“Ninety Percent of This Game is Half-Mental”: 2013 Keys 100 Race Report

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It starts at the finish.  10 days removed from crossing the finish line at the inaugural Badwater: Salton Sea 81-mile race out in the San Diego desert, that’s me and my friend/crew member, Kenny Matys, standing at the finish line of the Keys 100.  It is Friday, May 17, 2013, and we aim to be the first to reach this point the next day…

Our goal is audacious.  The Keys 100, in only a handful of years of existence, has become a “who’s who” of Florida ultrarunning.  And with the explosion of FUR (the Facebook group “Florida Ultra Runners” for the 3 people in the ultrarunning community that haven’t heard of it yet…), the Keys 100 has truly become Florida’s Super Bowl of ultrarunning.  The 2013 edition would promise another circus-like atmosphere at the pre-race meeting, the start line, and throughout the race.  While there are plenty of other AWESOME ultras in Florida, the Keys has a little something extra.   A little more buzz.  A little more prestige.  It’s an EVENT . . . a “happening.”

There would be no shortage of talent toeing the line this year, including the baddest man of them all . . . Mike Morton, the best ultra runner on the planet right now.  And no, that’s not hyperbole — last year alone, he ran three 100s in the “13s” (including Keys), won Badwater (and, in the process, missed out on the course record by literally a minute), and then proceeded to obliterate Scott Jurek’s American 24-hour record by SEVEN miles (he finished with a gaudy 172 miles).  Seven miles, think about that . . . Mike could have taken the last hour off and still walked away with the American record.

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(Mike climbing up to Towne Pass on his way to winning Badwater last July).

Funny story about his Badwater performance:  Throughout the race, his crew was continuously giving him all sorts of time splits, and figuring out how fast he would need to go to finish with a certain time, etc.  At some point in the race, Mike got fed up, said “enough already,” and his crew didn’t give him any more time splits/updates for the rest of the race.  When he found out he finished one minute off of the course record, he said “Well, you guys could have told me THAT information while we were still running . . .” 🙂

Okay, back to the Keys.  (Although the Badwater digression wasn’t entirely irrelevant, as Bob Becker invented the Keys 100 to emulate Badwater.  And I was using this year’s Keys race as a gauge of my current fitness level, as I will be running Badwater for the first time in less than two months…)

So, anyway, in addition to Mike, all of the Florida “Top Guns” were running the Keys.  (If you sense that my use of the term “Top Gun” will lead to references to 80s and 90s movies throughout this report, well, you clearly know your narrator)

Some of the Florida guys running included Sung Ho Choi (Bruce), Grant “Dingofish” Maughan, Andrei “Smooth” Nana, and Brad “the Peacock” Lombardi.  Andrei may or may not be called “Smooth” because he literally has shaved all of the hair off of his body.  And we’ve already delved into Brad’s “Peacock” moniker in the past.  Let’s just say that he seems to be allergic to upper-body clothing . . .

So after the pre-race activities and a relaxing dinner on the bay with my crew (Alex, Zoey, and Kenny) along with Andrei and his girlfriend Claire (a newly-minted Florida resident), both of whom would be running the Keys 100 unsupported, we called it a night.

Race Day:  Leading up to the Start

There was plenty of talk at the pre-race meeting by people hoping/wishing for rain showers, cloud cover, and possibly cooler temperatures for the race.  Selfishly, I wished for a hot, cloudless day, to best gauge my readiness for Badwater.  Careful what you wish for . . . unfortunately for everyone else, I got my wish.  There were literally no clouds in the sky all day, until about 7pm.  Temps hovered around 90 and the humidity was high.  The best way to describe the weather would be to say that if the Chicago Marathon would have had the same weather, the race would have been cancelled.  But for the 100 or so intrepid souls signed up for the 100-miler (and about the same amount signed up for the 50), we were about to test the limits of our bodies and minds…

Luckily, Bob hired a few motivational speakers to fire us up before the start of the race:

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(“How we run in the Keys . . . echoes in eternity.”)

Are you not entertained??  Are you not entertained???  Okay . . . how about this:

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(“Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, comes down to our sub-tropical-yet-still-within-the-contiguous-United States chain of islands and pushes us around…”)

STILL nothing??  Okay, we have to bring out the big guns:

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(“One run.  If we ran this thing 10 times, we might DNF 9 of them.  But not this run.  Not today. . . Now go out there and TAKE IT!!!”)

Inspired now?  Good, me too.  Let’s start this thing already…

The Start (Miles 1-25):

I don’t know about you guys, but I HATE those final few minutes before the start of a race.  They just seem to drag on forever.  We tried to kill the time by wishing fellow competitors good luck, and taking some pics with our crew and others:

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(Team Dave:  My wife, Alex (“Superwoman”), Zoey, and Kenny (“the Jet”) Matys.  Not pictured:  my buddy and co/worker Mike “the Bolt” Holt, who would be pacing me for the final 50 miles (and in the process, running his first 50-miler ever)).

