The Girls Who Caught Fire: 2012 Keys 100 Report

Important Note for the 200,000 Teenage Girls Who Just Clicked on this Link:  this is not a Hunger Games-related blog.  Sorry.  But I heard there is a new episode of Gossip Girl on tonight.  And will one of you please write me and explain why that dude from the Twilight movies is popular??  I really don’t get it….

Okay, for those of you still with us, this is my report for the much-anticipated 2012 version of the Keys 100, a 100-mile race from Key Largo all the way down to Key West.  I often get the comment that “There are easier ways to get to Key West, heh heh heh,” to which I usually reply, “Mix in a salad, buddy.”

Seriously, the Keys 100 has become the Super Bowl of Florida ultra running — minus the beer commercials (but hey, we have Andrei Nana, so that’s gotta count for something).

This year was especially buzz-worthy, as no less than 10 people threatened to break the long-standing course records (16:31 for men, 18:37 for women).  Adding to the general buzz-y-ness was the fact that Mike Morton (one of the best ultra runners in the world right now) decided at the last minute to run the race.  Mike ran a basically incomprehensible 13:11 at the Umstead 100 in North Carolina a few months ago.  For those of you who were not math majors, that’s faster than 8-min per mile, sustained for 100 miles.

(I for one was not a math major, but my dad did teach middle school math in Trenton, Michigan, throughout his career.  So that qualifies me to do simple arithmetic.  I think.)

I’ll ruin the suspense for those of you who were not at the Keys:  Mike crushed it, ran the race in 13:42, and in the process, shattered the course record by almost three hours.

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(Here’s Mike finishing the race . . . in the fricking daylight!!!  Look at the clock in the picture — it wasn’t even 8 pm yet when he finished.  I mean, seriously, why is he wearing a reflective vest??  He’s in Key West, and you can’t even see any drunk people throwing up in the background.  Which means it was WAY early on a Saturday night . . . .)

At any rate, enough about Mike.  While his race was astounding, it was pretty expected.  And he grew up in the town next to me (Trenton), so I’m pretty sure my dad taught him math in middle school.  Which means that I’m indirectly responsible (at least by my warped logic) for his being able to accurately figure out his splits so he could run such an amazing race.

Quick tangent to that already tangential bit:  Mike and I stem from a group of southern suburbs of Detroit called the “Downriver” area.  It’s called the Downriver area because the cities are literally 10-15 miles “down the river” from Detroit.  (We will pretend it didn’t take me until I was a freshman in college to realize how “Downriver” got its name).  At any rate, Trenton is famous for the athletes that come out of there, most recently Mike and JJ Putz, now the closer for the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Woodhaven, where I’m from, is right next to Trenton, and it’s famous for the dude who made his 9-year-old daughter drive his drunk ass home last October.  It was the first time my hometown made national news.  We were all so proud.  http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/national_world&id=8396881

Okay, on to the Keys.  I went into the race with high hopes; I was feeling really good, had a great training cycle, and thought I could significantly improve on my finish from last year (21:42, 7th overall).  Others did not share my optimism.  As Will Glover so eloquently put it at the pre-race meeting, “You guys just had a kid a month ago.  It’s okay, man.  We’ve been there too.”  (Quotes in this post are most likely not completely accurate.  Actually, I’m quite sure they are not.  Hey, I’m a lawyer, not a journalist….)

I was undeterred by the haters, though, yo.  (Note:  Will is not really a “hater.”)  My race preparations were so thorough this year that I actually went to Key West the weekend before the race.  You know, to make sure that Bob had thoroughly marked the course and to do some pre-race “success visualization” runs on the last few miles of the course.  That was definitely my motivation for the trip.  Either that, or to get silly-drunk for three nights straight with some friends that were visiting us from Arizona.  You decide.

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(My buddy Tony and I, successfully “rescuing” a coconut from the ocean on the Saturday before the race.  We are totally sober in this picture.  And by “sober,” I mean, “only 10 drinks so far today.”)

