It’s only 10 days away now…
On May 17, 2014, the “Super Bowl of Florida ultrarunning” — the Keys 100 — will once again take place. For Alex and me, this will be our fourth year in a row running the race. The Keys are a very special place for us. We’ve visited dozens of times (our first time setting foot on Key West was Mile 96 of the Keys 100 in 2011). We try to get down to the Keys at least once every month or two. We even got married there.
To celebrate this year’s race, I decided to emulate the great Barney Stinson and open up my “Playbook” to running the Keys 100, earning that buckle, and maybe even challenging for that coveted conch shell:
So, in no particular order, here are some tips we’ve accumulated over the years we’ve raced the Keys 100, in terms of preparation, gear, racing strategies, the “mental game,” and other points that have worked for us in this race. Obviously, though, the most important factor to succeeding in this race is something you (hopefully) have already done: trained intelligently and consistently over the past several months. No tips or tricks can save you out there if you do not have the proper training base. It’s hard to “fake your way” through any 100-mile race, and — I guarantee you — it is a losing strategy at the Keys.
So if you have slacked on your training, stop reading, put on your running shoes, and get outside! Okay, for those of you who are still with me, I’m assuming you are (1) trained properly/fit enough to run, and (2) believe that there are things within your power that you can still do to positively affect your performance during the race.
(Note: to the people who believe that genetics or an innate ability to run fast are the only explanations for those who have success at ultras, please read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell; along with other factors — such as the environments/communities we live in, our support systems, and our opportunities — hard work matters. Plain and simple.)
Alex and I learn new things in this race every year, and — with proper conditioning, obviously — these little tips tend to add up and have produced good results for us. We have steadily improved our finishing times/placing each of the last three years: 2011 (21:42, 7th place overall; 2012 (18:38, 6th place overall); 2013 (17:30, 2nd place overall). So we hope maybe some of these pointers can come in handy for you as well:
1. Dealing with (and accepting) those two “H” words:
Heat and humidity. Both will be present in spades down in the Keys. It’s a given; just plan on it. At the start of the race, the humidity will be at its highest (as the sun hasn’t risen and had a chance to burn some of the humidity off). Then the sun establishes its position, and the heat index rises to around 100 degrees.
(Take solace in the fact it won’t be THIS hot in the Keys).
It will be hot and humid all day AND all night. The high/low temps in the Keys for any given day only vary by about 5 degrees. It will be hot for the entire race. Accept it. On my team, we don’t even really discuss it. What’s the point? It’s hot and will be a suffer-fest throughout. Just remember — no one is putting a gun to your head and making you run . . . you PAID to do this :)
2. What to Wear:
First, please, PLEASE cover up and wear light-colored clothing once the sun comes up. This seems obvious, right? But I cannot tell you how many people I see every year — including some really fast people — who wear black singlets or hats during the Keys 100. If it’s not white or darn-near white, all you are doing is drawing extra heat to yourself.
For me, I start the race with a singlet for the first few hours, and then by about 9 or 10, I will switch into a thin white long-sleeve compression shirt, and wear it until the sun goes down. The compression shirt serves two purposes: (1) it keeps the sun from getting direct access to your skin, and — more importantly — (2) it assists in the process of removing sweat from your skin, and allowing it to evaporate so that the process of sweating can do what it is designed to do (cool you down).
Without a compression shirt, I’ve found that sweat just tends to sit there on your skin (that constant soaked/swampy feeling), which is not a good thing. (Incidentally, for a hot and DRY race, such as Badwater, compression shirts don’t work nearly as well because there is no humidity to draw away from your skin; you actually want to CREATE humidity, so most people wear loose-fitting long sleeve shirts out there.)
Speaking of compression, compression shorts are also a must for me. Anti-chafing products such as BodyGlide and the like are good up to a point, but with the amount of sweating you will be doing — literally all day and night — you will very likely chafe badly if you don’t wear compression shorts. I’ve made this mistake before. Alex and I were living in Phoenix when I ran my first Keys (2011), and it simply did not even occur to me to wear compression shorts, as I NEVER chafed out in the desert. The first 60 miles went fine, and then — within about a five-mile span — I went from running comfortably to not even being able to walk properly, the chafing was so bad. Wear compression shorts; you can thank me later.
