Let’s start at the end: Six guys. 100 miles. Maximum temperature 88, heat index 103. Total time 13 hours, 8 minutes. One smelly Tahoe and a dirty Civic. One helluva good time.
That’s the results line for the Keys100 Relay that I took part in on May 15. But as you can probably guess, there’s much more to the story.
The whole deal was concocted by Steve, who lives in South Florida. When he heard about the Keys100 late last year, he mentioned it to some buddies as something that would be fun to do “someday.” Two of those buddies were former coworkers of his: Mike, a nephew of mine, and Tom. Mike ran the RAGNAR Great River Relay last year and loved it, so he jumped at the call. And Tom … well, Tom just can’t say no to a good race.
Before Steve knew it, “someday” turned out to be “this May.” With that, the three guys set about finding three more blokes to field a full team for the 100-mile race from Key Largo to Key West. Tom struck first, recruiting two college buddies and fellow Ironman triathletes, Danny and Scott. Michael added me to the mix, knowing that I also had a great time at RAGNAR last year.
On Thursday, May 13, the team began assembling at Fort Lauderdale airport. Scott was to arrive first and pick up the Tahoe he had rented as our team vehicle. He left San Diego around 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, flew to L.A., then was bound for Lauderdale. However, a problem forced his plane to land at 6:00 a.m. Thursday in Tampa, where the passengers were told they would be put on a bus at 11:00 for a four-hour drive to Lauderdale. By the time he arrived at 3:30, Danny had arrived from Nashville, Tom and Mike were in from Indianapolis, and I had touched down from Chicago. Scott said of his journey, “I went to Japan last year, and it only took me three hours longer to get there than it did to fly across the country here.”
We were to meet up with Steve in Key Largo on Friday. Since Miami’s famed South Beach was – more or less – right on the way, we decided it would be a good team-building exercise to stop by. At one of the many beachfront bar/restaurants, we enjoyed humongous 2-for-1 Happy Hour margaritas: only $19.50 each – such a bargain!
The pre-race plan was to meet Steve, then go diving 5 miles off Key Largo. Scott and I would snorkel while the other four went scuba-ing. I should’ve thought twice when the dive shop manager said, “It’s not a Chamber of Commerce day out there,” but you know how it is when a bunch of guys get together. “Aaagh, no problem,” I said.
About an hour later, the six of us were clinging for dear life as the tiny ship was tossed against the 5-6 foot swells as we headed to the first dive site. Once we arrived, it didn’t take me long to decide notto strap on the snorkel and fins. I was partially concerned about conserving energy for the next day’s race, but mostly, I didn’t want to drown. To my surprise and delight, my teammates didn’t lay the macho peer pressure on me, so I sat on the boat while they dove.
After about an hour, they surfaced and climbed back aboard. That’s when the fun really began. While they were in the water, their bodies had adjusted to the incessant push and pull of the waves. Once back on board, they quickly turned as green as the seaweed floating below us. Within minutes, Scott was hanging over the starboard side, “feeding the fish.”Fearing this would cause a chain reaction in me, I quickly averted my eyes – just in time to see Danny pull the regulator from his mouth and upchuck on the port side.
I could taste the glazed Dunkin Donut I’d had for breakfast in the back of my throat, and it was only a miracle of will that kept me from vomiting too. The captain helped break the chain with a bit of levity. “So, did you guys say hello to your friends … EARL! BRUCE!”
Later that night, after picking up our race packets, we were having dinner at the local pizza & pasta place and discussing race strategy with a couple of other teams that had run the race last year. Unlike most relays that dictate precise distances and the order for each runner, the Keys100 is completely free-form. With one exception (that you’ll hear about later), you may run in whatever order you like, any distance you like. Tom and Mike had meticulously charted the race legs each of us would run. They laid out our plan to the other teams: “We’re going to run 3 legs each, 5-7 miles at a time.”
Upon hearing that, one team just smiled. The other team said, “Yeah, we tried that last year. This year we’re going to change every mile.”
Every mile?! We all thought that was crazy. After all, Danny, Scott and Tom are all Ironmen; Mike has two marathons under his belt, and I have eight. This was going to be Steve’s longest race ever, but he had the advantage of being acclimated to the Florida climate. “No problem!” we said to one another. Team “Racing Away Again To Margaritaville” was solid and ready.
Race morning: 5:45 a.m. The temperature is 79 and relative humidity is 80 percent. And the sun hasn’t even come out yet.
The race is completely self-supported, which means we had to supply our own water and energy drink. Part of our race strategy was to drive ahead 3 miles and see how our runner was doing. Scott, our leadoff man, said he’d be fine and wouldn’t need anything. Still, we stopped at mile 3 to give him encouragement. As he approached, we were clanging cowbells and whooping and hollering. He was yelling back to us, “Drink! Drink!” which we thought was a joke about him wanting a beer. It wasn’t. “GIVE ME SOME &*^% WATER!”Oh. Thatkind of drink! One of the guys ran back to the Tahoe, grabbed a water bottle and sprinted it up to Scott.
After finishing his 6 miles, a drenched Scott grabbed a seat in the Tahoe and said, “Either you guys are out of your mind, or you’re a lot tougher than I am if you think you can run without aid.” Hmm, 6 miles out of 100 down, and our race strategy is unraveling.