I don’t really drink much; I am married and have a kid — it’s not like we all go hit up da club on Saturday nights.  So when I do decide to have a few, it can get messy.  In other words, that weekend was basically a blur.  Let me put it this way:  on Friday night, we got back to our hotel room around 2 (or so I’ve been told).  I woke up at 6 in my car.  Without my keys, my wallet, or my phone.  I apparently decided it would be a good idea to walk outside and climb in my car in the middle of the night. These are the sorts of absurd stories that are completely normal in KW Fla.  (That’s a title of a local song by the way.).

Long story long, it was a rough weekend on my body.  Probably not ideal with a 100-miler coming up the following weekend.  But I still had high hopes.  And I now had a two-person crew — or at least a 1.5 person crew.  As Will mentioned, we did just have a kid, and she’s the cutest fricking girl on the planet.  Alex even made up a little onesey for her for the trip:

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(Zoey, wearing her special-edition Keys outfit, and, judging from her hand signals, preparing for her career in gangsta rap…)

Finally, the Actual Keys 100 Race Report

It took us (okay, me) a while to get here, but we are now retroactively reporting live from the morning of Saturday, May 19, 2012.  My plan for the race was simple:  don’t get caught up in the initial surge, run my own race, and try and finish strong.  (If you guys remember my Palm 100 report, it’s probably because of a guy named “Brah” or some douche-noggle who threw his drunk girlfriend onto me.  But I also wrote how I suffered massive heat exhaustion because I thought I could hang with the leaders right from the beginning). Well, I was determined to show I learned from my mistakes, dammit!

I had to be slow and steady in the first 60 miles of the Keys this time around, as I was doing it unsupported until the other side of the 7-mile bridge, at which point Alex and Zoey would crew me, and my buddy and co-worker Mike “Usain” Holt would pace me for the last 40 miles.  (Okay, Alex would crew me, and Zoey would eat, cry, sleep, and poop.).  I was excited for Mike to pace me; he’s a hell of a marathoner who is discovering the joys of ultra running this year.  40 miles would be his longest run by 8 miles (he won the Masters title at the Palm 50k in March).

Okay, enough foreplay.  On to the race itself, delivered in a Bill Simmons-style retro diary:

6:00 am (10 minutes to race start):  Fist-bump with FUR (“Florida Ultra Runners”) creator/Godfather Eric Friedman, who was eyeing his first 100-mile completion.  Eric and I met at LOST 118 in February, at which time he dubbed me “Gatekeeper” because 5 miles into the race, he came upon a gate, decided he couldn’t get around it, and basically started crying.  I got to the gate, and, using the critical thinking the son of a math teacher possesses, I opened the unlocked latch on the gate, thus allowing Eric to proceed and the race to go on.  (Personally, I think the person who deserves a “gate”-themed nickname isn’t one of the 99% who actually could open the gate, but the goofball who couldn’t….)  🙂

Speaking of nicknames, where is my cool nickname?  Brad Lombardi is the “Peacock.”  Andrei Nana is “Smooth” (among others), and Eric is “Bacon” (although I prefer “Vadge” for his propensity to act a bit, well, use your imagination). There’s also a girl I haven’t met yet that everyone calls “Noodles.”  I want my nickname!!! (Sorry Eric, no one calls me “Gatekeeper” but you).  I nominate “Magic Man” or “El Diablo”:

6:10 am (race start):  Mike Morton takes off.  He reaches 88 mph and disappears in a flash, reappearing in the 1955 version of the race.  I don’t see him until the awards ceremony.  Same with Sung Ho “Bruce” Choi, who I finished second to at LOST 118 by about 90 min.  (Notice the subtle foreshadowing here.  We didn’t pay for a Yale education for nuthin’, yo.)