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(My buddy Andrei and I minutes before the race.  Not pictured:  the beer he was guzzling as his final “carbo-load.”)

This would NOT be the last time I saw Andrei before the end of the race.  Pretty subtle foreshadowing, huh??  Yo’ boy gotz mad storytelling skillz!  You can practically feel the Yale edumacation oozing off of the screen . . .

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Viper (Morton):  “Good morning, gentlemen, the temperature’s 110 degrees.”

Hollywood (Bruce):  “Holy shit, it’s Morton!”

Peacock (Brad):  “Morton’s out here . . . great . . . oh shit.”

“Daverick”:  “Great — he’s probably saying ‘holy shit, it’s Daverick and Brad.”

Peacock:  “Yeah, I’m sure that’s what he’s saying…”

(Yes, I just referred to myself as “Daverick.”  Clearly I’m not dorky AT ALL.  And yes, Bruce is hereinafter “Hollywood” to me, given his perfectly coifed hair — even during ultras, his smooth ways with all the ladies, and his snugly-fitting attire (I’m pretty sure he’s sponsored by Baby Gap.)

That was about the last time I saw Morton during the race.  My plan for the first 25 miles was to run comfortably and not too fast (8:00-8:30 per mile).  By the end of the first mile, Morton was literally out of eyesight.  By about 5 miles, Mike was probably already about a mile ahead, there was some dude wearing a Camelbak not too far behind him, and I was in a decent-sized chase pack with about five other people:

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(Mile 5 or so with Baby Gap, Peacock, and Will Glover.  As you can see, Brad’s shirt allergies must have been acting up again.  Not pictured:  my Aussie friend Grant Maughan and Andrei, who were only seconds behind at this point).

The early miles went by pretty uneventfully, but the temps were definitely on the rise as the sun made it’s way up the sky.  By Mile 10, our “chase pack” of 5 was down to 2 . . . me and Bruce.

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(Starting to warm up around Mile 15 or so).

By Mile 20, Bruce and I had pulled ahead of the dude in the Camelbak, and by Mile 25, Bruce was probably a good 5 minutes ahead of me.  This was also the point where I hit my first energy low of the day.  Kenny weighed me at the first major checkpoint (around 25 miles into the race), and I was already down seven pounds.  (That’s a lot). Clearly I was not taking in enough hydration.  So by this first checkpoint, I found myself in third place (3:50).  Morton was WAY ahead, and Bruce was a few minutes in front of me.  I knew Grant was surely right behind me.  I didn’t even consider where Andrei was at this point.

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(Pushing through an energy low around Mile 25)

Miles 25-30 were not pretty.  My suspicion that Grant was nipping at my heels was correct, as he came blowing by me during this stretch.  Also, two women flew past me as well.  The first one, I didn’t even see.  The second was Josephine Weeden, a woman from Michigan attempting her first 100-mile race.  She looked fresh and determined.  It was an impressive sight.

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(Gratuitous Zoey pic) 🙂

By Mile 30, Kenny had forced me to drink enough water and Gatorade that I had gained about half of the weight I lost back, and I was well on my way to recovery.  I ran non-stop from miles 30-40, a great section of the course with lots of scenic bridges, including a 2-mile footbridge at around Mile 35 that connects Long Key and Conch Key:

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(Long Key Channel Bridge.  Kenny hopped out of the support vehicle and ran this section with me, which was a HUGE help to me.  The Seven Mile Bridge gets all the publicity in the Keys 100, but the Long Key Channel Bridge is no picnic, especially considering the point in the race/time of the day you hit it . . .)

By the time we finished this bridge and made it a few more miles, we had passed Bruce, who seemed to be having heat-related issues.  And then, when we hit the 40-mile checkpoint (at around Mile Marker 60 — remember, the Mile Markers count DOWN to Key West…), we received news that caused a MAJOR boost of energy:  Morton had dropped out!  I would later find out that he ran his first 30 miles in less than 7 min/mile (which is absurdly fast for anyone, even him).  For me, the possibility of winning the race had just become a serious reality.

There was still, of course, a ton of work to do.  First, we were about to enter the dreaded “Corridor of Death,” a 4-mile stretch of running on a mangrove-canopied sidewalk that basically acts as an oven.  Forget about seeing water during this stretch . . . you can’t even see the road.  And even assuming I’d survive this section in one piece, an additional 55 miles awaited us.

