For the past few decades, Key West has signified a starting point and an ending point in my life. So much of my history is wrapped up in the Keys. My first venture to Key West was about Ernest Hemingway, whose writings and life I devoted almost a decade of graduate school to exploring. There was the Key West Literary Seminar which I took part in many years, studying the craft of writing under some of my literary heroes. Later, I married in Key West at the Hemingway Home, and then I moved there for a few years, leading master fiction-writing workshops at the Tropic Cinema when I wasn’t immersed in my daytime corporate gig. My parents shared my passion for the Keys. My mom, Karen Weiss, loved KW trinkets that highlighted her initials.
Then there was my first year running the Keys 50 on May 14, 2011. My mom had been through over five years of monthly chemotherapy and treatments in her battle with Acute Mylogenous Leukemia by that time. I remember sitting with her and my dad that Friday morning during her chemo treatment, and debating if I should drive out to the Keys to attempt the race. She was her go-getter just-do-it, self, and reminded me a break from work for a few days was good for me. So, I packed up and I went. There was a heaviness in my heart, which had been with me since my mom was diagnosed with cancer: a desire to be with her at all times, along with a knowledge that my life had to keep going, too. A few miles into the 50 miler that Saturday morning, I fell apart. I was with my buddy Chris Goodreau and we were running 8-minute miles to the dismay of some folks who were running with us, until I stopped and couldn’t go on. It took a few minutes to catch my breath, to walk, to be able to run again, but it was the beginning of my coming undone. After the Seven-Mile Bridge, ten miles into the race, I sent Chris on and sat at the aid station. It was a sure thing that I was going to drop—I was having what I deemed to be an anxiety attack. For that Friday, before I left, I had a feeling I didn’t have much more time with my mom. It was etched into my being, and it ripped me apart. I was devoid of the power to move forward. So I sat. And after about twenty minutes, I transitioned. It was still early. I could walk, jog, use the time and the miles, as I always had, to work out the unrest in my heart and mind. And that’s just what I did—I left that aid station, and I battled my way to Key West, crying, talking, making peace with myself as I approached the finish line, which was then at Smather’s Beach. Some 11 hours later, I was in Key West, and I had grown in ways I had yet to realize at the time.
My mom’s passing occurred on May 22, 2011. It was a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon, and my father and I had been sitting in the kitchen in their home, while my mother rested in bed. Often, on Sundays she hit a low before her blood and/or platelet transfusions on Monday mornings. I had a few days with her when I returned from the Keys 50. I remember the Monday night I returned home, she hugged me and told me she had missed me, and we both cried. To this day, that signified our saying goodbye to me. Because the missing her would never go away after that point. It would be there with me always, like my breath, like the sun, like the moon. All through the funeral plans, the burial, and the days to follow, as weak and lost as I felt, I reminded myself that only days before, regardless of feeling terrible, I had persisted through a 50-miler, all alone. Certainly I could not be as fragile as I felt. I reminded myself that there was more to me than grief; I was a survivor. And somewhere along the journey of digging myself out of the loss of my mom, running long and far helped me to find my way forward. It enabled me to tap into the goodness I knew was out there, but I had misplaced. When my dad ventured with me in November 2011 to run my first 100-miler at Javelina Jundred wearing number 715 in honor of my mom’s July 15th birthday, a new chapter of our lives was born.
Here and Now
The Keys 2017 was unlikely to happen. I am at the point that I don’t bemoan injuries and issues that come up in regard to health; they just do. It’s how life works. Most often our bodies work great, and sometimes they need a break. It is all part of the grand scheme of the universe. This year I had been struggling with running all together since January, and in April, we found the culprit in the form of some medical issues, all of which are being treated. I was okay with it. My doctor was sure I would improve over time. But when I thought about the Keys 100, and the fact that I had completed the 100-miler the last five years, with the 50-miler way back as my sixth Keys finish, I wanted to be there to be a lucky seventh finish. More than that, something deep within me needed to be there. My life is shifting once again, and returning to the Keys felt like going home—both physically and emotionally. So, I opted to take a chance. Calm and steady was my mantra. My goal was to listen to myself, and follow the rhythm of my body. I was focused on running my own race, listening to my body, and not getting caught up in anyone else’s pace or plan. My strategy was simple: when I felt my heart race, I was going to walk.
