It happens every year: runners include the word “deceptive”—as in, “deceptively hard”—when describing their KEYS100 race experience. The race looks simple, really. The course is nearly a straight shot along Overseas Highway until you reach Key West, and then there are only a couple of turns to the finish line on Higgs Beach. It’s flat except for a handful of bridges along the way. For 80% of the race, runners traverse bike paths, service roads or pedestrian bridges. And, there are plenty of opportunities to meet your crew for whatever support you might need. Yet, the finishing rate is around 60%. Again.
At KEYS100, the temperature and humidity were high, but not impossibly so: mid-to-upper 80s for most of the day, with a breeze for part of it. In the evening there were a few showers along the route. If your arrival at the finish line was in the middle of the night, you were welcomed with an enormous rain squall that soaked the beach for an unusual three hours. But, consider the daytime temperature and humidity, then add the intensity of that sub-tropical sun, and you’ve just defined your challenge. The sum of its parts makes the heat your most significant impediment. Manage it successfully and you will do quite well running across more than 40 islands that reach their end at the finish arch on the Higgs Beach.
Brett Sanborn has it figured out. This Albuquerque, NM, resident won the individual 100-miler in 14:27:16. Sanborn didn’t beat his own record of 13:20:18 set during the last race in 2019, but his time was still in the top three of all-time, nonetheless. Liza Howard found the key, too, finishing in 17:49:34 as the women’s champ, in spite of the unseasonably chilly weather in her hometown of San Antonio, TX. Jordan Tropf of Silver Spring, MD, set a new 50-mile race record of 6:43:02. One relay team ran 100 miles in 9:25, and another in 9:30. Yes, stellar performances like these are beautiful to watch, always inspiring and are as much a part of race day in the Florida Keys as the disappointment of DNF.
This year’s race had the most significant changes necessary to obtain permits requiring a minimum of person-to-person contact, due to COVID restrictions. And these translated mostly to the social side of this iconic Florida race experience. The finish line at Higgs Beach is the ideal spot for the big party celebration that would otherwise take place under a huge tent next to the finish arch. All the food and beer and camaraderie you’d expect are always there, with an optional dip in the ocean if you wish. An awards ceremony on Sunday wouldn’t be complete without Gary Hempsey and his band providing live music. Even packet pick-up under the tiki hut in Key Largo before the race is a celebration and an excellent time to catch-up with friends and make new ones. Unfortunately, none of that was possible this year for the 800 athletes who came to run. Keeping our distance meant packet pick-up was drive-by only. Finish line volunteers cheered arrivals and awarded medals and buckles. But after a short time, finishers and their crews left that part of the beach to cooperate with the social distancing requirement of the race permit and begin their celebration elsewhere.
What’s in store for 2022? Expectations for the third Saturday in May next year are a return to the great celebration of Florida ultrarunning that KEYS100 has become. Oh, there will be a share of first-timers who will underestimate the heat and, therefore, the race’s “deceptive” difficulty. Most will promise to return and gain their revenge the next time. But all will agree that the setting is spectacular, the race experience unique, and the island vibe like a personal invitation to this very special part of America. Join us then for one of America’s premier road ultramarathons.