(“You didn’t let me buy compression shorts for the Keys 100? Big mistake. Huge.”)
3. Foot Care:
One of the big issues most people have during the Keys 100 is keeping their feet in good enough condition to finish the race. For those of you who do not live in train in a hot and humid environment, as well as those of you who are running your first 100-mile race, you WILL have foot/blister problems during the Keys; it’s inevitable. That being said, a few tips that seem to minimize the impact of the heat/humidity that work for me are: (a) DryMax max protection socks (the ones with the orange bottoms); and (b) switch shoes/socks a few times during the race.
Personally, I no longer switch any shoes or socks during ANY race. I just ran 175 miles in Italy without touching my shoes, and did the same at Badwater last July. The more your feet get used to running in a certain environment and the more miles they are used to, the less you will encounter blister problems.
But for people who are starting out in the sport, as well as those who aren’t used to the conditions down here, just come in with the mindset that you will have blister issues during the race but those issues rarely, if ever, should force you to quit. Everyone has his or her own blister treatment strategy, but the “bible” on this subject is Fixing Your Feet, by longtime Badwater medical volunteers John Vonhoff and Denise Jones (wife of race legend “Badwater” Ben Jones). It’s worth picking up (and it’s available on iBooks, I’m pretty sure).
Note: Throughout this post, I recommend certain brands of clothes or products. None of these companies sponsor me; I have no financial interest in their products; nor do I want any such interest. They are just the products that have worked for me. The only “sponsors” I will ever have are the members of Team Zwitty, which are my wife and our kids. (Zwitty, which is a combination of “Zoey” and “Witt,” is just our simple way to represent what is most important to us.):
(Alex representing Team Zwitty at the Vatican) :)
(Zoey, one of the two “named partners” of Team Zwitty) :)
This may be the most important section in the Playbook. In order to successfully navigate the 100 miles between Key Largo and Higgs Beach on Key West, you need to be dialed in to your fluid replacement needs. You are going to sweat a lot on this course, so you will need to drink more than in a normal ultra. The question, of course, is how much more? If you don’t drink enough, you’ll become dehydrated, lose weight, and be in serious trouble. If you drink too much, you’ll dilute your sodium levels, become hyponatremic, and be in serious trouble.
A simple solution: bring a scale with you and have your crew weigh you every hour or two. Your goal is to stay as close to your starting line weight as possible. Weight loss of 2% or less is acceptable; anything more than that, and performance will start to seriously suffer. Once you get beyond 4% body weight loss, you will be stopped or barely moving. So just drink enough to maintain your weight. Don’t gain weight (which should be pretty hard to do on the Keys course).
For me, I need about 70-80 ounces of fluid an hour. That’s a lot. But figure out your own sweat rate and go from there.
5. Salt Replacement:
Directly related to fluid intake and sweat rate is the need to replace all the sodium you are losing during the race. There are a lot of products on the market these days. For me, SCaps work the best. I take 2 every hour, and combined with the occasional Gatorade, they keep my sodium and electrolyte levels where they need to be.
200-300 calories per hour is all the body can digest. Anything more than that will just sit in your stomach and force blood away from your extemities (where it is assisting in cooling you down) to your stomach to help with the digestive process (this is not a good thing). So don’t eat too much.
On the same lines, easily digestible calories (Gu, Infinit, Tailwind, etc.) is vastly preferable to solid food, if you plan on primarily running the entire race. Again, you don’t want your body to be preoccupied with digesting food instead of keeping you cool. It will slow you down.
