Keys100. My Favourite DNF.

My favourite types of races are runnable ones in the sunshine, and in December 2022 I ran Daytona100, 100 miles along the North Florida coast which I absolutely loved. And it was here I learnt that the RD had another race, Keys100, 100 miles along the Overseas Highway in Florida Keys, in hotter conditions, which sounded like my perfect race! I tend to race well in heat and most of my best results are from hot races, and I know how to heat train/manage myself in the heat, so whilst I knew the May conditions in Keys would be challenging, I was confident I could prepare well, even after training through a UK winter/spring.

Training had gone like a dream and I’d spent the month pre-race doing lots of heat acclimatisation – a minimum of 5 100 degree Celsius saunas a week, hot yoga and layered heat acclimatisation runs. I always maintain if you sign up to run a hot race you don’t want to experience it on a ‘cool year’ and feel short-changed, however as we got closer to race day, the temperatures in Keys were getting hotter and hotter with the highest ever May temperatures recorded, and the whole of Keys was under a heat advisory warning on race day. I was looking forward to the heat but feared we were entering ‘bit too hot’ territory!

When does hot become ‘too hot’?!

I had a plan that got me round in just under 20 hours. I based this on Spartathlon where I went through 100 miles in 18:47 and it felt relatively ‘easy’, I knew Keys was going to be hotter than Spartathlon so would be slower, but I had another 53 miles to run at Spartathlon, and after looking at previous results, sub 20 hours felt achievable.

I’d been put in the first start wave for Keys (groups of runners set off at 5 minute intervals to spread vehicle traffic on the road to Key West) and even at 5:20am the heat was oppressive and into the 30s. I always tell people I’m not a sweaty runner (Tom and I did a sweat test a few years ago and he was 3x sweatier than me!) but at Keys within 90 minutes (and the sun hadn’t even come up yet) my clothes were so wet it looked I’d just stepped out of a shower in them, and the humidity is so high they didn’t dry out until I took them off at the hotel at the end!

There are no CPs in Keys and you’re fully reliant on your crew. I’m normally really low maintenance to crew and see Tom every 90 minutes for a quick fresh drinks/new gels pitstop and there is no hanging about as I pride myself on my efficiency! At Keys it was a completely different story, I was seeing Tom every 3-4 miles (sometimes even more frequently), sometimes I’d even sit down (I never sit down in ultras!) whilst we tried to cool me down with ice in any shade he had found, I’d drink lots of fluids, and when my core temperature had dropped, I’d put on a new ice bandana, stuff my bra and hat with ice and set off again.

Meeting Tom at the first crew point – one of the few times I felt I smiled during the race!

I realised within a couple of hours this was not a day to aim for a time, so I abandoned all time goals and my only aim was to get to Key West. And I was totally happy with that, I have no ego when it comes to my running, and it was going to be a race more about managing yourself in the heat, rather than running for a time.

I’m a huge advocate of running to effort and not pace/HR so I knew when I felt I could get some ‘good’ running in (good running was 11 minute mile pace!) and when to walk. After 25 miles I felt I was really struggling in the heat but Tom told me I was only about 5-10 minutes behind 1st and currently 3rd/4th which surprised me, but it seemed everyone was finding it tough.

The run/overheat/walk/cool down cycle continued and I had underestimated how frustrating I would find this. I love to run and want to run 100 miles, not run/walk 100 miles. My Garmin at the end told me I’d run for 11:30 hours and walked for 6 hours, which was pretty depressing as I’d come to run! What made it more frustrating was that my legs felt good and wanted to run and my stomach felt great. Some runners struggle with nutrition in the heat, I’m the opposite and was taking 2 MF Jelly’s an hour (which were giving me 40-50g carbs), MF drinks which gave me another 40g a bottle, and then every hour was drinking a bottle of iced tea – I love iced tea in ultras but it’s pointless drinking the sugar-free version we get in the UK, sugar tax in the US isn’t a thing and each bottle was giving me an extra 240 calories. I managed to keep this up for the entire duration I ran with no sickness whatsoever.

I never take salt tablets and extra electrolytes, even when racing in hot conditions, and in fact electrolytes normally make me sick, but after a depressing 2 mile walk through ‘Hell’s Tunnel’ my hands had massively swelled up, and as soon as I saw Tom he knew I needed salt. Fortunately, having a husband as sweaty as Tom means he never goes on holiday without salt tablets (he was even taking them to crew!) and I started taking a salt tablet every hour which was a first for me but my hands went back to their normal size.

I’d been meeting Tom so regularly since the sun had come up, but at mile 53 I had to cross a 7 mile bridge where no crew access is allowed. I like to think I’m a very level-headed runner and don’t get caught up with hyperboles of how tough things are, but this stretch was really quite miserable! It was so hot that my ice had melted in 5-10 minutes and without ice I’d overheat, and even though I carried 3 bottles of drinks, my progress over the bridge was really pitiful and at one point I could have sat down on the side of the road and had a little cry!

Heading out over Seven Mile Bridge

Tom was waiting at the other and after sitting in the shade and cooling me down I started to feel more human again. I had 40 miles to go, I’d crossed the toughest part of the course and the sun was going to go down in a couple of hours, which after hours of running in the sunshine with no shade felt like a dream!

The state of someone who’d just crossed Seven Mile Bridge!
The welcome sight of the sun setting over Florida Keys

Although the sun went down, the temperature barely dropped so nighttime conditions didn’t really feel much cooler than the daytime. Post-race the US National Weather Service revealed that temperatures peaked at 45 degrees on race day, this equalled the all-time ever highest temperature recorded on Florida Keys, and was 10-15 degrees higher than it would normally be at this time of year. I thought because I’d done so much walking in the day that when it got ‘cooler’ I’d be able to do more running. My legs still felt great and wanted to run, but the most I could manage was a 2 mile stretch of running, before I started to overheat, and then would have to walk a couple of miles until I next saw Tom for more cooling.

I really wasn’t enjoying myself. I know ultras are going on be hard at times and I don’t shy away from hard, but this was just miserable. Normally when I get to the final quarter and the knowledge there’s ‘just’ a marathon to go, I know I’m on the ‘home straight’. Here when I got to this point all I could think was how long it would take me to run/walk to the finish. Even at the pitiful pace I was moving I was still in 3rd/4th and was on track to finish under 24 hours, but I realised I just didn’t care about finishing. I don’t run for medals and they go straight in the bin, I don’t run for Strava kudos and Instagram likes, I don’t run to prove anything to anyone, I run for the simple reason I love running, but this was bringing me no joy. I hadn’t been so miserable in a race since I was clambering over boulders in the Pyrenees in 2018, and I thought why am I doing this?! I had no excuses to stop (apart from heat rash on my legs I was surprisingly unscathed), but I didn’t have any good reasons to continue.

By the time I next met Tom I’d made my mind up to drop, and as soon as I stopped my watch I felt the happiest I’d felt since about 8am in the morning and I couldn’t have been happier with my DNF!

I haven’t got anything negative to say about Keys100 – the course and Florida Keys are stunning and Bob Becker, the RD, is one of the nicest and most helpful men in ultra running, and the race organisation was superb. And on a ‘normal’ hot year, when it would be more of a running race, I am sure it would have been pretty much my ideal race!

Big thank you to James for being the best coach and completely ‘getting’ my DNF and the biggest thank you Tom for being a dream crew. Every time Tom crews me at a race I tell him he’s the best crew ever, he tells me he’s just good at following spreadsheets, but I genuinely could not have done 78.5 miles without his elite level crewing/spreadsheet following.

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