May 17 – 18 2015
Sometimes things in our lives are inextricably tied together. For me, the Keys 100 is tied to my mom, both in the flesh and in her passing. I will never forget that first year I ran the Keys 50 in 2011. I felt in my being that my mom was passing, that the end was coming, and a few days later, the end came. But all through the funeral plans and the mourning, I reminded myself that I had somehow had the strength to run those 50 miles unsupported to KW –my mother’s initials: Karen Weiss. In my weakest moments, I reminded myself that there was strength within me too. It would have been so easy to quit that race. I had felt like I was falling apart on the inside, but my mom had wanted me to go run, pushed me to head out to Key Largo while she underwent her millionth chemo session, so I persisted, and for the last four years, I have not only persisted, but found a way to live my life full of love and joy and acceptance—for all that can no longer be and for all that is. The Keys will always be that full-circle race for me, and each May, shortly after my birthday, then Mother’s Day, I show up at the Keys with my dad because it is part of my mourning and part of my healing. It’s an acknowledgment and a show of gratitude of how lucky I am to be alive and healthy.
The Keys 100 is one of the most straight- forward routes: you start at MM100 (or close to it) and proceed along Overseas Highway southbound to Key West, passing endless Keys along the way. You run on sidewalks, roadside, bridges, and more bridges, the tunnel of hell, 7-mile Bridge, and then some 95 miles later you arrive in Key West, and make a right onto Roosevelt Avenue, and after some twists and turns, you arrive at Higgs Beach. The only possibility of truly getting lost exists at the very end, when you have to find the right entrance to enter the beach to cross the finish line.
MM 100 – 80
Each race is an odyssey unto itself. For me, 100 milers don’t get easier in the physical sense, but mentally and emotionally, I find that with experience I am a bit more equipped to manage them. I know what to expect. I can sum up the first two-hour mental drama before the race even starts: why am I doing this, it’s such a long way to go, no one cares if I do this, I don’t want to be running, I’m over this all. Somehow, though, all the mental jibber jabber dissolves and by 3 hours in, I am committed, focused, and determined to finish.
Aside from the mental chatter, the first 20 miles this year were happy, easy-breezy miles. I was running with my buddy, Chip, and at first it was hard for me to keep the pace slow and steady. My instinct was to push forward, but our strategy was slow and steady. 4-5 miles an hour was all that we needed. We were moving in an 8:1 ratio, with 8 minutes running and 1 walking. I didn’t feel like I was in a race. I felt like I was hanging out and running with my friend, on a route that I have come to know and love, moving toward one of my favorite destinations.
About five miles in, we hit our first cooler, which we were told was out of water, but the fabulous Denise Carter shared her water with us. 10 miles in, we checked in at the high school, and then we were off. As we were uncrewed, along the way we were grateful for all of our friends’ crews, who were extremely generous in offering us ice and water, which we took most of the time. It was around 11 miles in that Chris G. intercepted us, and we spent some time running with him, until he plowed past us. We would meet up with Chris again and again during the race, sharing miles and conversation and our collective desperation for ice and water, as Chris was also uncrewed.
Around MM84 we were in search of a bathroom and tried a few places only to find them closed up. When we were finally on our way to Shula’s – they advertised brunch which meant that they had a bathroom – I tripped on a parking lot pot hole and slammed the concrete. Bam! To break my fall I had used my water bottles and landed on my butt. I sat for a minute gathering myself and when Chip realized what had happened, he about-faced and headed back my way. I felt a biting pain in my hamstring/glute. We made it to the bathroom, where I washed up, caught my breath, and reminded myself that it would pass, that I would have a lot more pains later in the day and then just like that, I was moving again, and within the hour, the pain was a thing of the past!
MM 80 – 60
En route to MM 80 – 20 miles in – it had started to get hot. As in the sun was blazing. The humidity enveloping us. We were thrilled to reach the 20 mile aid station, where we had our first drop bags – we had four other drop bags along the course, at 20 mile intervals. We took a few minutes to replenish ice and water, grab a few snacks from our drop bags—I had packed snack sized bags of Pringles, pretzels and almonds— and we were on our way. The cold water and ice on my head and in my ice bandana really helped — I felt 100% again. Until about 36 miles in, when I had my first mini-meltdown. We were running out of water and ice often. It became clear that it would have been a good idea on that day to have a crew. The heat was wearing on me. I didn’t feel like I could keep up our 8:1 run ratio anymore. I had begun to focus too much on those 1 minute walk breaks and with the heat and our water and ice supply a bit of a wild card, I needed to take it down a notch. I finally communicated this to Chip, and he agreed, which was a relief for me. We transitioned to 4:1 and life was manageable again. We made our way past Tom’s Harbor Cut Bridge and when we exited the other end, we hustled some water again from Christian and Robert R. or it may have been Yvette – we had a lot of surrogate crew. And then we were on our way towards the most difficult stretch of the race.
