The Keys 100 is by far one of the most exciting and emotionally packed races for me: this year, like the last 3 years, the race fell a few days prior to the anniversary of my mom’s passing on May 22nd. Then there’s the fact that Key West is chock full of memories for me: it’s where I spent time throughout my graduate studies at various Hemingway conferences and writing workshops; it’s where I got married –at the Hemingway Museum– and it’s where I lived for a time with my ex-husband. It was my move to KW that led me to leave my beloved Manhattan many years back, and led to my situating in Florida. Running to Key West, for me, is a blending of past and present – a journey that enables me to assess where I am at in my life and where I’ve been.
As with all races of late, I had been traveling during the week, scrambling at work, so that when I got in the car with my dad to head down to Key Largo where the race starts, I felt exhausted and a bit disillusioned. It is sometimes hard for me to make sense of why I continue to put myself in these stressful ultra-running situations when I am in a state of perpetual stress for work. And yet, each time I arrive at an ultra event, something in me shifts and I remember why I show up: because these races teach me about humanity and humility; they teach me to laugh at myself, and I get to interact with so many amazing people. I show up because these races remind me about persistence, determination, about one foot in front of the other, and about faith – in myself, in others, and the universe.
The race reunion continued Saturday morning at Diver’s Direct, where the 100 milers were to start from. The nerves set in as always, the only difference being that having run the Keys 100 the past few years, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. I was excited to go it alone this year. I needed the mental space and time to think things through – to seek clarity from so much of the muddle that is my daily life. I looked forward to the silence, the opportunity to just move and be with my thoughts. I had a plan: at mile 20, I would put on music and listen to it until mile 50, where I would see my dad, and send him on his way. My goal was to pass over 7-mile Bridge (miles 53-60) in the day light.
The first 15 miles were great for me – I was moving confidently, the heat was not overwhelming at that time of day, and I felt happy. I fell into a comfortable pace by mile five or so, and I wasn’t worried about who was ahead of or behind me. I had announced my novel’s publication a few days prior to the race, and what I hadn’t anticipated Friday afternoon and evening, was so many people talking to me about it. During those first few miles of running, it all sunk in – the fact that people were actually reading something that I had devoted years of my weekend time to write. I was overcome by emotion and gratitude, and more than once, early on, I cried. Little did I know that was just the beginning of my emotional upheaval.
It was around mile 16 that I felt trouble coming. The nausea and dizziness were like a cloud, impeding my view. I was taking an endurolyte every hour, and I was drinking sufficient water. Food/calories were my issue. I managed to get down one gel. Then forty minutes or so later another one, but already, I was not in the mood for my hot, sweet gels. It seemed to take forever to get to mile 20, where there was an aid station and where I had a drop bag. The thing about running uncrewed in the Keys is that you only get to use 4 drop bags, situated at 20 mile, 40, 60 and 80; and with the aid stations every 10 miles, there are often substantial distances when you want what you don’t have. I drank some coconut water from my drop bag, a sip or two of coke, and then I was back on my way, after a quick run in with Kathleen Wheeler, who graciously introduced me to her crew and instructed them to help me if I needed anything along the way.
I moved sluggishly at best as I still had little to no calories in me. Miles 20-25 were the hardest miles of my race. I was dizzy, dry heaving, my stomach was in shambles, and the heat started to sink in for me. Even my music, which I had looked forward to, was making me nauseous. Welcome to the world of ultras, where just when you think all is great, it suddenly falls apart. What I have learned, though, is that there is always the turnaround in a race, when you suddenly feel great. I knew it would come – I was positive that this would pass and that I would be fine again.
Mile 25 came and went with no change. I drank a few sips of ginger ale at the aid station, but again, no real calories. I pushed on and enjoyed the bridges, the scenery. There is something for me about running on the road, the vast blueness above, the thrashing of the sea water alongside me – often strewn with boats or jet skis– the cars coming and going throughout the Keys, that is incredibly uplifting. At times we were on pedestrian bridges where a variety of people were fishing, others in chairs taking in the majestic ocean view. The journey down to the Keys reminds me of the simple joys in life – being outside, free, moving on my two healthy legs towards a goal that is about so much more than finishing a race. For me, finishing the Keys is about persistence and drive; it’s about finding the peace in the havoc, so that I can reference that peace again and again when my non-running life does not go according to plan.
