Editor’s note: I started writing this a while ago but it turned into a sprawling novella, unfit for publication as a blog post. There’s more I’d like to say, but for now I’ll just give you the race report.
Before the Keys 50, the farthest I’d ever covered under the power of my own two feet was 34 miles. Somehow I was going to have to find it in me to tack another 16 miles onto that. The curious thing is how little the idea scared me. I didn’t stay awake all night long dreaming of the abyss like I did the night before my second Olympic-distance triathlon, which had me swim nearly a mile in a murky lake that was home to sunken buses and alligators, and I didn’t suggest to Brian that it wasn’t too late for us to turn around and go home the way I did before my first trail ultra. I was nervous, sure. I’m not stupid. But I was mostly just really, really excited.
The weather gods had combined forces to give us conditions that were essentially unheard of for this race. In previous years the race had become known for its intense heat, with the heat index reaching 100 at some point. The race is so hot that ultrarunners often use it as training for Badwater. You know, the 135-mile race across the floor of Death Valley in the middle of July.
But the day before the race, the temperatures dropped into the comparatively chilly mid-70s and the skies were overcast. I actually shivered a couple of times as we wandered around the exterior of Hemingway House. (Yes, please, go ahead and mock me and my thin Florida blood.) The skies cleared the next day but temperatures ultimately never got out of the mid-80s. Here’s the other bonus: we had a strong tailwind the entire way.
Now, here’s something that was working against me: I had come down with a head cold. The day before the race I woke up with that telltale sore throat, and it just kept getting worse all day long. Fortunately I didn’t have a fever nor did I have any achiness in my body. So I decided that I was just going to take Sudafed during the race and deal with what was sure to be an exceptionally nasty bout of illness after the race was over. (Seriously, I get sick like once a year, and of course it happens during my first 50-miler while on vacation in the Florida Keys. Of course. Thanks, Obama!)
We drove up to Marathon from Key West in our trusty Honda Fit, which was going to serve as the crew vehicle. A couple from Boston who was also doing the 50-miler caught a ride with us, and I really enjoyed chatting with them as we drove along the Overseas Highway to the start of the race. It turned out that Jerry had done Marathon des Sables and was training for another adventure race – the Grand 2 Grand Ultra in the southwest U.S. – and his wife, Jen, was training to do it with him. Here’s the wild thing about Jen – this was her very first race EVER. She’d never even done so much as a 5K at a local park. Isn’t that bananas?
Jen and Jerry were the first of my fellow ultrarunners that I’d talk to over the course of the next two days, but they weren’t the last. One thing I noticed about everyone I ended up talking to was how much I liked all of them, no matter their age or gender or where they came from. I thought they were all pretty great, and I’m really excited to find myself becoming part of this community.
We made it to the Marathon Garden Club, grabbed my packet and my timing chip (which was on an ankle strap like the ones used for triathlons). There was so much preparation that went into getting me ready for the start line, from my nutrition and hydration to the crap I smeared all over various body parts to the way we set up our car, so I’m going to leave that for another post and just skip ahead to the race, because I’m already at 700 words and I’m sorry, dear reader, for being such a loquacious narrator. Lord, how do you all put up with me?
MILES 1 -3
I was part of the second wave, which means I started running at 9:50 a.m. I had trained with a run-walk ratio of three minutes to one minutes, and I stuck with it from the very beginning. As I mentioned in my post about run-walking, it’s something that requires flipping the circuit breaker on your ego, because you get passed by pretty much everyone right away. So yes, I was passed almost immediately by everyone in my wave. I noticed two things, though. First, that no one started out fast. Everyone started with a slow shuffle. Two, I was not the only one run-walking. It made it easier for me to feel comfortable about running my own race and not burning through my legs in the first part of what was sure to be a very, very long day.
I’d also set up my iPod with the explicit goal of keeping me calm and relaxed for the first part of the race. I had one playlist that was about seven hours long that was all downtempo electronica and indie rock and 70s soft rock, and then I made a second playlist that was about three hours long that was all uptempo pop and hip-hop and EDM which I called “Dig Deep.” I had my slow playlist on and I chugged along through the first three miles of the race, which took us through the not-so-scenic stretch of strip mall Nirvana known as Marathon.
