Running the 2022 Keys 100 Ultramarathon
- 75–80 mile weeks in March with a 55 mile DIY ultra. (Got injured and made gait adjustments)
- 3 weekends of back-to-back super longs (23 + 25 miles)
- 2 weeks of back-to-back 100 miles during April
- 1 DIY 28 mile Ultra on the last day of April
- 3 weeks of Dry sauna training, 3 weeks of Steam room training. 2x Sessions a week. (Lifesaver for this race!)
- Lots of spreadsheets and google doc planning
- 19 months of running experience total, this was my first 100-miler.
- 1x Ultrarunning GOAT acting as my hype-man (Jason Romero)
- Clif bars, Chex mix, Mint Oreos, Bbq Lays chips, Sweet Chili Doritos, Ginger Ale, and Mango juice (All vegan).
- Salt pills & Tailwind for electrolytes. (Switched to Tailwind after the halfway point)
- Tapioca starch (Anti-bonking)
📷 All photos by my brother, Feifan Zhou
I slept pretty well, and woke up at 4AM to make sure I’d have enough time to poop and get ready by 5:30AM. My Whoop showed that I was finally back with a green recovery after over a week of yellows since I had a mild cold leading up to the race.
We encountered traffic getting into the Keys from Homestead, so I ended up arriving with only 10 minutes left. I did my dynamic warmup while in line for the porta potties next to Diver’s Direct, and unfortunately ended up with the middle one (the one with poop smeared all over the seat). It was very much a game of Russian roulette 😬. I rushed back to the car afterwards and got all my stuff on and jogged over to the start line. I’d already missed my initial wave at 6:30, but lined up to go at 6:33.
Mile Markers 100–80
The heat didn’t feel too bad yet (perception wise, it was never that bad through the day because of my heat training), but I noticed immediately that my heart rate was hovering around 150. I don’t remember too much from the first 5 miles, but I think I stopped a couple times to adjust some tape on my big toe, and to shake out pebbles that fell in.
The first crew stop was at J&M Scaffolding, where I met up with my dad, brother, Brian (pacer + crew chief), and Christine (my girlfriend). At this point, I was already covered in a layer of sweat, and it was time for an ice bandana + ice under the hat. This crew stop took about four minutes which was fine considering that everyone was a first timer.
Each stop going forward would follow the same formula:
- Brian would meet me some ways ahead and walk me in
- Prior to the stop, I’d radio my crew if I needed a theragun/roller, and with what snacks I was craving
- I’d have the old bandana replaced with a new one, and have the ice under my hat refilled
- I’d add a new Clif bar to my vest, and munch on either Oreos, Chex mix, chili Doritos, or Bbq Lays Chips.
Next up was Coral Shores High School at around mile 90, where the first timing mat was located. This took me a bit longer than 2 hours to reach, and was the first time I peed. This was something I knew I had to pay attention to for dehydration purposes. This first stream was mostly colorless so I knew I was doing well. Pretty soon I was peeing very frequently (as I normally do during training), so I stopped paying too much attention.
My hydration strategy, which worked flawlessly, was a 500ml handheld + around 1L of regular water which would be replaced or topped up at each stop. For the first 50 miles I would also take 1 salt pill on the odd hours, and 2 on the even hours. The second half’s electrolytes were handled by Tailwind.
After the 10 mile mark, we ran on a quiet residential/service road that ran parallel to the highway for a bit.
A couple more crew stops go by, around 3 miles apart each, and the dreaded urge to poop comes up. Poop I did at a CVS, and it was not the last time I had to during the race. I think I ended up with a grand total of 3 or 4 times, which is impressive for someone who never had to go at all during my last longest distance of 76 miles.
Mile Markers 80–60
“Getting what I came here for: Turquoise water. Made even better by green tinted sunglasses”
Here’s where the race started to get scenic! Bridge crossings occurred between Upper & Lower Matecumbe Keys, Islamorada, Long Key, and Duck Key. My memory of the race starts to get fuzzy around here, but I do remember that it was nice to have a strong breeze over each bridge, and I still didn’t think the weather was that hot.