MM 60 – 40
The AS at MM 60, where our 2nd drop bags were, filled us with joy. Again, the cold water and ice really helped to boost our spirits, not to mention the vegan, gluten free pop tarts in my bag, which were rave worthy to us. When I handed one to Chris, he noted that it was only half of one, which was observant, as I had eaten the other half. We stayed at that AS for some time, as we wanted to be sure we were as set as possible with food and water. And then we were off.
Mentally, I tried to stay focused and calm these miles. Then we were crossing Overseas Highway into the tunnel of doom – a 3-4 mile bike path stretch of mangrove on one side and tall tree/bush on the other. Once inside, the heat was oppressive, the sun blasting us. We intercepted Krystal and rejoined Chris here, so the four of us made our way, chit chatting about this and that. Chris was run/walking telephone pole to telephone pole, which was driving us all a bit nuts as one minute we were in the lead, and the next he was. I wanted him to just stay with us at our run 2 minutes, walk 1 minute pace, but I was too hot to say anything, and I understand that everyone needs to stick to their plan. I was ready for the tunnel to be over after about 1 mile, but trusted in Chip’s steady pace to get us through it quickly. I knew there would be a cooler with ice and water at the exit, and that kept me going. And then we were out of the dreaded tunnel!
To our dismay, though, after we had poured the last of our water on ourselves, there was no water cooler. About .5 miles down the road, there was even a sign for a cooler, but no dice. Again, we rushed to other’s crews and asked for water and ice. It was 5 miles until the AS at 50 miles, where my dad was volunteering all day. But in that heat, 5 miles was an eternity. What I didn’t voice to Chip was that I didn’t know how I was going to manage that strip – length of it. The stores we had to pass, the gas stations, the airport. It seemed an impossibly far way to go. At mile 48, I was basically at my lowest point in the day. I was out of water, and felt completely overheated; I had started to see floating dots before my eyes, and I was getting dizzy. My stomach began to turn, too, and I tried to focus on my calming ujayi yoga breathes. I needed ice, everywhere, and water, and something sugary to drink. I told Chip that there was a Circle K ahead, and so when we raced into it, the air conditioned air rushing at us, I felt like I may be able to go on. We poured ice from the soda machine into our bandanas, drank at least once large Coke each from the soda fountain before we refilled our cups, and then washed up in the bathrooms before we purchased more soda and water. When race marshals Winston and Tim intercepted us, we all just laughed. (I had flipped out on them just a few miles earlier re the missing cooler.)
When we hit MM50, it was as if we had won the lottery. This is always a high point in my Keys race, as my dad gets to see that I am totally fine –I’m great, dad! –and it also means he gets to call it a day and drive down to Key West and check into his hotel for the night. Once I know he is on his way to rest, I feel easier. I rushed to his car, grabbed a bit of this and that, including my blister kit, and proceeded to fix Chip’s feet. Chris sat close by and tended to his blisters. We ate a bit, drank, relaxed, and after about 40 minutes, it was time to go. Note: I never ever waste more than 10 minutes at this aid station, or any aid station, but the overheating had made me feel that it was critical for me to recuperate. I had fallen behind on water a few times too often and was feeling a little off. Not to mention my feet – I didn’t dare look at them, but I felt the blisters. And then, we were off! 7-mile Bridge bound, although Chris chose to head into Wendy’s for some burgers. It’s worth mentioning that about a mile before we crossed onto 7-mile Bridge, a couple started to scream at us to stop. We didn’t know them. Crazy people. Finally, when they screamed Chip’s name, we stopped. They brought us his timing chip, which he had unknowingly left at MM50 AS, where he was preoccupied with his foot surgery.
About Chip: he has been my running partner for some 10 years. I met him before I moved to FL at a yoga studio, and during our initial chat, after telling me he ran a few miles a week (with a weight vest?), I assured him that he could run a marathon if he trained. Ten years later, aside from running Boston Marathon a few times, a few full and half Iron Man’s, and some 100 milers under his belt, amongst other ultra-distances, there is no one who can push me during a run like Chip. His determination and drive is contagious, plus he laughs. A lot. Sometimes at me, other times at situations. He knows my ups and downs; knows when to push me, and when I may break. He knows when I am not in the mood to talk, and when I feel like chatting away. Running with him is like being with myself, only having someone else there. As for Chris, I met him at my first ultra, over 4 years back – North Face Wisconsin 50 miler. In the rain and mud of that trail, Chris had caught me, and I ended up finishing the race alongside him and Don Stoner – our collective first ultra! Since then, we have signed up for a mass of races together, ran a bunch of 100’s side by side, in addition to other distances, and have decided we were done with ultras in the past few years as many times as we have signed up for more races. The great thing about Chris is that sometimes, he talks more than I do.