At mile 3, I met Brian for the first time and got an ice bandana from him. He made sure I had plenty of fresh ice and water and nutrition, then said farewell as I started off over the Seven-Mile Bridge. The Seven-Mile Bridge is a bridge that is, you guessed it, seven miles long (such clever name, many creative!) connecting Marathon to Duck Key, which is the official start of what’s known as the Lower Keys.
The two-lane bridge is not closed to traffic during the race, so we were escorted to the south, or ocean, side of the bridge, where we ran on the shoulder facing oncoming traffic. We were also on our own for the entire length of the bridge, as our crew vehicles were not allowed to stop and help us. I personally relished the opportunity to run on the bridge on foot, but I also felt for the 100-milers, who would be running the same bridge after 53 miles in the middle of the afternoon. I doubted it would be nearly so pleasant under those circumstances.
For the most part, the traffic didn’t bother me. I kept one eye on the cars and trucks ahead of me, and one eye on the gorgeous expanse of turquoise water that was unfurling before me. The areas around the bridges of the Keys are known as excellent fishing spots, so I hoped to see some kind of wildlife. At mile seven or eight, I got my wish when I ran past a group of manta rays playing around in a shallow part of the water. They were gorgeous to see from my vantage point, although I’m sure that if I had encountered them while swimming I would have lost my shit (like I did when I saw that bull shark while snorkeling – Steve Irwin I am not).
I felt very strong as I ticked off the miles on the bridge. For the most part I ran alone, although I did play leapfrog a couple of times with some middle-aged men who were also racing. At one point, the lead runner in the 100-mile relay blew past me like I was standing still, which was a weird feeling I never did get used to. (I was going to encounter relay runners throughout most of the last half of the race.) When I came off the bridge, I had a huge smile on my face, and I felt great.
Brian met me at the base of the bridge and ran with me for about a third of a mile to the next aid station. I checked in, then replenished my ice bandana, my hydration and my nutrition stores and put some ice under my cap. I was trying to make sure to eat at least once every eight to 10 minutes, and to take an Endurolyte capsule once an hour, and I was trying to also keep ice on strategic parts of my body without letting the water soak my shoes and socks (and thus lead to serious blistering and even possible maceration of the skin layers, omg).
The next five miles took us over a series of bridges through some unpopulated keys. The highlight of this section of the race came when we passed Bahia Honda State Park. Bahia Honda is absurdly gorgeous. I cannot do it justice with words. I basically stared, gape-jawed, at it as I ran past because it was so beautiful. I saw lots of really breathtaking scenery during the first part of the race, and I tried to enjoy all of it, because I had a feeling that later on I was going to run past many, many lovely things and be so far in the pain well that I wasn’t going to notice any of them.
We were still on the ocean side of the Overseas Highway (where we would remain until mile 6) when we entered Big Pine Key, which is also known as the only place in the world where endangered Key deer live. (Key deer are like regular deer, but teenier, like the size of our greyhound doggie.) At this point the highway took a swing to the north, which sent all of us running almost face-first into that 15-20 mph wind.
Having that wind at my back had been wonderful, because every time I was in the air during a stride, I could feel the wind pushing me forward a little bit. Having it in my face was soul-crushing. I could barely get my legs to move, and I started to feel frustrated and upset that I was only a third of the way into the race and I was already having difficulty.
Fortunately I had spoken to a friend of my mother-in-law’s – a top master’s runner who had finished third female overall in 2011 – a few days before the race and she told me that I would have low points throughout the entire race, and to just keep moving forward and they would eventually go away. Well, this was my first low point, and so I recalled Maddie’s advice as I kept chipping away at the miles. Finally I made the turn back to the southwest and my legs immediately started working again. Stupid wind.
I checked in at the Tom Thumb convenience store, then met with Brian to get all of my stuff refilled. The only problem was that we couldn’t find my little bottle of Endurolytes, so I ran over to the aid station to get some. They had a bottle that hadn’t been opened yet, so I tried to be patient while I waited, but I’m pretty sure I failed at that and that I probably behaved a lot like this:
Brawndo! It’s what Caitlins crave.
Before I continue, I need to take a second to talk about Brian’s role in this whole thing. A lot of ultrarunners will talk about how they couldn’t do what they do without their crew, and now I completely understand what they mean. Starting at mile 20, Brian met with me every two miles or so. He would set me up with a fresh ice bandana to wear around my neck, gave me a new handheld filled with fresh Accelerade. Later in the race, when I reverted to infancy and stopped being able to eat solid food, he made sure I drank at least half a calorie replacement shake every hour.
