From Amy Freese: Thank you for putting on the Keys 100. I ran it last year as a 100 mile finisher and had a smile on my face the whole way. I decided to take a year off of ultra running to work on speed and planned to run it again in 2014. Two months before the race I was pretty bummed I would be missing it. So when the opportunity to pace a friend's friend came up I jumped right on it. Again I had an absolute blast. Being both a runner and crew has given me a great perspective on all of the hard work, effort, support and love that must go into making this the BEST ultra of the year. I recommend this race to everyone I meet. Where else do you get to run through paradise? Thank you for your hard work during this race. It does not go unnoticed.
Sincerely, Amy Freese Keys 100 Miler - Beauty & the Beast Journey by Gigi Young, May 2013
Being a bit more experienced as an ultra-runner, I thought it would be a good idea to take up another challenge. With there being few "road race" 100 milers, and the trail type not really my strength, I was very fortunate to have found the Keys 100-Mile race in South Florida, starting from Key Largo as a point to point race to Key West. Simply put, this is a race of extreme beauty that offers a brutal experience.
The Beauty… I arrived in Houston 5 days before the race to acclimatise and got over the jet lag. I had a lovely stay with old friends from Dubai-Jane & Malcolm kindly offered me to stay with them. I departed for Keys Largo via Miami on Thursday where John and I had the first taste of the “Keys” atmosphere with some very cool restaurants and lovely food. On Friday I experienced a very well organised race pack pick up and thorough orientation for the runners and crew. I was made to feel relaxed and comfortable after receiving such as warm and friendly welcome from the Race Director - Bob Becker. He made a specific announcement during the pre-race briefing mentioning that I had come all the way from Dubai, and as a result received so many questions, greetings and wishes of good luck from the others runners and volunteers. The running community is so close and share the same experiences. I was made to feel very much at home despite being in the rather intimidating presence of so many dedicated and experienced ultra runners! A total of more than 900 runners were to participate in this race that combined the 100 mile sole race with a 50 mile race and a Team 100 mile race made up of 6 runners per team.
The race kicked off at 6:10 Saturday morning and within 30 mins sunrise and a beautiful skyline unfolded. The route would take me to Key West on a combination of cycle tracks and road running crossing 40 bridges with stunning ocean views on both sides. The route provided unforgettable views of beautiful islands, tropical style houses, palm trees, beaches, smells from the sea, and the clear blue sky with the turquoise sea. The view was really spectacular and simply superb. I tried to take in as much as the beautiful scenery as possible – it was breath taking despite having to run a 100 miles!
The race from start to finish line was well supported by numerous and well placed aid stations providing a terrific range of hydration drinks, nutrition, ice (lots of ice!). In addition it was a welcome opportunity to be able to take advantage of the numerous unmanned cooler boxes filled with ice along the route. Post race we return to the finish area where Bob and his team had set up a marquee tent on the beach with a live band, BBQ, drinks and a very stylish set up where the runners and their crews could relax, chat and catch up on sharing their experiences. The celebration was very stylish with unique locally designed “conch” shell awards. The party was interrupted regularly to applaud and recognise any runners as they passed the finish line. With a cut off of 32 hours many runners were still crossing the finishing line but despite the long run they had finished the 100 mile race and as fellow runners we all stood to welcome these runners who had suffered through one hell of an ordeal. Following on from the lunch time BBQ the party then moved to another local restaurant and bar in Key West. It’s amazing how close you become over such a short time when the shared experience is so extreme. We had a good time relaxing and laughing off the previous day’s ordeal over lots of drinks and more great local seafood.
The Beast… I learned very quickly that this race was not going to be against the distance, but against the climate! I stood waiting at the start line, apprehensive but well prepared physically –my coach Howard had provided me with a perfect training programme that focused on quality training.
The temperature as we waited for the start gun was already 28°C and 80% humidity. After the first 10 miles (there is not one single shade on the route)the sun started to get stronger, the temperature rose (32°C) and as the humidity kicked in we quickly realised that this was going to be one hell of a long day! With not a yard of shade and the clear Florida sun blazing down, it was as if I had not left Dubai! People said to me that I should be experienced running in the heat as I came from Dubai, but who is crazy to run from 6am throughout the day in Dubai!