Early on in my Keys 100 journey, the meshed blues of the ocean mesmerized me. I was focused and absorbed in just being. Without any goal other than to finish, I was amazed at how much I noticed and appreciated along the way. Unlike other years, when I placed expectations on myself, this year, I enjoyed myself more often than not. Going over the bridges held its magic for me. The momentary breezes rushing at me and the expansive ocean views stilled me. Years past, I had looked down at the boats and wondered where or how I had gone wrong, and how my life didn’t have me in those boats with those vacationers, drifting along the Atlantic. But this year, I was grateful to be exactly where I was. I am aware of the boundaries our health can play and how having the gift of good health allows your life to be limitless.
The race unfolded for me mile by mile. Instead of feeling desperate for the aid stations to appear this time around, when I hit an aid station, I thought, wow, it’s here already. There was not the usual fear and anticipation. I knew the course. I knew what it meant to be uncrewed, to have to battle my way forward. Yes, it’s likely easier to have a crew, but I don’t love the responsibility I feel from having a crew. It forces me to be upbeat and it often leads me to focus more on others than my own survival. Being alone out there keeps it real for me; it forces me to look after myself, to take it all in on the outside, but also to internalize the race and experience what I feel in the moment. I don’t have to worry about every whim I have, because when you are on your own, there is no one to share your whims with! You just deal with whatever issues come up, commit to find solutions or let go of the issues, and you keep going and believing in yourself, as is the case in life.
This much I know to be true: every race is hard. Every race is a challenge. Everyone goes into each race with some issue, either mental, emotional, or physical. That’s what it is to be alive: we think, feel, experience. Whether you aim for 20 hours, or a finish whenever, there is no easy route to the long run, both metaphorically and physically. It hurts for everyone out there at some point. We are all pushing forward, all working hard, and all desperate to get it done, somehow, someway. Knowing this helps me when the lows hit. It reminds me that I am not alone, that there is a collective energy to the race, a push that tugs us all forward. There’s a yogic saying that when you light others flames, you do not diminish your own. That is what I thought about as I trudged forward—that the goal was for us all to finish, supporting one another to achieve our own personal victories.
Blood, Sweat, and Tears
No matter your state of mind, the Keys 100 is a suffer fest due to heat, road, and for me this time around, blisters. While rare for me, the ones forming around my left little toe happened early on. I am not one to fret too much about pain during a race—it’s more of a given, so I chose to accept it and carry on. There was that, and the fact that I didn’t have any blister care with me or in drop bags. Sometimes being uncrewed is a drag, such as when I have to fill up my water bottles, remember where I put the caps down, and when blisters arise. Other times being uncrewed is a treat, as I sometimes get the love and support of other’s crews. I am grateful for the help of strangers and friends alike. To me, that is what an ultra is all about—team effort and being good to others in their time of need. The highlights of my race were easy: the serendipity of conversations with buddies who I don’t see much aside from at races. There was the time spent with ultra-buddy Logan Samson making our way through the tunnel of hell, during which we laughed over our adventures a la the wee hours of the morning in Brooklyn, during The Great New York 100 last June; my impromptu conversation with Lisa Sherak regarding Badwater Cape Fear and life, which lifted my spirits tremendously; and then, there was my late-night encounter with Wayne Wright, who I have completed a handful of long and slow ultras with over the last few years. Catching up with him when I did was like hitting the jackpot. Together, we battled our way the last 30 or so miles to the finish line. Aside from that, it was nice to see so many people out in the Keys on a bright and hot Saturday, living their lives, fishing, swimming, barbecuing, laughing, sailing, water and jet skiing.