And then, as if that wasn’t enough, he would park the car and run up the trail to meet me, then pace me back to the car. He did this so many times that we estimated he put in a good twenty miles himself that day. He was the absolute best. The race could have easily turned into a death march, but his careful attentions ensured I had a wonderful time. (Mostly. More about that later.)
I felt really good for this stretch of the race as well, even though it was a less than ideal part of the course, a kind of dusty part of the highway that led through Big Pine Key. I was really happy when I checked in at about 4:52. I had three goals heading into this race. My C-goal was just to finish, preferably without medical attention. My B-goal was to finish in under 12 hours, which I had worked out by multiplying my slowest marathon (a 4:50, which I did in 2010) and adding two hours. And then there was my super secret A-goal that I didn’t share with anyone but Brian, and that was to come in as close to ten hours as I possibly could. I was on track to meet my A-goal.
The good feelings started to evaporate again at this point in the race. By this point I’d been out for five hours, and it was 3 p.m. The sun was overhead and had been baking the world for a few hours, so the heat was radiating back up at us from the road. Plus, I had to go to the bathroom something fierce. Brian had tried to shield me from the road while I did the squat-by-a-stand-of-trees thing, but I was afraid that the situation called for something more, uh, sanitary, so we started looking for a business that would let me use their bathroom. After a couple of failed tries, the staff at the Square Grouper finally let me use the bathroom. Without getting into too much detail, I can tell you that I was not at all dehydrated and that all systems were go.
I used the stop as an opportunity to wash my hands and face, as I had somehow over the course of the last five hours become completely filthy. My white sleeveless top was slowly turning yellow, both from my sweat and from the ink on my racing bib, and I was coated in stickiness from spray-on sunblock and Bodyglide. I had salt crusted all over my body, and I could see traces of dried snot around my nose from all of the snot rockets I’d been blowing thanks to my head cold. I was really gross, to be honest, and I still had about twenty-two miles to go before I could really clean myself up.
I noticed my filthy tank top was saturated with water and dripping onto my shoes, so I changed my top really quick. Then I got back on the road and started running a bit, but we were on an unshaded stretch of road where the only things around were shabby sun-bleached buildings and mangrove trees, and that combined with the direct sunlight wilted me.
I fell into a different run-walk pattern besides a woman who I’d seen earlier in the race, and we started talking. Her name was Sara and she was from Melbourne. She was doing the 50-miler uncrewed after several attempts at trying to do a 100-miler, and she was having a rough race as her drop bag (with new shoes and sunblock) was not at mile 20. I decided to stick with her until we saw Brian again, and I offered to get her set up with some sunblock and some fresh ice, which she took me up on. I felt for her. This was tough enough as it was, even if everything went according to plan. Extra obstacles were not really necessary.
After we met Brian, I bid Sara farewell and started running on my own pace again.
The landmark at mile 35 is Baby’s Coffee Shop, and I had told myself that I could start listening to my Dig Deep playlist at that point, but I was still in a pretty low spot well before then. My leg muscles were incredibly sore by this point, so I decided to just walk for a while. I didn’t just amble along, though – my pace was really brisk, walking at about 4 mph. I used this time to gather myself psychologically. I sensed that I was losing my focus, which in turn was allowing my energy levels to flag, so I gave myself a bit of a break. I switched over to my Dig Deep playlist well before I reached Baby’s and enjoyed the little bump in energy courtesy of the likes of Eminem and Azealia Banks.
It was during this time that I met with another runner, Mitch from Ohio. He was struggling with the heat, telling me that when he left Ohio it had been 37 degrees. We talked as we walked, laughing about things I don’t even remember but that seemed hilarious at the time, and by the time Brian met us on the trail, I was smiling and happy. Brian said he was so pleased to see me in such good spirits after my previous bout of droopiness.
By this point my tastebuds had joined my stomach in open revolution against the tyranny of solid food. Everything tasted horrible and burned to me, even water. The sight of my pretzels and Clif bar made me want to throw up. Brian made me drink more calorie shake, and then chase it down with some full-sugar Mountain Dew. Then he made me promise to take an energy gel as soon as I could stomach it.
