there every time I needed water, Gatorade, or food. I have run several 100 mile races without a crew. It makes a difference. Never underestimate the value of a good crew.
Once we crossed the last bridge and arrived on Key West, we still had about 5 miles to go. It was an odd feeling, having arrived, but still not having finished. I was at mile 95 in 21 hours and 45 minutes. I was confident that barring any disastrous injury, I would beat 24 hours.
The wildlife here was interesting, too. Having reached Key West, I immediately heard a rooster crowing in the trees above my head. A sure way to get the adrenaline flowing at 4:15 AM! I thought this was strange until it happened several more times. It seems that Key West has a large chicken population that freely roams the island.
For the last few miles, we followed the coast of Key West (and the roosters!) to Higgs Beach, where finishers received a medal and a belt buckle. I crossed the finish line in 38th place at 23:03, very happy with my time and more than ready to check into the hotel and get some much needed rest. And I would have a full day to explore Key West before heading back to Miami to catch my flight.
I enjoyed this entire event, from check in through finish and even into the post-race adventures in Key West. I highly recommend the Keys 100. Flat, fast, scenic, and in a beautiful location.
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