6:40 am(ish):  I hit Mile 4 (Mile Marker 96) in pretty much exactly 30 minutes (7:30 per mile).  I am not a threat to finish in 13 hours like Morton, so I realize this is too fast and back off a bit.

6:42 am:  As soon as I start to back off, three runners come upon me:  Amy Costa, a Florida ultra running legend who has a 17-hour 100-mile finish under her belt, as well as a reputation of being someone who will literally keep running until she winds up in a hospital.  The second person is 22-year-old “JJ” Jehangir, a recent U of Miami grad who is shipping off to the Marines as an officer in a few weeks, and running his first 100-mile race.  After about 5 minutes of running with us, he says “I’m taking my scheduled walk break; catch up with you later.”  This dude is fast, patriotic, and smart.  I find myself a bit envious of his self-restraint so early in the race.  Amy follows JJ’s lead and drops back a bit as well.

That left me and the third person in the group — Katniss Venti, a clearly fast girl who I remembered seeing on the course last year (her real name is Aly).  Actually, what I remember about her is that she took off at the start like it was a local 5K, and then I passed her around Mile 50 and didn’t see her the rest of the race (she dropped out).  She was being crewed by her boyfriend, and seemed to be on a mission this year:

(Me, Amy, and Aly)

8:50 am (Mile 18 or so):  From about Miles 5-20 (Mile Markers 95-80), I ran with Aly and we kept a pace which was (for me) a bit faster than I planned — about 8:00 to 8:30 per mile.  The one thing that helped me out immensely during this time was that it rained consistently for the first 25 miles (and at times rained pretty hard).  Here is a picture I took of the conditions when we were on a bridge around Mile 18:

Okay, maybe it wasn’t THAT bad.  Seriously, though, while the wet weather in the early stages in the race would ultimately play havoc with people’s feet and cause blistering, etc., the rain kept the temps cool for the first 25 miles.  That would change, but in this race, any delay in the inevitable heat is welcome.

The miles were moving along in this early segment of the race.  The first 20 or so miles are my least favorite of any ultra, but especially the Keys, as there is literally nothing to look at until you get past the Islamorada Fish Company at about Mile 18 and the race starts to open up and you feel like you’re on a chain of islands instead of running through the set of Clerks or Mall Rats.

By Mile 18, we had caught up to South Florida ultra running celebrity Andrei Nana, a guy who has been interviewed by literally every reputable news channel in Florida by this point on the subject of ultra running.  Fox News has also interviewed him.

Andrei is famous in Florida ultra running circles for his extremely high weekly mileage (over 120 miles per week), his extremely low-calorie diet (less than 1000 calories a day), his extreme tolerance for pain (he was running the Keys this year on basically a broken leg), and most notably, his penchant for drinking beer and/or vodka during ultras:

(Andrei “topping off” a few minutes before the race began.  He also put beer in each of his drop bags….)

I didn’t see Andrei the rest of the race, but he had a great race, finished under his stated goal of 22 hours, and also came in second in his age group.  Pretty impressive considering he was basically running on one leg and being fueled by Natty Ice.

9:05 am (Mile 20):  Because I was uncrewed for the first 60 miles, I had drop bags after 20 and 40 miles, complete with fresh pairs of socks.  So at Mile 20 (Mile Marker 80), I bid Aly farewell and stopped for a few minutes.  I wouldn’t see her the rest of the race.

10:10 am (Mile 28):  Yikes.  4 hours and I’m already past 27 miles into this thing??  Time to slow down.

10:10 am – 12:30 pm (Miles 28 – 40):  This was literally the only stretch of the race I ran alone (with the exception of some relay teams who kept me company every once in a while).  The weather was starting to change — it stopped raining, it was getting warmer, and the sun was peeking through the clouds.  In other words, the race was beginning in earnest.