Kenny paced me through the mangrove section, and we escaped relatively unscathed when the mangroves opened up and we reached “downtown” Marathon.  Around this point, we caught up to and passed my Aussie buddy Grant.  He still looked strong, and I knew the race was far from over.  (Along with Brad, Grant was on my team for the Salton Sea race a few weeks ago, and he was REALLY strong the whole way.  Like me, Grant is running Badwater this year, so I knew that he was going to be a formidable competitor at the Keys).

Still, even though the race was only half-over, I felt like I was in a good spot.  With only a few miles to go until the half-way point, I was leading the male race, with only two women in front of me.  Also, in a few short miles, my buddy Mike would join me and pace me to the finish, to which I was REALLY looking forward.  So minutes before the Mile 50 checkpoint, Alex made the call to the bullpen to “warm up the Bolt”:you-want-vaughn_clink_large

Jake Taylor (Alex):  “You want the Bolt??”

Lou Brown (me):  “I know he’s never run 50 miles before, but I’ve got a hunch he’s due.”

When I hit the Mile 50 checkpoint, I was in third overall, first male, and came in at 8:01.  Right on schedule . . .

The Grind (Miles 50-75):

Being in the lead for the men’s race had me fired up as we started the second half.  Having Mike running with me had me fired up, as his energy level was contagious.  And Alex and Kenny had done a great job of keeping my hydration/nutrition on track.  We were ready to attack the Seven Mile Bridge:

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We attacked the bridge, and this was actually one of our strongest stretches of the race.  Our time on the bridge was 1:10, which is by far the fastest I’ve ever run this segment during the Keys 100.  It was a great psychological boost to get off the bridge in good shape.  And the best part about the bridge is that once it’s finished, you are officially in the “Lower Keys,” which are generally more scenic than the Upper Keys, and, more importantly, a hell of a lot closer to Key West!

A few miles after the bridge, however, I hit another energy low, right around Big Pine Key.  Even though Kenny and Alex were closely monitoring my weight/nutrition, the cumulative effect of the heat was taking its toll.  But simply, it was just really f–king hot out there!:

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(Kenny crewing for Mike and me, around Mile 70.  The ice bandanas and ice towels during pit stops helped immeasurably.)

In these miles between 65-75, we caught up to one of the two women in front of us (Josephine Weeden).  We learned she had never run farther than 50 miles, and she had to do all of her training in Michigan!  To say she was putting forward a Herculean effort would be a monumental understatement.  We played tag with her for about 10 miles before passing her for good around the Mile 75 checkpoint.  (She would finish in an incredibly-strong time of 18:17).

At the 75-mile checkpoint, which we hit in 12:52, we learned that the one woman ahead was 50 minutes in front of us, which constitutes a fair amount of real estate to make up in just 25 miles.  At that point, however, I was mainly just focused on keeping my energy up and holding off Grant, whom I was sure was not too far behind me.

Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way (Miles 75-100):

While my crew and I tried to keep my energy up as best as possible, by the time I hit Mile 80, I couldn’t fend off another energy low, and for 3-4 miles, I was reduced to a run-walk where I was lucky if I was averaging 4 mph.  During this point, at one of the stops, Kenny and Alex informed me that “Andrei is less than 10 minutes behind you.”  I couldn’t believe it.  Andrei is an incredibly strong runner, both physically and mentally, but I hadn’t even THOUGHT about him the entire race.  I mean, seriously, the guy was running UNSUPPORTED.

Big oversight on my part.  By Mile 84 or so, Andrei had passed me, and he looked pretty fresh, while I was basically doubled over from exhaustion.  With 16 or so miles to go, I wondered how in the world this happened, and how I could turn things around.

Over the past few years, one of my “calling cards” as a runner has been my ability to run very strong over the last 25 miles.  It just wasn’t happening here, though.  Mike, who had paced me for the last 40 miles last year, kept saying things like, “Just wait, he’s about to turn it on, and then we’ll be flying.”  But it just wasn’t happening.

As we reached Mile 85, I needed to take a break and just stand still for about a minute.  Kenny said to me, “Well, this can go one of two ways.  You can either start running and catch Andrei, or you’re going to lose.”  It was quite the Yogi Berra-esque thing to say.

In the next few minutes, I started running . . . slowly.  I started to feel better.  Then I started feeling even better than that, and sped up a bit.  It was happening; this is what I was waiting for.  Mike could sense it.  My crew could sense it.  By Mile 87 or so, we were running 8:15/mile, and Alex informed us that Andrei was only a few minutes ahead.  By Mile 88, he was only seconds ahead.  I knew that we were going to overtake him.  I also knew that if I kept this level of energy up until the finish, he wasn’t going to catch back up.

