To this point in my life I never had been south of Orlando in Florida. I haven't been to Florida since I was a kid and my parents made the mistake of taking us on a family vacation shortly before they divorced, by driving all the way from Pennsylvania.
I haven't been to the east coast since 1981, either. So when I first met Bob Becker the year we both ran Badwater, I had only heard the rumors of the first Keys 100 race, the horror stories of the highway and the narrow shoulder, the heat and humidity, the crazy drunks on the road, and I had my doubts. Bob seemed like a super guy and I couldn't imagine that he would put on a race that was bad.
The next year Nattu ran it and said good things about it, so I knew it couldn't be too bad. I talked with Bob when I saw him again at Badwater in 2009, and the Keys race intrigued me more. After hearing more favorable reviews after the race's second year, and talking with Bob over the winter via e-mail, I decided to put it on my "to do" list.
Not chicken, but...
I was looking for a hot race, something different, in a place where I'd never run before. I was also in need of a 100 miler. I admit I've been avoiding the distance, it's been 12 years since I did one, because I've found other distances that suit me better. Mostly longer ones that allow me some time to sleep. But I also realize if I want to improve at longer distances, I need to do more 100 milers as training runs.
Meanwhile, Dennis and I are coming up on our 20th anniversary and we needed a beach vacation. Normally we don't do races together, I go to them myself and we do our vacations separately. But this seemed like a perfect opportunity to do both. My ultra buddy Mike Melton from Florida offered to crew me if I came down for the Keys, and I took him up on his offer.
Dennis agreed to go for the vacation if he didn't have to crew. It looked like it was all going to work out great. Except for one thing. We didn't have a sitter for the Buffaloes. Our dogsitter in Arizona would have been great but she was in Arizona. So we started the search for a dogsitter/housesitter. We lucked out there too, we found the perfect person for the job, and it all came together.
This winter has been incredibly long and cold. The snow has been relentless. The morning we were leaving for Florida we woke up to snow, but worse, our beautiful cherry tree in the middle of the back yard, which the day before had been in full bloom, cracked two of it's limbs overnight in the heavy spring snow!
When I woke up at 6 the morning we were to leave for the airport, I looked out the window and I was devastated. I love that beautiful tree. I quickly wrote down several numbers from the phone book to take with us and call while we were in the airport to see if someone could get out and assess the damage.
They had to de-ice the plane on our way out of Denver. We sat there for an hour waiting to take off. Flying over the gulf, I thought I saw what looked like oil on the water but I'm not sure that's what it was. The big BP oil leak had not been plugged yet and everyone in the south was waiting to see what would happen.
We flew into Fort Lauderdale and picked up our rental car and found the hotel, on the beach. As soon as we checked in we went for margaritas. We were on vacation.
We spent the first night in Fort Lauderdale so we wouldn't have such a long travel day that first day. We left for Key Largo in the morning and drove down through Miami and all the little towns between there and the Keys. Once we crossed the bridge over to the keys, I knew we were getting close to the course start by the mile markers on the Overseas Highway.
When I saw "Crocodile Crossing" I realized maybe there were things I hadn't prepared for.
We spent the day Thursday buying supplies for the race, anything we could get at the supermarket. Then we went to the pool for a while. Sitting out in the 80 degree temperatures with the breeze I never realized how intense the sun could be. I always thought of high altitude sun being intense, but this was almost tropical, and it scorched me in just an hour. My body was blinding white, after a whole winter of only running in shorts once. In an hour I got a head start on my race tan.
Friday morning Dennis and I drove the upper part of the course, down past Layton, almost to Marathon, the halfway point. The water and the clouds were a spectacular turquoise color. Even on the concrete bridges it was enough just to look at the color of the water and I was mesmerized.
Mike met us at the hotel on Friday afternoon and we organized our stuff in his van, made our race plan, and then went to the pre-race briefing. There were almost 100 people entered in the 100 mile race, a fair number in the 50 miler, but the big draw was a relay of 100 miles that attracted nearly 400 runners in teams of up to 6 people. For some reason I never paid much attention to the fact the relay was going on and I didn't think about that. There would be a lot of runners out there! It must not be that bad, I thought, if all these people would come down here to run.
