On Friday, the day before the start of the Keys 100 race, I looked at the forecast for the Upper Keys and screamed in delight: partly cloudy, zero percent chance of rain, with a high of 79 degrees, humidity at just 65 percent and north to northeast winds at 25 miles per hour.
“You can’t ask for better weather,” race director Bob Becker told the nervous and excited runners crowded into a banquet room of the Holiday Inn in Key Largo.
He was so right. Normally at this time of year, the Keys feel like a sauna, with high humidiy and temperatures reaching the 90s. And rarely is there a cooling and hellacious heavenly tailwind for the island-hopping route along the Overseas Highway to Key West.
This was just the weather I had been praying for since months earlier, when Rosie Sanchez, a nurse at Mariners Hospital in Tavernier, persuaded me and four others (her husband, my husband, her cousin and his wife) to run the Keys 100 as a relay team.
I had covered the race in 2008, when Sister Mary Elizabeth Lloyd ran the 100-mile individual race in a calf-length black habit to raise money for orphans. She got 40 miles behind her before the high temperatures, humidity and other issues did her in.
Running the race sounded like a fun idea at the time. But when the alarm clock went off at 4:30 a.m. Friday, I was hoping my training had paid off.
But wait. I don’t train. I wing it. In the three weeks leading up to the race, I ran about six miles total. I spent the rest of my free time playing tennis and renovating our main bathroom, which we originally thought would take a weekend.
Instead of pounding the pavement to get into running shape, I was tiling and grouting. I’m sure it works the same muscles.
The first team task in preparing for the race was concocting a cool-sounding name. Rosie’s cousin, Dino Ninassi, came up with ours: Agony of De Feet.
Other wacky team names this year included Zipper Suited Sun Gods, Rum Runnin & Booty Chasin, 3 Chicks & 3 Sticks, I thought they Said RUM?!, Suck It Up!, Draggin Anchor, Marga-Relay-Ville, Chafing the Dream, Beerlievers and Your Pace or Mine. (Although as we got closer to Margaritaville, the most appropriate team name was The Running Dead.)
The next step was to come up with the entry fee of about $600 per team, unless you raise triple that amount for the worthy charity, the Cancer Foundation of the Florida Keys.
Then you train. Or not. Dino and his wife, Julie, who own an architect consulting company, did. They’re early birds who rise at 4:30 a.m. to religiously run in their hometown of Celebration.
Rosie and her husband Nelson, a marine patrol deputy with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, said they were pretty good about putting in the miles, as well. My husband, Mark Coleman, a detective sergeant with the sheriff’s office, began with good intentions. But May turned out to be unseasonably windy, so instead of running like he was supposed to, my husband was kiteboarding.
Dino carefully crafted our master running strategy, deciding who should run each leg, averaging about 2.3 miles. Since he had never been south of Islamorada before, Dino had no idea who was getting the segments with the breathtaking vistas of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico and who was getting the construction-filled jaunts past gas stations and convenience stores.
But the well-planned strategy sheet would be a scribbled mess at the end, as we went to plan B due to an injury and the realization that Dino shouldn’t run a double leg before tackling the longest segment of the race, the 7-Mile Bridge. Thanks to plan B, Nelson was the lucky one who ended up running Hell’s Tunnel, a narrow off-road trail through a seemingly never-ending row of trimmed trees that bakes runners in the midday sun as they enter Marathon.
When Dino started the race for us, at 5:55 a.m. Saturday, it was cold. After the start, we climbed into our team van decorated with four sneakers dangling from the bumper. Our team, which range in age from 38 to 52, was not speedy, but we were steady.
I learned long ago the key to running is a good play list. My 44 songs included The Cars’ Let the Good Times Roll. It reminds me of my dad, who died of a heart attack five years ago. At my toughest point of the race, during a boring leg in Marathon, that song played. I looked up and thanked my dad.
We took out a row in the van to accomodate a big cooler filled with water and Gatorade. We continuously munched on cookies, energy bars, oranges, bananas, crackers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and other fuel to replace the 100 calories or so we burned with each mile of running.
We all got an hour break while Dino ran the 7-Mile Bridge. As we waited for him, Dave Krupski passed by us first. His wife told us it was his 12th 100-mile race.
All was going well until Rosie pulled a muscle right before the 7-Mile Bridge. She gutted out her next leg, but we all could tell by her limp that she was done for the day.
We divided her remaining miles. By this point, we all had pain somewhere. “Next year our team name will be Agony of De Body,” Rosie said.
But with 17 miles to go, the group got inspiration to finish strong from Don Lister, a Vietnam veteran who was running the 50-mile individual race at age 70.
As the orange sun set over the horizon, the skies turned dark. We wore mandated reflective vests, blinkers and headlamps. Becker made a good point for obeying the rules: You want to make sure the guy who has just left Duval Street after 17 cocktails can see you.
All of us ran at least 17 miles, excluding Rosie — who had run a personal best of 9.3 in one day before her injury. Julie took us home, running the last 2.1 miles before we joined her about 200 yards from Higgs Beach so we could cross the finish line as a team just before 10:30 p.m.
Team Agony of De Feet would end up beating Krupski, but we were slower than four other individual runners. Alyson Venti, 31, was the overall 100-mile winner in 14 hours, 42 minutes and 45 seconds. We hadn’t even reached the 75-mile marker at that point. Grant Maughan was the first male to complete the 100 miles, 10 minutes and 19 seconds after Venti.
It took us 16 hours, 19 minutes and 50 seconds, good for 97th place. We were well behind BT’s Road Warriors, an all-male team from Palm Beach County, who broke the team record in 9 hours, 16 minutes and 20 seconds. But we finished six hours ahead of Conchin Along, a team from Sebastian, that rolled in as the last of 118 relay teams.
We celebrated with dinner and a good night’s sleep. As we were having brunch the next day, Lee Lingo, 42, became the last to officially finish at just over 32 hours. He was the 105th 100-miler, with 31 others calling it quits. All 109 people who ran the 50-mile race finished.
On our drive back to the Upper Keys, we marveled at the distance we had run.
“Not many people can say they did this,” Nelson said. “But don’t ask me to do it again.”