Around mile 40, life started to look up for me. I was no longer bothered by my nausea. It just was, the way the ocean and the sky and the heat were. I visited two Circle K’s and bought Gatorade, and somehow, just getting in the calories made me feel better, even if it didn’t quell my nausea. Excitement was building in me – I knew that in 10 more miles I would see my dad at the 50 mile aid station, where he had been volunteering all day, and get to send him on his way to Key West. I had to go through the tunnel of doom, which was a marshy, humid 4-5 mile stretch shielded by trees, and then a few more miles and I was at his aid station at Mile Marker 50. It was prior to the tunnel of doom that I met up with Debra and Amanda, who were running the race together. Debra shared that she had dropped out last year at mile 90; she also mentioned that she had read my race report from last year earlier in the week, and reading it, she knew that she was going to be able to finish the race this year. When I passed her, I started to cry. For so many of the miles up till then, I had been discerning my life, asking myself if I was ready to take a chance, ready to switch gears and put myself forward a bit more as a writer. After 22 years of pushing in my corporate life, of endless hours logged, of passion and determination and drive to always get to the next level in my career, I felt change taking hold of me. Many of my passing conversations in this race were about my novel – characters in my book, what chapter people were up to. My mind was on overload.
And then I was in the tunnel of doom, heat enveloping me. I knew I had to pick up the pace and get through it, which is what I did. I put my music back on and landed on Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” This was not a favorite song of mine or one that I am known to listen to. But then, there, the “Man in the Mirror” was my anchor, getting me through the tunnel of doom. I thought of my mom – of how much I missed her and of how hard she fought to stay alive those last few years. I am always so grateful that she fought, and with so much grace and courage, because I will always have that with me. The knowledge, the commitment, that no matter how hard it may get at times, it is worth it: life with all of its beauty and hardships, is worth the fight.
The “Man in the Mirror” played and I kept going. I pushed out of the tunnel of doom and Mom’s Taxi drove by and I teared up again. Signs from the universe resonate in me when I am at my weakest. The song ended and I hit repeat. Over and over. Sometimes in life, we have to look at ourselves – ask ourselves if we are moving in the right direction. If we are where we want to be in our lives. If we are being our best selves, if we are practicing kindness and grace; if we are too busy to focus on the things that matter most. Sometimes, we have to make peace with the man, or the woman, in the mirror and carve out our route.
I was thrilled to see my dad – I was about 15 minutes ahead of schedule, which was a good place to be. I filled up my water bottles with coconut water, which was now really making me sick, but I was more concerned with getting the calories in and nothing else seemed appealing. I grabbed my phone, which was part of the plan as I was going to be on my own for the night, put on my reflective gear, and then, telling him he was off duty, sending him on his way to drive down to Key West, I was on my way.
7 mile Bridge creates fear in me. The fact that for 7 miles, there is a 3 foot wall that is blocking me from flying into the Atlantic ocean with cars coming at me at 60 miles per hour, while I run in a bike lane, unsettles me. Especially when I buckle from each large truck that zooms by me, and feel inclined to stop still when a 36-wheeler passes by. Then there’s the point from the bike lane that the uphill peak of the bridge comes into view. I can imagine it’s glorious to run across this bridge with no traffic, but to do so at 6:30 pm, in nonstop traffic, seems bizarre to me.
The wind was apparent for many of the shorter 1-2 mile bridges, but over 7 mile Bridge, it was obnoxious. At one point my hat flew off my head and danced down the bike lane, into oncoming traffic, then back into the bike lane and seemed to wait for me to pick it up 2 miles or so later. Why I chose to put my ran-over hat back on when I was done with the bridge was beyond me, but I did.
And then the bridge was done, over! I had committed to completing the bridge in 1.5 hours and I did it closer to 1:15. When I reached the mile 60 aid station, there was Christian Stewart to help me and see me off on the remainder of my journey.