The weather forecast for Saturday was partly cloudy, high of 87 and low of 80, with a chance of rain on Sunday but the same temperatures. And of course it was humid. The air felt heavy and sticky. I love the smell of salt and the ocean, so it didn;t bother me at all. By the water there was always a nice breeze. I was actually cold when I wasn't in the sun. The sauna must have paid off again. Every time we went in an air conditioned restaurant or hotel room, I froze.
At the pre-race briefing Bob warned us about the drunks on the road, but the upside was that the Overseas Heritage Trail is being built, a system of pedestrian and bike paths that stretches the whole length of the Keys, and the race is now 70 percent off the highway shoulder. That means only 30 miles are still directly on the road.
Race start morning went fairly well. The only thing I forgot was to get my orange ice bandana from Dennis at the start. We started at 6 am and it was still dark, but within 5 minutes I was pouring sweat, something I never do, but the in the humidity I was drenched. The plan was for Mike to meet me in about a half hour after the start, he was helping Bob with the start of the relay at 6:15.
Fortunately Mike had the bandana when he met me. I ate a ham and cheese sandwich before the start, and at 10 miles in the town of Tavernier there was a McDonald's. Mike got me a breakfast sandwich, the 1000 calorie kind, with egg and cheese and bread and meat. I scarfed that down in a few minutes and pretty soon I was running again. I had no problem with my appetite. I was eating sandwiches every 10 miles or so and putting the fluids away. Mike was giving me a salt stick capsule in each bottle.
The water was bright turquoise the whole way and every time we went over the bridges there were these little holes or grates where you could look down and see right into the water below you. Occasionally you could see fish and sea grass down there. The breeze on the water and on the bridges was refreshing and I never felt hot up there.
At 23 miles I felt like I was getting a hot spot on my left foot, in the same place that gave me so much trouble at Badwater. So I stopped and changed out of the Drymax hot weather socks and put on the thicker regular Drymax running socks. That was my last sock change for the rest of the race. After that I did well with my feet. I was chafing too, between my thighs and on my butt and below my armpits, wherever the edge of my clothes rubbed on my skin. I was told chafing would be a problem here with the humidity. I used quite a bit of hydropel and greased myself up good, every 10 miles or so.
My 25 mile split was 5 hours and 8 minutes. Not bad. I wanted to go a little fast in the early hours while it was cool. That was fast enough. I planned to start doing more walking from 25 to 50. I still had sunscreen on from the morning, Dennis must have done a great job coating my body with sunscreen that morning.
After a while I realized I was only peeing every 2 hours and my fingers were swelling, but my stomach wasn't sloshing. I'd been drinking well. I must be getting too much salt, I thought. I needed to remind Mike to back off on the salt stick, but I kept forgetting every time I saw him. He was meeting me every one to two miles. After about 50 miles I finally remembered to tell him to back off on the salt. By then I couldn't even bend my fingers!
But I was doing well. Once we backed off on the salt, I started peeing every hour and I was less swollen. During the hottest part of the day I was on the bike path before I arrived in Marathon, the halfway point. I put my Badwater jacket on and my big sun hat with the full neck drape on to minimize my sun exposure.
Mike was awesome. He knew how to space his stops perfectly, and he was always there when I needed him. And he knew the course so well, he could tell exactly what to anticipate in the upcoming section. It seemed like as soon as I started thinking about what I'd ask for at my next stop, I'd go just a few more steps and there he was.
My 50 mile split was 10:55. I felt fine, I wasn't hurting, I didn't feel hot and the pace felt great. I decided to take a little break and eat more food Mike picked up some food at a fast food restaurant and I ate a grilled chicken sandwich and had a big cup of coke. Before I got going I wanted to change my clothes, just for comfort. The hottest part of the day was over and I was ready to get out of my sweaty day clothes. The problem was there wasn't really any cover anywhere except by the side of the van, sandwiched between the highway and the building we were parked in front of.
So I changed clothes on the side of the van, in front of the Disabled American Veterans building in Marathon. Sorry to the Disabled American Veterans, since I flashed them. I figured it was better than flashing the entire overseas highway going through the city of Marathon.