This section contained some bike paths and large iguanas sunbathing on the pavement. Around MM 70, the sun was starting to come out and the heat was starting to affect a lot of people. I passed a runner who was on the ground and asked his pacer if he was alright. I forget exactly what he said, but I think it was a cramping issue. Some point later, an ambulance whizzed by, and I heard from another crew car that someone had collapsed (yikes).
The Channel 5 Bridge (second longest of the race) was coming up and was super cool to see the water on both sides. There was an abandoned section of the Overseas Railroad off to the right! Runners were supposed to cross over to the ocean side to run against traffic, but I couldn’t find a safe opening with the cars passing by, so I just took out my headphones and headed up the bay side. As I was approaching the top, I saw a figure coming towards me. I freaked out a bit because I thought it was a race marshal, but it turned out to just be Brian who was trying to fit in enough pacing miles throughout the race to have done an ultra as well.
MM 70–60 consisted mostly of running on fishing bridges which were incredibly cool. The fishers had tents set up along the bridge where they would chill, and most people nodded and gave thumbs ups as runners went past. There was one stretch where I could really excited, because the fishing bridge was high enough where I could not only see the Atlantic to my left, but also the Gulf of Mexico to my right.
While crossing the final fishing bridge, I started noticing that my left foot was swelling and pushing against the outside of my shoe. I took an extra salt pill to see if that would work, but swapped shoes just to be safe. I wore Hoka Clifton 8’s (2E) throughout. The next section I did more walking than running as it was getting to be the hottest part of the day, and I had the mantra of “getting to night time feeling good”. I passed a few people who were also walking and found out many people did not do any prior heat training, so they were having a hard time.
Close to mile 40 was a crew stop at The Lagoon, which was a tucked away spot where water sports were happening. I think I took my third poop of the race here 💩.
Mile Markers 60–40
“Huh, not that bad!”
A couple miles after the lagoon was the entrance to Hell’s tunnel. At this point, each mile was beginning to feel like a battle, and this would continue onwards until the end. A sheriff helped runners cross back over to the bay side where the bike path through Hell’s tunnel began. I was ready for smothering heat to envelope me…. which it never did. Sometimes it pays to be slow AF hehe. I think I got to this section around 6 or 6:30 PM. so the sun was starting to set and it felt relatively cool along this foliage path. At the halfway stop, I had to address some blisters that were forming on my outer toes. My feet were still pushing up against the shoe.
From the second half of Hell’s tunnel to around MM53, I started to push myself to keep running again and do more of it than walking. I felt a bit lazy was I did much more walking during the hottest part of the day, and felt like I should start putting my plan to run through the night to work. This stretch of 4 or 5 miles was relatively fast as a result, and soon it was time to put on night gear.
Christine paced me from MM53 to MM50, and we ran past an airport which was pretty cool. I passed the halfway point at 8:30PM, around 14 hours since the start. We were on Marathon Key which is really big, and ran through a town center with strip malls on both sides. I got the craving for some vegan nuggets from KFC (which they have in NYC), that Christine went off to find. Unfortunately this was Florida and they had never heard of vegan nuggets before 🙄. I ended up settling for Wendy’s fries just before crossing seven mile bridge, my favorite and least favorite part of the whole race.
By now, I was finding it harder to run as the hours started to catch up to my circadian rhythm. Each mile started to become a battle, and my mantra here was “just suck it up and run, it hurts more to walk and stop, so I might as well keep moving”. Much of the blisters I had at this point were likely because my feet weren’t used to walking that much in the earlier heat. Mentally I was still pretty aloof and had been cracking jokes up until this point, but I could feel that I’d need to get focused real soon.
My secret weapon here is using a teaspoon or more of tapioca starch in my water every 2 hours. It’s a big starch molecule, which slows absorption helps prevent bonking and has kept me mentally fresh for a long time.
The bridge was gnarly, and quite honestly the most primal experience I’ve ever had in my life. By the time I went up the ramp it was past 9PM and pitch black out. We ran against traffic on the shoulder, with traffic cones separating us from the cars. Having done most of my training on the streets in New York, I wasn’t too phased by the traffic.