When darkness hits the Keys, it hits all at once. There I was, on the road, alone, blinking, with my head light illuminating the path for me. There is something unnerving about sections of the Keys 100 when you are running in a narrow lane with cars rushing at you in the darkness – and it is cave dark.
I wish I could say that the nausea had faded, but it hadn’t, and the car lights glaring at me wasn’t helping. I had a number of conversations along this stretch – there was an Ironman from out of state who was running his first 100 miler. In the darkness, the men I kept talking to here and there along the way all began to look like the same person to me, or perhaps that was just my state of mind at the time. One man was listening to the Carpenters to keep himself going slow and steady.
Once, when I had been alone for a long stretch, I saw blinking lights in the distance and was doing my best to pick up my pace to catch up to them so as not to be out there all alone, but when I finally did catch up, it was only to discover that the blinkies were lights stuck on a Keys 100 sign. At some point, fear was no longer an option for me – so I was alone. So it was dark. So there were crazy people in fast cars passing by. No one was interested in me. People had better things to do than run me over. I was going to be fine – I was sure of it. The shift in mindset settled me – this was fun! It was en route to mile 75, where there was a larger aid station, that I caught up and passed one girl over a bridge that seemed to last forever, that my fear snuck back in – it seemed like a long way down into the dark ocean.
By mile 75, I was positive this was my last year running this race. Who would want to do this? Why? For what? There were so many times I held my breath when a truck whizzed by me. What woman is out on the road alone, running in the middle of the night with no one helping her? This could not possibly be my idea of fun. The aid station at Mile 75 was a Godsend. I finally managed to eat some of a grilled cheese sandwich and I got to see many other runners, there, too. Suddenly I didn’t feel like I was the only one out on the course. Miraculously, with some food in me, life was not so terrible. I could go on – I could do it!
I spent the next five or so miles speed walking and slow jogging – the nausea came back with a vengeance after the grilled cheese—and chatted a bit with Ramon, who had signed up for the race just that morning. He had crew out on the road, so he would leave me every mile or so to meet with his crew, and then join back up with me.
Around mile 19, Bonnie reached out to me – she had run the 100 mile relay – and she offered to come out and helped me to get through the rest of the race. Normally I am reserved; I don’t like to bother people, I don’t like to torture anyone with my insanity when I am at a down and out phase in a race, but I took her up on her offer right away. I was thrilled at the prospect of her joining me!
Bonnie reached me by Mile 18 or so. From then on, my life shifted. There was a lot of talking, a lot of good conversations, although I am sure it was mostly me rambling on about something or other. I was grateful for her skill in keeping my mind occupied – in changing the record my brain had gotten used to, which was somewhere between nothing and figuring out my whole life.
Together, Bonnie and I trudged on, and we often passed people, which seemed optimistic at this later point in the race. I may not have felt great, but I was able to move forward; if there is one thing that this ultra journey has taught me, it is that a race, like life, is all about forward motion. Drew was there to support us, showing up with potato chips, which I was able to eat – and later in the race, with five miles to go, Bonnie and Drew set me up with 20 ounces of Coke Cola, which I managed to finish. Talk about the dream team – Bonnie and Drew were my saviors.
And then we were at Roosevelt Blvd., with four miles to go. We jogged and walked, walked and jogged, and the miles came and went. Unlike other races, I didn’t have the usual heart pounding, overwhelming anxiety – a mixture of ecstasy and it is really almost over?—racing through me. I felt together, okay, but ready to be done. We trudged on, and I got a little bit of a groove going, and then, I felt it in me – I was about to finish, another journey complete. I entered the beach, saw the finish line, and with one foot in front of the other, it was over.
As with all 100 mile runs, this race was about so much for me beyond the physical movement. The opportunity to be with my thoughts and my heart for so many hours was a chance to look at my life, to work out some of the kinks and roadblocks which had settled in. When I go the distance, I give myself permission to struggle, to dream, to rely on others for support, and to find my way, regardless of how long and winding the road may be. For me, an ultra is a solitary experience as much as it is an experience of coming together and experiencing life with fellow wanderers – it is a chance to celebrate all of the amazing people you meet along the way. As always, kudos to race director extraordinaire Bob Becker and to all of the incredible volunteers and race marshals, who were truly my guardian angels.