This stretch of the race was pretty uneventful for me; I kept a steady pace, and did not take a walk break of any sort until Mile 40 (by which point I was definitely at a “low” point, but we’ll get to that in a second).  Also, right around Mile 40, Tatyana Spencer, a truly badass runner — she ran 8:10 for a 100k a few months ago — passed me.  She was my odds-on favorite to win the women’s race (and probably smash the course record in doing so).  I didn’t see her the rest of the race.

This seems as good as a time as any to give a shout-out to the guy who was having the most remarkable run of all of us — John Pyle:

To raise funds and awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project, John set out to run from San Francisco to Key West.  So from February 28th through the finish of the Keys on May 20th, John averaged over 40 miles a day and ran over 3000 miles, all while carrying a U.S. flag given to him by soldiers in Afghanistan.  Pretty inspiring stuff.  Seriously, try getting your head around those numbers.  Over 40 miles.  Every day for three months.  Wow.

(At the awards ceremony with John).

When you look at a map of the US, it’s pretty daunting what he accomplished.  I mean, seriously, he ran across the entire state of Texas.  Literally.  That’s about 1000 miles alone.  Much of that is in Friday Night Lights territory — a.k.a., West Texas.  And it’s not like Minka Kelly was on the side of the road cheering him on.  The people there do not look like Minka Kelly.  In fact, from all I can tell, there are no people at all in West Texas.  It’s just miles and miles of general malaise, with the occasional oil field mixed in.  I hate driving through it — I can’t imagine how John ran through that part of the state without losing his mind . . . .

(NBC took some creative liberties with this casting decision . . . .)  🙂

12:30 (Mile 40):  Okay, back to the show.  By Mile 40, if you remember, I was feeling pretty bad.  I’ve come to accept that energy comes and goes during these things, and if you ride out the bad stretches, you’ll always come out the other side to a much better place.  The best ultra running advice I ever got was from Jez Bragg, the British ultra running stud, who said something like “No matter how bad I’m feeling, I know that I can get through it and to a better place.”

So I was having one of those bad spells at Mile 40 when out of the blue, JJ (the kid from Mile 5) appeared behind me and asked if I wanted to run/walk with him for a while.  I happily accepted and soon was back on track.  We ran together for the next 30 miles.  Big shout out to his mom and girlfriend, who were gracious enough to crew me along with JJ from Miles 40 to 53, until we hit the Seven Mile bridge.

2:30 pm (50-mile check-in):  JJ and I hit the 50-mile mark in 8:19.  We were feeling good and ready to tackle the Seven Mile bridge, which was coming up in three short miles.  Our strategy was to alternate running and walking, every five minutes for the whole bridge….

4:30 pm (Mile 60, end of Seven Mile bridge):  Well, our pacing over the bridge worked beautifully.  We probably passed about 6-7 people on the bridge, and energy/spirits were both high.  For me, I was especially glad the bridge was over, as Alex, Zoey, and my buddy Mike were waiting for me to crew/pace me in the rest of the way.

(JJ and I coming off the Seven Mile Bridge — Mile 60 (Mile Marker 40)).

4:30 pm — 7:45 pm (Miles 60 – 75):  This stretch was fun because Mike was with me and we were joking the whole time.  My energy would come and go, and I would generally run when I felt good and walk when I didn’t.  JJ was having some stomach issues and fell back at around Mile 70.  But he rebounded nicely and finished 8th overall in a time around 20:30.  Pretty remarkable for a 22-year-old on his first 100-mile attempt….

7:50 pm (Mile 75 check-in):  I hit Mile 75 at 13:40.  By now, my goal was to run sub-19, which would be a PR for me at the distance.  I had to run the last 25 in under 5:20.  I was having a huge energy-low at around Mile 75.  But things turned around by Mile 80.  Also, the sun was setting, and it was an awesome sunset….

9:10 pm — 12:48 (Miles 80-finish):  I really caught my groove over the last 20 miles.  For whatever reason, once I hit Mile 80 in a hundred-mile race, I get the overwhelming feeling that it’s “my” race, “my” time, and that nothing is going to stop me over the last 20 miles.  (Basically, I just picture Kurt Russell giving the “Miracle” pre-game speech to me):

(“Now go out there and TAKE IT!!!”)