There is magic, in some way, shape, or form, to every race. I never know when or how or where that magic will hit, but it always does, and it is what lingers, long after the race. The magic of Keys 100 2015 for me, was in a snack-sized Ziploc bag. Originally, the bag was full of Pringles and pretzels, and around 2 miles into the bridge crossing, I pulled it from Chip’s backpack for us to snack on. When we devoured the contents, the bag fell from my hands. Before I could bend down to pick it up, the bag fled. It stayed in front of us, picking up speed now and then, sometimes slowing down, as if to let us catch up. The minutes passed, miles passed, and the frolicking, dancing, turning on its side, flip-flopping- in-the-breeze bag persisted, leading the way. The wind picked up, and the bag stayed right there with us, in our little narrow lane. We laughed, and followed it, and at moments when it looked as if it may bust into traffic, we both cringed. But the bag was careful, and never faltered. About 2.5 miles into our escort, there was a moment when the bag moved into traffic and we both gasped – NO! – but sure enough, the bag managed to cross the two lane highway, then cross back over and land right in front of us, before it led the way again. As the sun faded beyond the horizon, the bag twinkled and glowed in the early evening light. It wasn’t until we had .5 miles left on the bridge and darkness fell, that we lost sight of it. Sometimes a bag is just a bag, but other times it can be a guardian angel of sorts, keeping you moving forward, amused, intrigued, and safe, guiding you from daylight into twilight, across the Florida Keys.
Hitting MM 60, which meant that there were only 40 more miles to go (!), was an amazing feeling. I knew that the first few miles after the bridge were a bit rough – it was now dark, as in blackness – and it took a bit to acclimate to the road, the dark, the glare of the headlights that crossed us as we ventured forward. I was torn between the joy of knowing the course well – the landmarks, what was next – and the dread of knowing the course well – we still need to pass this place or that, wow, we have a long way to go. But, the highlight of this stretch was not only that we were getting closer to our destination, but the AS at MM 25, under the leadership of Tim and Linda O’Brien. There is something incredible about eating a grilled cheese prepared by Linda at whatever 0’clock, straight off the grill, while you are standing in the middle of a gas station parking lot. Vegan or not, this sandwich is the necessary fuel to get you through the next ten or more miles this late into the race. After our dinner, Chip and I went into the gas station mini-mart and proceeded to pretend we were shopping – “look like you are going to buy something,” Chip directed – while we cooled off in the air conditioning. You forget at some point into the race that to the world of Keys runners and crew, you look completely normal, but to the world at large, you look bizarre in your soaking wet run clothes, bandanas, calf sleeves, back packs, reflective gear, head lights/hats, water bottles.
MM 20 -Finish
From 80 on, I felt a little disillusioned. I made a vow that I would not attempt this race again uncrewed – it was just too much of a gamble with water and supplies. Suddenly, it wasn’t that fun. But there were moments of laughter. The man who kept leap frogging us singing at the top of his lungs. The man high on Red Bull. But soon, I grew tired. Very tired. Eyes shutting. And then I was up! Before I almost fell asleep again. I wanted something, but I didn’t know what. Now and then, I remembered food, and we discussed eating something, and sometimes we shared a gel, other times we forgot about eating. I was still hot. And while I knew the tired feeling would pass, I also knew that if I had access to some Coke, that would help. We persevered, until a miracle happened: Jerry appeared, like a dues ex machina. Jerry, with his good cheer, high energy, and cold water and ice! Jerry filled us in on how our friends were doing – Bonnie was in superstar mode along with Jodi Samuels; Mel was pushing forward as was Becky. Hearing that everyone else was pushing, inspired me.
Jerry was our solution for everything! He woke us up with his stories. He ran into stores for us and bought us treats. He told us about his day crewing the 50 miler, about other runners. Then he told me that we were going to play a game, which consisted of him and Chip pointing out landmarks for me to run to. So I ran, with Jerry and Chip behind me, allowing me to set the pace. We stopped for a few minutes, and then there was another landmark for me to run to, and so on. Suddenly the miles zoomed by. I was awake again. Jerry chatted with us. He checked our water supply. He jogged with us. He kept setting goals for us. I felt rejuvenated. He went into the next store at MM5, and bought us Coke and M&M’s, which I was brainwashed to eat, and then we were moving again. The strategy worked as it kept me focused and gave me things to focus on other than my blisters. We moved and stopped, and then, the magic moment arrived: we crossed the street and were on Roosevelt – the last stretch! We jogged and walked, and then, they told me to push a bit more, and got me psyched up to pass the people ahead of me. Hesitatingly, I did pass them, and then, it was one final push until we made our way onto Higgs Beach and past the finish line, clocking 25:05.
There comes a point in each of these races that I am absolutely sure that I cannot go on. Nothing ever really hurts, although everything hurts. I feel sorry for myself. Sick of myself, tired of it all – running, life, the situations I get myself into. My feet ache. It’s too far to go. And yet I do go on. And somehow, someway, I keep moving forward, and at some point, I arrive. It doesn’t seem likely or possible, but time and time again, it happens. I am a girl on a road who cannot fathom the next step, let alone the next miles, and then I arrive. For me, that is what it is all about: the self-doubt, the fear, the hopelessness and then the eventual success. I do go on. I do make it. I cross those finish lines and each time that I do, I am a little bit more whole, a little bit more vulnerable, and a little bit freer and happier. What a gift in life: to witness your no way transform into I made it.