If you will incorporate extended walk breaks in your race plan (an hour or longer), you can get away with solid foods (but nothing too ridiculous; eating a burger or pizza is just silly, no matter what Dean K. may say about it (and I guarantee you he hasn’t eaten pizza or a burger in years…). Scientists and statisticians often use the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” to criticize results of studies that use improper sample sizes, subjects, etc. The phrase applies to running as well; if you put crap in your body, you can expect your body to perform accordingly.
7. Cooling mechanisms:
Short of devising one of the illegal and asenine contraptions you used to see people use at Badwater — such as Pam Reed’s rigged baby jogging stroller with an industrial-sized fan strapped to it, which she made her pacer push behind her one year so she would have a constant breeze — there’s not really too much you can do to mitigate the heat on the course. One thing that has worked for me the past few years are ice bandanas. Just put some ice cubes in a basic cloth bandana, wrap it around your neck, and rotate them frequently during the race. Occasional use of bath towels soaked in ice water also helps me stay as cool as possible during the race. By contrast, the industrial garden water/mist sprayers you see people use at Badwater don’t work in the Keys, as the air is already saturated with water.
(Water sprayers: invaluable in Death Valley and useless in the Keys)
8. Last-Minute Heat Acclimation:
With only 10 days until the race, hopefully you have done plenty of training where you subject your body to abnormally-hot and/or stressful conditions, whether that means running outside, sitting in a sauna, or watching Fox News for an extended period of time.
But even if you haven’t really done much heat training yet, there is still time. In 2005, the greatest American ultrarunner ever, Dean Kar…, er, oops, Scott Jurek, showed up at Badwater with virtually no heat training except a few late sessions in the “sow-nah,” as he calls it. He only went on to break the course record. (BTW, if you haven’t seen the movie Distance of Truth, which is about that 2005 Badwater race between Scott and Canadian legend (and absurdly-nice guy) Ferg Hawke, it’s worth checking out).
(Badwater legend Ferg Hawke at last year’s Badwater 135).
Anyway, if Scott thought a few late sauna sessions worked for him, that’s probably a good enough reason to give it a try yourself.
9. Pacing: Don’t be a Peacock:
Okay, we are going to switch gears a bit and get into the most important aspect for Keys 100 success: the mental game. The first point is that we all need to do honest assessments of our own abilties and current levels of fitness. With the excitement and atmosphere of the start line, far too many people run way too fast for the first 20 or so miles of the race. Every year, young speedsters show up from northern states, proud new owners of a sub-7 hour 50-miler, and they figure that they will just smoke this flat little road race down here. They then proceed to run 7-min miles for about 10 miles, 8-minute miles for the next 5 miles, and then they are pulling out of the race by mile 20, barely able to walk.
This phenomenon is not limied to non-Floridians; even more-seasoned runners who are acclimated to the heat in the Keys (which is substantially hotter than even in Miami) tend to go out too fast. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you find yourself at Mile 20 running stride for stride with a short Australian dude wearing a sweat-stained red Salomon hat, as well as two very fast ladies — and your name is not Chris Roman — do the following: Take a deep breath, sit down on the curb for about 10 minutes, and then continue the race at your own pace; you are currently running much too fast. The Aussie, Grant Maughan, has either won or gotten on the podium of roughly 58 races in the past year, including Badwater, Brazil 135, Keys (last year), as well as several others. The two women are Aly Venti, who runs over 200 miles a week in Miami and owns both the 100-mile and 50-mile Keys course records; and Katalin Nagy, who has won some major international races, run over 130 miles in 24 hours, and won this year’s Everglades Ultras 50, in about 7 hours. In other words, let them go and run your own race.
(Don’t be a peacock).
Perhaps you subscribe to the theory of running extra fast at the beginning to “bank some miles” before the sun rises. This is not a good idea. As discussed above, the first few hours are the most humid hours of the entire race. If you are working hard in the first 20 or so miles, you will pay a major price later on in the race. For me, at least, the key to performing well in the Keys is to be able to run as much of the course as possible. I will gladly give up 10 minutes over the course of the first 25 miles so that I can still be able to run 9-minute miles at Mile 90. Races are not won in the early stages, but they can sure as hell be lost there if you are not smart about your pacing. Run your own pace, and don’t worry what others around you are doing. No one can see your bright feathers leading the race at the beginning anyway — it’s still dark outside :)
10. Crew Considerations:
This should go without saying, but in order to have the best chance to succeed, you need a good crew to help you. I could not imagine runnign this race — or any race — without Alex helping me. And this year, should I lose focus, Eric “Drakkar Noir” Spencer and his girlfriend, Megan will be also there with us to kick me back into the right frame of mind.