At about the half way mark (54 miles)there is a 7-mile long bridge. No support cars or stations are allowed on the bridge. I had been running for over 9 hours already under the sun and John decided to tackle this long bridge with me. As the bridge rose we were provided with breathtaking views of the ocean. We carried 4 large bottles of drinks and ice with us for this bridge that ran out quickly. John was mumbling about when were we going to get off this “god forsaken bridge”, we finally reached what seemed to be a never-ending bridge. The soles of my feet were burning from the hot concrete; legs and chest were on fire and I was forced to run and power walk to avoid overheating. It was a welcome sight to see John’s friend Mauricio with our support car with water and the chance to dig my head in the icebox! The heat reached its peak around 4pm and the sun continued to burn my faces and any exposed skin. There was nowhere to hide or go but forward and get through this race. The sun didn't set until 8pm, at which time I realised I was exhausted. My legs were shot from the heat, my feet were swollen and burnt from the hot concrete, I could feel blisters taking shape over my feet and the unmistakable feeling of toe nails being detached from my toes (in all four by the end of the race). After over 12 hours in the sun and heat, I beginning to run 1 km then power walk for 200 meters; counting every single step! My crew was carefully parked every 2-3km to see me come through and make sure I was well hydrated and eating properly. John started to read me all the cheering messages from friends and family in Dubai, encouraged me on. On reaching the final 75 mile check point, finally I dared to think of the finish line!
Perhaps the idea of seeing a light at the tunnel gave my tired legs a much needed source of energy which enabled me to pick up the pace again and keep running! When you’ve run the entire day under a burning sun, experienced hellish heat and tiredness, running into the black of night on your own gives rise to huge challenges of loneliness and the stronger need to stay focused on the goal. To be real honest, I never dreamed I would have run this race faster time than Washie the previous year. I felt I had totally underestimated how much the power of the heat could draw the energy from me! However with the brilliant support of John and Mauricio,my race crew and a little determination and will-power.......
I crossed the finish line in 20hr 16:44. 10th position overall and 1st place Master Female. Very chuffed!
The final Beast of the journey... Or I should say it was the highlight at the finish line? I learned from John that he didn't or we didn't expect I would have completed the race so soon (2:15am); he hadn’t booked a hotel for Saturday night!We had to wait until 11am Sunday to check in! We drove around Key West for an hour looking for hotel rooms but everything was full. We returned to the Finish line car park and in my rather sweaty gear and an airline blanket compliments of Emirates I slept in the back of the car race until 8am. After all the things he had done and prepared for this race in last 6 months, I dare not say anything!
I know I could never say enough thanks to the following people, as without them there would never have been another "dream come true" day!
To John, my dear husband I am the unbelievably lucky beneficiary of his love & kindness. No one has believed in me more, he has my deepest gratitude.
To Mauricio who decided just 2 weeks before the race to join us as support crew. Not really sure he had a good time, but for sure I had a great support from him. Top job.
To my Family, their unlimited understanding and encouragement enabled me to fulfill my dream.
To my invaluable dear friends, Andrea, Julie, Samantha, Noel, Monique, Kerry, Matt, Rosemary, Rachael, Marek, Jerry & Kaye; their support in running with me in the dark or whenever I needed, to looking after my girls and dogs when John and I were away. Their friendship is one of the key elements in this journey.
To Howard, my coach, for another successful professional coaching plan to get me through this hell of a tough day!
Lastly thank you ever so much for all the cheering messages and nice words posted by the runners in Dubai......etc, especially very touched by the DCS Facebook page :-)
For now please don’t ask me what is next. I am resting my feet and my running shoes as its far too hot to run outside, or is it…?
Keys 100 2013 – Jodi Weiss
It’s a truth universally known that not everything goes according to plan. Two weeks prior to Keys 100, I ran Palm Bluff 50K and felt great, coming in 4th female overall. My training was strong and I was excited for the upcoming Keys adventure. Until 10 days before the race, when finishing up a 10 mile run, my calf completely locked up on me. As the day wore on, my pain increased, so that I could barely put weight on my left leg. No worries: I would take a few days off, ice, get some body work done, and it would be fine. Only by Monday of race week, it felt worse. I had a few days to get myself better. Running at that point was an impossibility as I was limping and in pain. I got serious, which involved setting up a few acupuncture appointments and was diligent about icing and resting my leg. Some small tears in my soleus/calf muscle was the doc’s diagnosis, and we didn’t have much debate about if I could run, because I wasn’t up for options. By Thursday, the day I was to head down to Key Largo, I was feeling strong and hopeful. I still hadn’t run, but the pain had lessened significantly, which was enough for me. I’m not a masochist and certainly am not afraid to miss a race, but the Keys 100 is an event that I was not willing to miss.