At some point, I remarked to my team that we were all really lucky to be involved in such a great race so late in the game.  It was really a dream scenario:  I was in a serious battle with one of my very good friends.  Sure, I wanted to beat him, and he undoubtedly wanted to beat me, but at the end, we were going to hug and congratulate each other at the finish line, have a few beers, and hang out together for the rest of the weekend.  Regardless of who won.  I’ve written this before and I’ll say it again . . . this is what makes ultrarunning so great.  I want to win, for sure.  But I want to beat you while you also have a great race.  If you wind up beating me, I can be a bit disappointed in myself but still genuinely happy for you.  It’s THAT spirit that pervades our sport and makes it so much fun for me . . .

At any rate, when I reached the Mile 90 checkpoint, I had passed Andrei and I felt really good.  And while we were cutting into her lead, the woman in front of us (I still didn’t know her identity . . . I hadn’t seen her the entire day) was still 30 minutes ahead.  Too much to make up in 10 miles.  (I could run 8s the whole way in, and as long as she ran a tad faster than 11s, she would win).

The last 10 miles went perfectly.  I kept my energy up, held off Andrei, and finished as the male winner and second overall, in a time of 17:30.  I also met the overall winner, Brenda Carawan, for the first time.  She is a seriously-talented runner who is a Badwater vet, as well as owner of a 16:30 PR in the 100.  She finished in 17:16, 14 minutes ahead.

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(At the finish with Kenny, Alex, and Zoey)

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(Dramatic recreation of Mike crossing the finish line for his first 50-miler, with his son Ollie)

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(At the finish with overall winner Brenda Carawan)

Aftermath:

The next day, the best RD in the business, Bob Becker, held the awards ceremony/party at the finish line.  It was great to see so many of our friends and hear so many inspiring stories of people fighting through the heat, humidity, and mileage to finish their first 100, set massive PRs (such as “FUR” creator Eric Friedman (sub-24!) and “Smitty” Smith Jean-Baptiste (22 and change!)), or push through with very solid races.  Andrei finished about 25 minutes after me, and set his own PR of 17:54, and Grant came through in a very solid 18:45.

In the 50-mile race, my friend and occasional running partner, Aly Venti, cruised to victory in 6:51, which smashed the old 50-mile female record by 50 minutes, and even beat the male 50-mile record.  So for those keeping score at home, she now owns the 50-mile and 100-mile (16:07) records at the Keys.

Races like this obviously don’t happen in a vacuum, either from one runner’s perspective or on an event-wide scale.  For me, I wouldn’t have had anywhere near the performance I did without my awesome crew:  Alex, who not only crewed me and Mike, but also Zoey for 100 miles, which is pretty incredible when you think about it; Kenny, who is my crew chief for Badwater and is, quite simply, the best in the business.  We will have a leg up on EVERY team at Badwater from a crewing perspective because of Kenny’s unbelievable focus and attention to detail.  Finally, my buddy, colleague, and regular training partner Mike did an awesome job pacing me for the second half, and, in the process, completed his first 50-miler in about 9:30.  (For all you 50-mile finishers, subtract about 4 hours from Mike’s “official” time, as his race didn’t start until after 2pm . . .)

From a more macro perspective, thanks again to Bob for putting on such an awesome race, and thanks to all the volunteers who allow this great celebration of Florida ultrarunning to occur every year!

One Last Note:  Badwater for Sylvester Cancer Center

Some of you may have noticed that my crew and I were wearing gear emblazoned with the logo for the University of Miami’s Sylvester Cancer Center.  This is my charity for Badwater, which we are launching within the next week.  I am teaming up with the folks at Sylvester to raise money for their cancer research/facilities, specifically for their pediatric cancer branch, called Alex’s Place at Sylvester.  Alex’s Place is an amazing state-of-the-art facility where kids with cancer go to receive treatment (chemo, etc.).  It was built to be as “kid-friendly” as possible — very open, lots of multimedia, games, etc. — the whole goal was to make it feel as little like a hospital as possible.

Cancer affects us all, and my family’s experience with cancer has been especially brutal.  I think pediatric cancer is the most egregious of them all, and I wanted to do something with running Badwater so it wasn’t just about “me” but about something larger as well.  So we will be launching a website as well as the whole social media package very soon (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).  Every last cent we raise is going to go DIRECTLY to Sylvester to fight pediatric cancer.  There will be no “administrative costs.”  No funds are being used to support my running in Badwater.  Funds are not being used for “awareness.”  Every dollar I raise will go directly to Sylvester for either research or to build additions to Alex’s Place.

So stay tuned.  Most of you are probably already friends of mine on Facebook.  If you’re not, please “friend” me and I’ll keep you in the loop.  Thanks 🙂

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