There were the normal Keys 100 highlights for me: seeing my dad at the 50-mile aid station, giving him the green light to sign off of volunteer duties and head over to Key West to rest; the intimidating but awe-inspiring trek over Seven-Mile Bridge as twilight set in, reaching mile 75 and chatting with Linda and Tim O’Brien over a grilled cheese square. This year at mile 80, there was the nap fest, which was a Keys first for me, documented and all. Then came the attack of the biting bugs as dawn approached, and we closed in on Key West.
Sometimes we have to go the distance to understand and accept that we can. There are going to be voices in our head telling us we cannot do it. There are going to be people outside of us who don’t believe in us and those who do. There is no substitute for getting out there and taking to the open road in search of some new tidbit of information about our lives. I prayed more during this race than I ever had in a race—for the cars not to hit me, for no one to have a tire-blowout or accident with us runners all spread out along the road. I prayed to be safe, to be healthy, for my dad to be okay, and my friends out there to enjoy their own journeys.
Races remind me that we can only go one step at a time. In my life, as of late, whenever I feel myself getting ahead of myself, I try to pause. To enjoy exactly where I am at. To remember that I may not get to tomorrow or next week, and that it is a privilege to live into my future, but not a promise. If I can just focus on where I am at when I am there, perhaps I will experience my life at a whole new level. That’s my aim these days—not to live forward or past, but present. If I am present, then I can enter the next moment as and when it occurs. Getting older changes us. I never realized that until it began to occur. 47 is not 45, or 40. I am a different person. I don’t want petty in my life. I want growth, freedom, I want joy. I am aware that while some of our life events and routes are given to us, much of our lives are based upon our outlook and the hard work we are willing to commit to in order to achieve our goals. If I want to be joyful, I have to vow to uncover joy in my daily life—even when I am struggling amidst a race.
On Monday May 22nd, en route back to our lives, we stopped to eat at Wahoo’s at mile marker 83. During each Keys race, it is always full of people looking out at the ocean in the morning as the race gets underway. It was the first time in seven years that I had prompted us to stop. As we sat on stools at the bar, looking out at the ocean scattered with massive pelicans, I took in the breeze and the bluest sea. With that sky before me, and that ocean below, I felt like I was both in my life and outside of it. And being outside, I thought, this is exactly what my mother would want for me. Happiness, freedom, joy, expansiveness, lightness, and a cool breeze transporting me beyond the moment to something I cannot quite fathom yet, but that may be beyond my wildest dreams and expectations. We limit ourselves so much: I can’t go there; I can’t do this; I don’t have time; it costs too much. But what if we open our lives up to the endless possibilities that are there for us to pursue? What then? Ticking off the miles one by one as I reached Key West, I had felt the why nots of my life become possibilities. This is what amazes me about life: we have no idea what we are capable of. We have no idea what is next. We have no idea of all the amazing things ahead of us. If we stop clinging and trying to plan and map out all of our moments, then perhaps we make room for what’s next.
The races don’t necessarily make us better or different; if we pay attention, though, they show us who we are. Do we grow from them? I think it is a personal experience. There is certainly a level of grit to be earned, and there is the possibility of expanding our capabilities as a result of hard work and commitment. I started out for Key West in a new and unsteady place in my life. I didn’t know if I could make it. If my body would let me persist as it had in the past. But I decided to take a chance. And because it was my own decision of my own free will, I felt calm and at peace with whatever the outcome was. Sometimes in life, we just have to do it—whatever it is—and hope for the best. Taking chances makes us vulnerable and scared and it reduces our confidence. But it is also what makes us human.
I have learned over time that each race and goal is just one finish line of many that I will pass through, and that there is no real end to my journey, but a keeping going, a belief that I can, that I should, that I will. The Keys 100 this year, as in years past, filled me with a deep-rooted gratitude and trust in the universe that it will keep leading me along the roads I need to travel.