Yes, I’m a dork.  I know that when Han says the Millennium Falcon “is the ship that did the Kessel run in less than 10 parsecs,” it does not make sense, because a “parsec” is a measure of distance, not time.  (My dad WAS a math teacher, in case you haven’t heard).  But dorkiness aside, we all have our own little mental tricks that get us going.  For me, it’s apparently pretending I’m running against the far-superior Soviets)  🙂

Whatever the case, I closed out the last 20 miles of the race in about 3:30, which for me, is REALLY fast.  My official time was 18:38.  My buddy Mike held tight the whole way, and got his 40 miles in, without any issues whatsoever:

(Mike and I at the finish — me with my buckle, he with the medal (I gave him mine — I mean, after all, he ran 40 miles and put up with me quoting monologues from Miracle — he deserves a lot more than just a medal)  🙂

(Me with my wife at Zoey’s first ultra finish)

Immediately After I Finished:  I learned I came in sixth overall, fourth male, and first in my age group.  First place was Mike Morton as everyone expected.  But NO ONE expected who came in second and third overall.  Aly kept up her incredible pace the entire race and finished in an absolutely astounding 16:07!!!  And Tatyana was only five minutes behind her (16:12)!  Both of them absolutely shattered the previous OVERALL course record (male or female) by a half-hour.  And they destroyed the previous female record by two and a half hours.  Just incredible performances by both of them — their two runs will be the main reasons people talk about this year’s edition of the Keys 100 for years  to come.  (Not to take anything away from Morton’s stupid-silly race time, but we all saw it coming….)

Fourth overall (and second male) went to a kid from Texas named Neal that I don’t know, in a time around 16:40.  My buddy Bruce finished fifth overall in 17:00 even.  He’s a machine.  And still about 90 minutes faster than me!

No one finished between Bruce and myself, which, in hindsight, explains why I went from Miles 70 until 90 without seeing a single other runner.  (This year’s race was weird in that respect — my buddy Mike and I commented on how it didn’t even feel like we were in a race, but rather just a normal post-work training run).  I caught up to Brad Lombardi at 90, but besides him, did not see any other 100-miler until the end.  (And had he not been in the middle of training for the “Badwater Double,” which consists of running Badwater (135 miles) and then biking 508 miles through it a few months later, I’m sure Brad would have wiped the floor with my sorry ass in the race….).

The Next Day:  I got up super-early, ate some breakfast, and by 8:30, I had rented a bicycle and was peddling down to the finish line to watch some of my friends finish.  The absolute best thing about this sport is how positive everyone is, and how each person genuinely wants everyone else to accomplish all their goals.  Sure, it’s competitive around the front of the race, but with very few exceptions, people still pull for each other to do well.  Personally, I want to run my best race possible, and beat you while you are having your best race as well.  If you happen to beat me, while I may be disappointed, I will still be happy for you, and we can still hang out after the race, have a few beers, and reminisce about the race.  After all, NONE of us make a living as ultra runners, so why not enjoy what we choose to do with our free time??

Big shout out this year to all the people who completed their first 100-miler, including Eric Friedman, Jodi Samuels, John Orth, and Rick Czekalski.  Also to Amy Costa, who ran so hard she wound up in the hospital by Mile 81, but five hours later, demanded to be dropped off at the point the ambulance picked her up, and she finished the race.  (Now THAT’s hard-core).

Finally, huge shout-out to my wife for putting up with my dumb jokes and general silliness for 40 miles, and for Mike, for doing the same and having to run with me for 8 hours.  You guys rock.

For me, this was such a great race on so many levels.  I’m glad to have met so many of you guys (gender-inclusive term for me), and look forward to seeing you on the roads/trails soon….

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