On our third exchange, the strategy broke down even further. Danny was to hand off to Mike, but a discrepancy in two different versions of the official race map had our team guessing where the race course actually was. Mike and Steve drove to where they thought it was, and the rest of us stayed in the other possible location. Suddenly, Danny appeared on our side and I jumped in to take the handoff in place of Mike. As Danny peeled off the “slap bracelet” that was passed from runner to runner, it flipped out of his hand and directly into the path of a passing truck, which mangled it to the point where it would know longer fit tightly against your wrist. As time went on, the bracelet lost even more rigidity and we had to hold it more than wear it. By race end, we called it our “beast of burden.”
After that debacle, we got back on track and were moving along well, albeit hotly. In fact, we became engaged in a race-within-a-race with two other teams, Health Shoppe and WTF (“Witness The Fitness”). One team would gain a small advantage, only to see it disappear a couple of miles later. This went on for 30 miles or so. Racing these teams was fun … to a point. It was also exasperating because both teams had several women. That meant we were getting “chicked” repeatedly, which started to strain our male pride.
After the first round of six-mile legs, we decided to back down to four miles each and giving our runner aid after two miles. As the sun and temperature rose higher, even this distance was a challenge. Runner after sweaty runner would hop onto the cloth seats of the Tahoe, which rapidly developed a stench. As he struggled to re-hydrate and cool off, each teammate would say things like “Man, I’m glad that was only four. I couldn’t have gone another mile.” The conversation would go on like this among my teammates for a few minutes, then it would suddenly cease as a wave of realization washed over them that a bigger challenge lay ahead … but not for them. For me.
Earlier, I stated there was just one exception to the “run whatever distance you like” rule. That exception started at mile marker 47 and was called the Seven Mile Bridge. Because it is a busy two-lane highway between islands, and the only passageway for vehicles, the rules stated that one runner had to cover the entire seven-mile span. No exchanges or aid from your team were permitted.
About a month prior to the race, I had volunteered – no, demanded – to run this leg. I knew not what I was getting into. A friend, Carlos, who lives in Miami said, “As the senior team member, you mustdo this leg. You’ll love it.” With the bridge looming ahead, I began to wonder just why he thought I would love it … and what I had done to anger him!
Within 20 yards of taking the exchange, I passed the woman running for WTF and looked ahead to see a l-o-n-g bridge free of runners. Not a soul in sight ahead. I set a mental pace and began the solitary task. I had 20 ounces of water on a waist belt and another 20 in a bottle I carried. Fortunately, there was a strong sea breeze all day, and it was most beneficial on the bridges. Since there was no hope of shade on any of the bridges, the breeze provided the only respite from total heat exhaustion.
I knew that if I thought about the heat, I would blow up, so I instead focused on my surroundings. That day, I learned the definition of “azure.” To my left, the Atlantic Ocean was stunningly gorgeous and clear. I began saying to myself, “Thank you, Carlos, for telling me to run this leg.” Later, as I began to tire, I said, “How many 7-mile runs have you done in your life? Hundreds? Thousands? Never have you run one this beautiful.”
The first 4 miles of the bridge and the last 2.5 are flat, but that remaining 1/2 mile rises quickly on the north and has an equally steep fall on the south. Before I knew it, I was at the base of that rise, having averaged 7:25 per mile on the bridge.
I started my mantra “hills make me stronger,” and began climbing. By the time I reached the top, all the water I had drunk was sloshing in my bladder. I needed relief.
To review some key points: I’m standing at the top of a two-lane bridge, cars whizzing by … and that’s exactly what I needed to do: whiz. I found a small opening in the concrete wall, quickly pulled my shorts to one side, then put my hands on my hips and looked out, trying to look like I was simply admiring the fantastic view. I doubt I fooled anyone who was passing by, but hell, I’ll never see those people again.
Once relieved, I chugged down the hill and finished my seven-mile pull, handing off to Scott. As congratulations, Mike met me with a slice of chilled peanut butter pie with chocolate sauce. I couldn’t find the plastic fork hidden in a napkin at the bottom of the bag, so I dug in and ate it with my bare hands. Mmmm, delicious!
By this point, we had backed down to three-mile pulls with a the support vehicle giving each runner water or other aid after two miles. We had dropped all the teams that had been neck and neck with us (they faded on the bridge), and we were starting to catch teams ahead of us. With my next shift coming up and about 24 miles to go, I suggested we downshift to two-mile legs. This would keep us fresher and eliminate the need for taking aid, which slowed us all down. All we had to do was two sets of two miles each. The guys quickly decided this sounded good.
With the end so near, there was no need to hold back. I turned my first set of two miles in 6:24 and 6:50. Scott also turned sub-7:00s, and we were off to the races. We caught the team ahead of us, then we started swapping positions with them as we switched runners. They had a fast young man who seemed to be running every-other leg, passing us in the process. (It wasn’t till later that we discovered “he” was actually a set of talented twins.)
Before my last leg, I posted a tweet on Twitter, “Just two more miles, Go, DP, GO!” Determined to leave everything out on the road, I ran for all I was worth, turning identical 6:32 miles. I never would have thought I could run two miles in 13:04 at the end of a long, hot day of running 17 miles.
Everyone ran his heart out to the finish. We gave Steve the honors of running the last leg, and we all joined him for the last 100 yards, crossing the finish line together.
Six guys who didn’t know one another 48 hours before had pulled together for an amazing 100-mile journey. The reward? The pride of accomplishment, a sweet-looking medal, and enjoying a cold beer while standing in the Atlantic Ocean.
The next day, we enjoyed being tourists in Key West, which bills itself as “Paradise,” and I would have a hard time disputing that claim. As we posed for this typical tourist photo, we made note of the fact that we could have run to Cuba from where we stood, and it would’ve been closer! If only we could run on water.
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