I think it’s important to have a crew that not only knows you, but also recognizes how hard the race is, and will not easily let you quit just because you look/feel like death at any particular point of the race. Case in point: in 2011, my Italian buddy Michele Graglia was an ultrarunning neophyte who was attempting his first 100-miler. His parents were crewing him. Back then, Michele was not the (literally) world-class runner he is today; he just didn’t know that much about ultras yet. His parents knew nothing about ultras; this was not a good combination: Michele led the race for the first 80 or so miles, before he fell apart, mainly due to his lack of experience. By Mile 93, he had withdrawn from the race; his parents feared for his life and plead for him to stop.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve met and gotten to know Michele’s parents, and I’ve had dinner at their house in Italy. They are wonderful people and are now excellent crew members for Michele in his races (his dad was his lead crew member for his latest run, a win at the inaugural 175-mile Ultra Milano-Sanremo in Italy). Back at Keys 2011, however, I’d venture to say that a more experienced crew could have helped Michele reach the finish line.
I think with crews, a “sliding scale of experience” theory is useful. The less experienced the runner, the more experienced the crew needs to be, and vice versa.
As an aside — and especially in the later stages of the race — don’t think about the Keys 100 as a 100-mile race. It’s a 96-mile race. Once you hit Mile 96, you have just crossed the final bridge and you are actually on Key West. You’ve made it; now you just need to do your 4-mile victory trot along the beach to the finish line.
In his book Eat and Run, Scott Jurek describes the feeling that all athletes search out: being “in the zone,” feeling like you are “effortlessly” flying down the course. (The Japanese call this “satori”).
He describes what he thinks is the proper mindset to have during an ultra, especially a really hot one like Keys or Spartathlon (which he is racing during the following passage):
“People always ask me what I think about when running so far for so many hours. Random thinking is the enemy of the ultramarathoner. Thinking is best used for the primitive essentials: when I ate last, the distance to the next aid station, the location of the competition, my pace. Other than those considerations, the key is to become so immersed in the present moment that nothing else matters.”
I think that passage perfectly sums up the ideal mindset during the Keys 100 (or any hard ultra, really). When the only factors that matter to you are those immediate, present considerations (when do I eat next, am I hitting my time splits for this section, etc.), the outside world calms down, there are no distractions, the race is no longer overwhelming, and you can focus — and perform — to the best of your abilities. Thoughts such as “I’m at Mile 15 and I’m already beat; how the hell am I going to run another 85 miles?” are not thoughts that are conducive to success. Instead, think “I’m at Mile 15, I don’t feel good. What exactly do I need to do to turn things around in the next mile?”
The best advice I’ve ever gotten regarding this sport came in December 2010 from British ultrarunner Jez Bragg, the day before my first ultra, the North Face 50 in the Marin Headlands (near San Francisco). He said “no matter how bad things get, you can ALWAYS push through to the other side and feel good again.” Amen.
Mike Tyson once famously quipped, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” The Keys 100 will punch you in the face, and do so repeatedly throughout the race. You will not run your perfectly-planned race at the Keys; I can pretty much guarantee it. This race is not about who has the best plan, but who can continually get up from the mat after getting knocked down, maintain a positive attitiude, and simply focus on the immediate goals at hand.
So best of luck to everyone, both in these last 10 days of training/preparation, as well as for the race itself. If anyone has any specific questions they would like to ask, just shoot me a message and I’ll be happy to help in any way possible. Hope to see all of you at the finish line — Zoey and Witt will be there to greet you :)