Soon I was at the end of Marathon and about to take on the famous, or infamous, Seven Mile Bridge. This is where there is just a narrow shoulder on a seven mile span of concrete and the traffic is thick. Fortunately I had plenty of daylight and I was moving well. I ended up running about half the distance on the bridge, and got over it in just an hour and 20 minutes. I could see why, with the traffic whizzing by, it was so scary, but for me, I was enjoying the setting sun, the water, the breeze, and just moving on my feet.
I put my lights on and my night gear after the Seven Mile Bridge. The sunset was colorful and I was enjoying it. Except once it got dark, going over the bridges became a little more scary. I hoped I had enough lights on and reflective gear. The warning we got at the pre-race briefing and all that Mike had said was people are in the Keys to drink, there are lots of drunks on the road, be careful.
Gators in the road
I went through the 100 Km mark at fourteen hours. Perfect timing. At one point when it was getting dark, I was starting to feel tired, I was on a bridge, and I stepped on what I thought was an alligator! Except it was really a piece of old tire rubber. I jumped so high, I probably could have cleared the concrete barrier on the bridge.
When it finally did get really dark, I started to fade. I told Mike I thought it was time for a nap.He looked at me strangely, and asked if I wanted to go a ways further before stopping for a nap. I said no, I'll do better if I sleep now. I am an early to bed person, and that includes races. I get my nap in and then I'm good to go.
I took a 30 minute nap and I'm not sure if I actually slept, but I think I did. Mike woke me up and I was still groggy. I got my act together and went on. I got to the 75 milemark in about 17 hours and 50 minutes. I was still making excellent time. It was just before midnight.
Soon after midnight I was headed toward Big Pine Key where the Key Deer live, and I was on a curvy, dark section of road. All of a sudden I felt raindrops. Within a minute it was raining hard! I looked around for shelter and I could see flashing lights of crew vehicles ahead, but probably by a half mile or so. I needed shelter NOW. I saw a driveway with a big thick palm tree up ahead and I got under the tree and stood there.
Pretty soon I was stranded on an island, under the palm tree the dirt was elevated by a foot or so above the road. The palm tree wasn't the best umbrella, either. Water was pouring down my back every time I moved a few inches to one side. The ground was covered in deep water and it was flowing in rivers down both sides of the driveway next to me. It was like one of those intense Colorado thunderstorms except this was warm rain.
Every few minutes I looked out on the road, holding my light out, hoping Mike would figure it out and come back and find me. I must have stood there for a good 20 minutes. Finally he did drive up. I asked him, "Is this one of your famous rain squalls?" He said it was. He was right, it ended after about 20 minutes. I got into some dry clothes and went on my way.
I did actually see two of the Key Deer as I made my way into Big Pine Key. I could also smell the pines. There were fences alongside the road to prevent the deer from wandering onto the highway. They are little deer, bigger than a dog, but not by much.
Late night to the finish
There were lots of crazy drunks on the road at night, that was part of the experience. People would drive by hanging halfway out of their pickup trucks, screaming as they flew by, one guy even threw a cigarette butt at me, which hit me in the chest. They didn't really try to run me off the road, but there were a few times I jumped off the side just to stay safe. I was always glad when we hit a bike path section, it gave my mind a break from being on alert.
At 24 hours I passed 90.4 miles, according to Mike, which was a new 24 hour PR for me. We were on a section of bike path and Mike pulled out the chair for me to sleep in. I celebrated by begging for a 5 minute nap, which I then upped to 10 minutes. Mike was generous, he gave me 12 minutes. I slept hard in the chair and then got up. The light was coming back. I had less than 10 miles to go.
The morning was cloudy and incredibly humid. It looked like it was going to rain. I was glad to be finishing before there was a chance of the day heating up again, or the rain pounding down like it did during the night.
I was aware that it would be easy to get a PR if I kept moving at a decent pace. My old 100 mile PR was 27:48. As I got closer I realized I could get under 27 hours, so I decided to keep going for that. By the time the sun came up I was able to see the mile markers again and once I got on the island of Key West I knew I had a PR for sure.
When I hit the 3 mile mark, I actually had only 2 miles to go but for some reason I thought it was three. I told Mike I needed to keep going, I didn't have time to stop if I wanted to get sub-27. He looked at me strangely again. He said, no you only have two miles.
I kept moving. Right before I finished I passed a guy named Martin who was hurting but still moving along. We talked a while and then I went on. It seemed like forever getting down Roosevelt Boulevard, I couldn't see where I was finishing. I knew it was at Smathers Beach and across from the Sheraton, but I'd never seen it before and I didn't have any idea where it was.