There was a strong wind blowing in from my left side, which was nice, but caused my bandana to flap around everywhere. On both sides of the bridge was a dark abyss, and above me was a wide open sky with more stars than I’ve ever seen before. There were a few period where there were no oncoming cars in the distance, and the only sign of life were the blinking lights of runners about a mile ahead of me. During these patches, I’d turn my headlamp off, and tilt my head up to marvel at the stars. It was so incredibly surreal, and really did feel like we were drifting off into a limbo space, only to be brought back by the approaching headlights of cars.
I wanted to get off as soon as possible, so early on I tried to push the pace a little to maintain 12:30’s. Halfway through, I really needed to pee. Since I couldn’t really back off on water, I had to wait for a dark patch where there were no cars in either direction and no runners for a while behind me to go.
The second half was rougher going — my upper legs were starting to hurt, and I had to stop every five minutes or so to stretch out against the side of the bridge. I do remember, however, tapping into some sort of flow during the last mile where I managed to run all of it down the bridge to where my crew waited. It was such a relief to have finally completed that section.
Mile Markers 40–20
“This section suuuucked ”
My first overnight, and definitely harder than I expected. It was mostly quiet sidewalk running with some pedestrian bridges through residential and industrial areas. I did also spot 2 Key Deer grazing next to the sidewalk.
Blisters also came out in full force here. I developed one on the pinky toe and the one next to it on each foot over seven mile bridge, so that had to be handled as soon as I got off. Each time tape was applied, it felt like walking on fire in that spot. I wasn’t sure if we were popping them properly, and asked the crew of a couple guys I’d leapfrogged during the day for help. They taped my toes the same way, so I had to accept at this point that I was going to have to live with the pain.
A few miles down the road, the blister on my right pinky toe got filled with blood so that had to be drained again. Brian and Christine took turns pacing me through the night which I really appreciated, since it was definitely very lonely and a bit creepy (especially the buzzing electrical towers and dark patches of sea)
The Theragun also started to provide limited relief to my upper IT band area and bottom of my feet, so every time I started towards the next crew stop, everything would hurt super bad. It was the same routine of shuffling slowly until we reached the road, and then slowly trying to run again. I soon lost track of time.
I reached MM 32 around 3AM, and one of the race officials was pulling out of the driveway telling people that we had to be at MM25 by 7AM. There were a lot of runners here sitting in the dreaded chair, looking very exhausted. I’d also developed a blister on the ball of my foot which felt huge and squishy, but couldn’t be drained because it was under a patch of calloused skin. The best we could do, was put another piece of tape across my foot where it was. It felt like it was on fire every time I put weight on it, but I had to continue. From here, until just before MM 20, I put my head down, and tried to run as much of it as possible. A mid-foot strike didn’t impact the blister as much as walking did.
I remember coming into the MM25 timing mat before 5AM while still running, and having a volunteer tell me I was looking strong. They offered chicken soup, which I unfortunately couldn’t have, and didn’t have a medic anymore to look at my blister. I don’t think I cared anymore at that point, and just wanted to suffer through to get to the finish faster.
75 miles was the first mental checkpoint that I felt good about, since I’d be inside of weekend long run territory. It still felt very daunting, but I knew it was eventually doable. 25 miles left, soon became 23 and then 22 which I somehow felt much better about since we were approaching the 20 mile mark.
Unfortunately, that’s when my upper calf and a tendon behind my right knee got inflamed, so I could no longer fully push off or extend that leg. That meant I was stuck with a death march until the end. Through most of the night, I’d been running mental calculations on how much time I had left. The most optimistic put me a bit past 10AM, and I’d rely on the thought of only ‘X’ hours left until this is over to give me hope. With no more running, the number of hours left, bounced back up and started becoming a moving target. Around MM 20, the sun came up, and day turned out to be sunny and hot rather than cloudy as the forecast had predicted yesterday.
Mile Markers 20–0
The hardest section by far. I was limping, and knew that I had another long run left to do before it could be over. I was struggling to keep up an 18:30 pace, and each mile marker came excruciatingly slow. Every time I saw one in the distance, I’d do a happy dance mentally. My mind played a cruel trick at MM 16, where I thought it said MM 14 instead. That’s a solid 40 minute difference!