This was unequivocally the high point of my race. The sun had retreated behind some cloud cover as it started to go down, and the slightly lower temperatures coupled with the influx of calories and caffeine helped me hit what I think was my fourth wind at this point, and I felt amazing. The soreness in my muscles didn’t bother me at all, and in fact I turned out my fastest mile of the entire race at mile 37, even though I had downshifted to a 2:1 run-walk ratio. My energy was back, my mind was totally engaged in what I was doing, and I was at a part of the race – the Saddlebunch Keys, which all had trails and bridges meant specifically for pedestrians – that I had known was going to be really nice.
And I’m not going to lie, I think part of my giddiness came from the fact that I was pushing into this heretofore unknown territory. I looked at my Garmin and saw a big 40 on the readout, and it was just so surreal to me that I could be on my feet for nearly eight hours, running for much of that time, covering forty miles and still feel like I could do more. It gave me a total psychological boost that lasted, oh, about another two miles.
During this time, Brian ran a lot with me. My need for ice had decreased along with the temperatures, and I wasn’t capable of taking in calories and liquid the way I was at the beginning, so I didn’t need as much in the way of physical attention. My mind and my heart is what needed the boost the most, and Brian was there to provide that. Every time he saw me, he was full of praise for me: how impressed he was by what I was doing, how strong I was, how tough, how it made him happy to see how much I was enjoying myself. It made me feel so good, as did all the props from the groups of relay runners I’d pass. There wasn’t a lot of crowd support at this race, but what there was was quality.
At one point we met a young lady by the name of Abigail, who was running up and down the trail in a pair of rubber huaraches, telling all of the racers how awesome we were. She ran with us for a while across some saltwater marsh flats, and listening to her and Brian energetically talk about running gave me something else to think about besides the fact that I still had a ways to go before I was going to be done.
Here is the point at which the wheels started to loosen from the wagon. The ten-hour goal had been in my sights for most of the race, but at this point, as I found myself needing to walk more and more, my dream of finishing in under ten hours started to slip from view. I kept pushing forward, though, across the Boca Chica Channel and back onto the bay side of the highway. I was reaching the point in the race at which I just wanted to be done. I knew I had only about a 10K left to go but unlike 10K under normal circumstances, this was going to take me well over an hour to complete.
We met at mile 45 at a gas station just before we entered Key West so I could put on my reflective vest and my blinking lights. Dusk was just starting to fall, but the race regulations said anyone on the course after 7:30 had to wear this gear, and I didn’t want to face the possibility of being DQed so close to the end.
At this point I also had to go to the bathroom something fierce. (If you are not interested in reading about this, skip ahead.) My ability to run had been hampered in the past couple of miles by the distinct feeling that I was going to crap myself, so when I came to the gas station, I hobbled over to the bathroom and waited in line. A female racer I’d seen on the course came out of the men’s bathroom, and because I was at the point where I was like, fuck propriety, this poop is not going to wait around for social convention, I went in after her, dropped my shorts and sat down. What happened next was one of the most bizarre experiences in my excretory life. It had all the sensory hallmarks of a serious shitstorm, but when I stood up to flush, THE TOILET WAS EMPTY. I was baffled by my phantom explosive poop.
I cleaned myself up, then burst out of the bathroom, where I startled a gentleman waiting in line. I can only imagine what it must have looked like from his perspective: a sweaty wild-eyed woman in filthy running gear and a half-crazed grimace busting out of the men’s room. I apologized for scaring him, and he just laughed and told me good luck with whatever it was I was doing.
Brian and I parted once again and he drove up the course, parked and ran back in time to meet me as I crossed the bridge to Key West. At this point, Katy Perry’s “Roar” was on my iPod, and I have to say, my intellect knows that song is three-and-a-half minutes of sugar-coated pop-psychology feel-good platitudinal bullshit, but when it comes on during a tough run I am often overcome with emotion. This time was no different. I started sobbing – or, rather, I would have had my tear ducts been able to produce any spare salt water – as I ran.
I was experiencing a lot of mixed emotions at this time. Part of me was like, holy shit I made it to Key West this is completely unreal I have dreamed of this for so long. But then the other part of me was like, I have been running for nine hours and I still have four and a half miles to go before I’m done this is the stupidest thing I have ever done why are you such a fool woman you could have spent this entire vacation sipping daiquiris by the pool moron I hate you so much.