Finally I could see something that looked like a bunch of colors and people congregating on the sidewalk next to a stone building, and then I could focus on the finish line. I finished in 26 hours, 44 minutes and 21 seconds, a PR by over an hour. Mike and Dennis greeted me at the finish line and I finally got to sit down!
I received my belt buckle and we took some pictures, and we limped off to the hotel so we could get some sleep before the awards ceremony downtown starting at noon. My legs had horrible-looking heat rash, and I knew my feet would be interesting.
When we got back to the room I peeled my shoes and socks off, and my feet weren't too bad, some heat rash, a blister on my left big toe and left heel, and a blister under the callus on the ball of my left foot. My right foot was good.
I got in the shower, and found all the places I'd been chafing. My back, where my pack rubbed against me, all the places I'd been hydropeling were pretty good except for my butt...no bra chafing this time, though. The Nike Dri-Fit top with the built-in bra, and my new Saucony bras managed to keep me from chafing in my usual places.
I let out a good scream when the water hit all the chafed places for the first time.
I took a 2 hour nap and then we went to the awards. We got there late and missed most of it but we talked with Bob and I found out I got 1st place in my age group, and was 4th woman overall, and 17th overall in the race. There were 34 finishers and a ton of DNFs. Bob said it was the lowest finishing rate ever. Not sure why.
We took Mike to lunch and then it was time for him to head back home. He said he felt awake enough to drive. I went back to the room for a long nap and Dennis went out to let me sleep.
The next few days we spent being tourists in Key West. We did some beach time, walked around downtown, and checked out the sights. What a crazy town. At one point I saw a guy wearing a t-shirt that said, "Went on vacation, left on probation". That pretty much sums up Key West.
At one point we were walking around downtown and there was a woman near us who seemed to be looking for something on the sidewalk, like she lost something. Dennis asked her what she was looking for. She replied, "Oh, just some condoms."
Then she added, "They're not for me."
There were restuarants mixed with bars mixed with places advertising everything from drag shows to frozen key lime pie on a stick. We watched the people line up on the sidewalk to take pictures of silly little tourist attractions. I took pictures of the tourists taking pictures.
We ate some amazing food. This one Cuban restaurant, El Siboney, was incredible. And then of course, there were margaritas. And Key Lime pie.
We checked out the galleries and a few of the sights. There's the Hemingway House, the lighthouse, the treasure museum, Mallory Square. Too much to do in just a few short days. We took in as much as we could. I wasn't really able to walk around much until Tuesday. But we did spend time on the beach and in the water. Dennis went sea kayaking. We checked out an old army fort on the beach that was converted into an arboretum by the Key West garden club. Lots of tropical plants.
There were chickens and roosters everywhere, they ran all over town. Some were beautiful colors.
And I spent a lot of time walking around taking photos of the architecture, the old buildings and the foliage. I am looking forward to doing some painting this summer. Just watching the sunset evolve over a half hour on the beach is enough to keep me happy.
On our last day we drove back to Fort Lauderdale to avoid another long driving and flying day. We spent the last morning on the beach in Fort Lauderdale before catching our flight back to Denver.
I do know that if the Overseas Heritage Trail ever gets completed, I would definitely consider doing the race again. For now, I think I used up plenty of luck just staying alive with the crazy drunks whizzing by all night.
I'm not sure that I'll go back to the Keys again. Key West isn't really my idea of a place I'd want to spend a vacation. It was worth seeing it and it was fun, but I'm into peace and quiet. I might go back and check out other parts of the Keys that were quieter.
But the race was worth doing and I highly recommend it, if you're looking for something different. It was easy to crew and very scenic. For a race only in it's third year, Bob has done a great job of making it run smoothly. And Mike made the race so easy with his awesome crewing. He told me thinks he doesn't antiicipate things, but I thought he was perfect!
It was definitely a vacation, and I came back with a tan. My feet feel pretty good, my heat rash and chafing are all but gone, and I am relaxed. We are already planning our next beach vacation, and we won't wait as long to go there this time.
I think I finally did overcome my aversion to 100 milers! I'll rest for a couple of weeks and then I'm sending my entry in for Lean Horse!