I was laid out on the road at MM 18 with my running mentor, Jason Romero, on call trying to teach my crew how to tape up the back of my leg to make it hurt a bit less. I had a bit of a temper tantrum here as we were wasting time in my mind trying to fix something I knew I could suck up. Every wasted minute here was excruciating, as it pushed my mental ETA back, and meant more time stuck on the course.
There was nothing I could do, except swing my arms and try to maintain the same pace so that I could at least finish in around 31 hours. This section’s mundane scenery wasn’t very helpful either, although I was so focused on making it to the end, that I wasn’t looking around anymore
In those 5 hours, I constantly asked myself why I was still doing this. I was way beyond my projected time, my foot was on fire, the back of my knee hurt, and I couldn’t even run anymore. To top all that off, I’d have to face all this for another freaking five hours.
That’s when the beauty of Ultra showed. I never truly believed the thoughts of wanting to DNF, because the solution was so simple. I just had to keep moving, nothing less, nothing more, and I’d be at the finish line with medal and buckle in hand. Every step forward was once step closer, there’s rarely anything else in life that’s that easy. Luckily I’d done all my back to back long runs for time, so I was used to spending 6 hours outside a day. It was just a matter of waiting out the clock, while having the finish line image in my head guiding me.
Around this time, I ran into another runner (found out his name was Ken afterwards) and his pacer near crew stops. Their encouragement was awesome during this period of extreme lows, and I could see they were hurting as well. I ran into Ken again when we finally crossed into Key West as we both hobbled across the road to the other side.
I’d visualized myself crossing the finish a few times during the last 10 miles, and each time, tears would start forming.
Key West was cruel. We were so close to the finish, yet had to do a big 4 mile loop around the perimeter to make it to Higgs beach. The water was definitely nice, but I was so done at that point. It was crazy to imagine that I could taste success, yet had to wait another hour and a half to reach it.
With 2 miles to go, I was having to stop often and try to stretch whatever I could. It didn’t do much, but at least it was a little mental reset trying to pretend that I was done.
To everyone not running, 2 miles is a breeze, but that was still an eternity to everyone who had to walk it in. I had no idea what the finish line looked like, so with every beach we passed by, I’d get my hopes up only to have them be crushed.
There were a bunch of turns into the residential area of the island before we finally reached the final straightaway to Higgs beach. Even then, the finish mat was hidden behind a garden. My hopes crashed every time there was a new turn coming up — I just wanted to see the darn finish line!!! The last mile was the longest of my life.
Crossing the finish line, didn’t bring about a wave of joy as I thought it would. I’d expected to get emotional — like I did watching finishers arrive on Youtube, but I didn’t feel anything. I was too emotionally drained. Maybe it would have been different if I could still run at that point, but I was so focused on being able to finally sit and see a medic about my leg, that it barely registered that I’d finished.
I made my way after to the finishers tent and chowed down a couple of veggie burgers. Ken was sitting here, and I found that Calum, a guy from Leicester who I’d met online, had also made it. He had to walk the last 60 miles!! It was 1PM Sunday at this point, so we’d already missed the awards ceremony. I heard anecdotally that not many people had finished. I was still under the impression that the weather hadn’t been too bad, but the final finish rate came out to be 51.9%, the lowest in race history.
There were a handful of 18–24 year olds who started the race, but it was just me and Pierce, another guy I’d met online prior, who’d finished for the mens event.
After some more group photos and food plus a quick chat with Bob Becker, the RD, it was time to stumble to the car and head to the hotel. I passed out three times in the car in the span of 10 minutes, slept for five hours that afternoon before having a bit of dinner and sleeping for another 10 hours.
It took a week, but my leg is back to normal for walking. It’s still a bit tight, so no running for another week or so. By the next day, I was already thinking that the race wasn’t so bad 🤪.
It was very strange driving back up on US-1. My mind had a hard time believing that I’d covered all the road that I was seeing, especially since I barely remembered any of it in the latter half of the race.
I hope this report is useful to anyone hoping to run the race in future years! I started reading other’s posts over a year before this year’s race to gain insight into what it was like. I also tried to include a lot of photos because I felt like that was lacking in the ones I read. It can be hard at times having this impression of what the race will be like at parts, only for it be completely different in person.
Good luck, and may you make it to Higgs Beach! 🌴🌴