My legs refused to run. I tried over and over again but I could only muster the speed of a geriatric land tortoise at this point. I realized that I could speed-walk faster than I could run, so for two of the last three miles of the race, I tried to channel the race-walkers in the 2012 Olympics. I had about three miles to go when I passed this guy who was crewing for another runner, a guy whose visor and chiseled calves just screamed “running coach” to me, and he cheered me on with “Way to go, Xena Warrior Princess!” I smiled big at him, even though my face was aching by this time. Anyone who ever wants to get in my good graces can do so by referring to me unironically as Xena.
The last stretch of the race was along a wide sidewalk that hugged the southern edge of the island, which meant I was walking along the Atlantic Ocean for most of the end of the race. The sun was going down, there was a wedding going on on Smathers Beach, and I could enjoy none of it because I was so tired and sore. Brian finally found me – later he told me he was surprised it took him as long to find me as it had – and he walked with me for a while. By this time, sub-ten hours had come and gone. After a little bit, he told me, “I’m going to get you to the finish line in under 10:30, but you have to start running.”
And so we did. For the last mile and a half, I shuffled along the race course with Brian motivating me the whole way. (We came upon the lady who wrote this gorgeous race report at this point in the race.) Finally we turned the last corner to Higgs Beach, and there was the finish line. A whole mess of relay runners were partying on the beach, eating burgers and drinking beer and listening to music and cheering on all the finishers. Night had just about fallen and all I could see was the light around the blue inflatable arch, and I ran as hard as I could toward the light.
I crossed the finish line in 10:27.
If you had asked me earlier how I would react when I crossed the finish line of my first 50-miler, I would have said that I thought I would burst into tears and maybe jump up and down. I didn’t do that. Instead I just smiled, accepted the medal and posed for some pictures under the arch. Then I hobbled to a folding chair by the water and collapsed into it. Brian got me some water, which I tried to drink even though it tasted awful, and offered to get me a beer. (Mark down May 17 as a momentous day in my personal history, as it was the first time I’ve ever refused an offer of free post-race beer.) He then took off my shoes, and I looked away as he peeled off my toesocks. I expected to see carnage, but instead, somehow I’d escaped with only five or six intact blisters.
Then he left me alone for a bit while he got my sandals from the car and got me some food. I sat quietly by the water and observed the serenity that enveloped me. I was proud of myself, no doubt, and I was sore and tired but it was all overridden by this immense sense of well-being that engulfed me like a warm blanket. The feeling didn’t leave for several days, even though my quads hurt so much that going to the bathroom became a Herculean task and even though the head cold became so bad that I spent an entire day on the couch surrounded by wadded up tissues. The physical discomfort was nothing compared to the glow I felt emanating from my heart.
We stuck around long enough to cheer for the top 100-miler finisher, who came in shortly after I finished. We witnessed history when that happened, and so it deserves a post of its own. And then I wanted to go back to the hotel room and take a shower.
Later, we laid in bed and I looked over all of the messages my friends and family had left on Facebook – Brian had taken photos of me along the race course and posted them – and I came across a comment from my sister-in-law, Jill, who said I had come in first in my age group. WHAT?! We went and checked out the race results, and sure enough, I was listed as the top finisher in the female 30-34 age group.
I didn’t believe it. I thought it had to be a mistake. Even the next day, when all of the finishers were listed and I saw that my nearest competitor in my age group finished exactly an hour behind me, I still didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it until the awards ceremony on Higgs Beach, when I heard my name called and I was handed my age group award. At that point I had to accept that, yes, it had actually happened. I was first in my age group, the 11th female finisher and the 29th finisher overall. I had done this during my first-ever 50-mile race.
My legs have healed up and my blisters have all gone away, and already I’m thinking that I’d like to take another whack at the 50-mile distance, to see if I can break ten hours. Brian thinks he’d like to run the race with me, so there’s been talk about doing the Keys 50 in 2015. I would happily do it again. It was probably the hardest physical undertaking I’d ever done, but it was the most rewarding too. I suspect I have a bit of ability at these longer distances, and I’d like to explore that and see what I’m capable of. Because while I gave this race everything I had, I feel like I’m capable of doing even more.
But for now, I’m enjoying my recovery time and savoring the feeling of accomplishment that came with finishing the race. There will undoubtedly be other races, but you only ever complete your first race at any given distance once, and I’m enjoying that feeling while it lasts.