Since I ran my first Keys race – the Keys 50 in 2011, it has become my favorite ultra race and one that holds special meaning for me. A few days after completing the Keys 50 that year, my mother and greatest inspiration, passed away on May 22nd, her battle with Leukemia finally at an end. I remember feeling broken and lost as we planned her funeral, but the knowledge that I had trekked, unsupported, to Key West just a few days earlier, reminded me of my strength. In 2012, determined and driven, regardless of the torrential downpour, I crossed the finish line of the Keys 100; a few days later, back home, I gave a speech at my mother’s unveiling, my blistered feet in flip flops. This year I was determined to push myself through as somehow, the race has become intertwined with my mom’s passing – it’s an exercise in faith and forward motion for me as I make my way to KW, which are my mom’s very own initials: Karen Weiss.
Mile Marker 100-75
There’s nothing quite like the start of the Keys 100 to me. At roughly 5:30 am, myriads of runners gather in the Diver’s Direct parking lot, nerves and good cheer abuzz, as everyone braces themselves for the long haul ahead. There’s hugs and kisses, good lucks, great to see you, have a great run and then, a quick count down by Bob Becker, RD extraordinaire, and we are off, making our way from the darkness of early dawn towards the light.
For me, the first 10 miles happened seamlessly – I was so happy to be running after my 8-day hiatus, not to mention catching up with Chris about anything and everything – work, life, family. We were so chatty early on, that I would forget that we were actually in the midst of a long run. Chris, who was suffering from Plantar Fasciitis, had taken off from running for over a week, too. Running at that point in the 100 miler was joyful.
Around MM 85, roughly 15 miles in, we passed my dad along the side of the road – he had even got out of his car to stop and say hello en route to his post at the MM50/Marathon Aid Station—and then we intercepted Seth and his buddy. As Chris and I were running unsupported, Seth was planning to join us the last 20 miles of the race to see us through to the finish and hopefully help us to pick up our speed.
I often wonder how ridiculous we look during these races with all of our gear, but realize that I am better off not knowing. It was at that point in the race that the heat and humidity began to surface full strength, and we opted to fill our bandanas with ice to drape around our necks before we ventured on. The heat of the Keys is not something to be taken lightly – it’s a deep, heavy heat that singes your flesh and seeps into bones, so that you feel at times that it’s part of you, inescapable, hot hot hot.
Miles 20-25 was when my injury flared up full force, reminding me that it was still there, lurking, even if I was trying to pretend that it was gone, but it was fine, because at that point in the race we had crossed over to the other side of the road and encountered the decorative manatee mailboxes, which succeeded in amusing and distracting me for a bit. It’s worth noting that all along, I thought the manatees were walruses, until Chris informed me otherwise, but I’m jumping a good 50 miles ahead of myself, when Chris broke the news to me.
Mile Marker 75-50
The 75 mile aid station – 25 miles in—was a place of joy! There was Kristen and Mike Beck, RD’s extraordinaire from Wild Sebastian 100 miler, and there was my all time forgotten favorite treat: Popsicles. I ate a red one, a yellow one, and then another red one. I couldn’t get enough of the iced sugar water. Food is always a wild card for me in a race, no matter how much I plan. I have good intentions, and then I start running and what I thought I was going to eat doesn’t appeal. That said, I hadn’t eaten much for the first 20 miles. A bite of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich here and there, and a gel or two. It was so hot at the beginning of the race and it happened so fast, that I had fallen off the food wagon a bit.
That early on in the race, scenic views are at a minimum. Aside from random crew cars beeping at us, intercepting fellow runners here and there, passing over some bridges, there’s not much going on. So when the cheering squad kicked in, I was elated. Melanie Papatestas, Becky Le Baron and Liz Hadfield—all crewing other runners—were probably the most inspiring, uplifting and happiest faces that I have ever seen along a course. To be surrounded by such positive energy is nothing short of heartwarming, especially when you hit one low after another. We would continue to encounter these dynamic cheerleaders until around 10 pm at night.
By around 30 miles in, I had begun to brace myself for what I thought of as the “alley of doom,” which we would hit around MM 60. The alley of doom was slightly off the highway, in a marshy mangrove area surrounded by trees that seemed to pack the heat and humidity in a way that was more unbearable than having the sun beat down on us. The prior year, I remembered feeling as if I was suffocating those 4 miles. This year, though, it seemed a bit more bearable—most likely because we were already suffering from heat, pain and I-can’t-believe-I’m-running-this-far syndrome--and then suddenly, as quickly as we had entered, Chris and I were past it, out into the world of sunshine again, leaving the alley of doom behind. I can honestly say that the alley of doom was not that doom worthy this time around. With roughly 5 miles to reach MM50, for me, a vital destination which included seeing my dad, who was awaiting my check in to sign off duty, Chris and I mustered up our energy to run lamp post to lamp post until we hit the magical MM 50.
MM50: there was my dad, and a whole host of struggling runners. The joy was contagious. It was here that I scripted a new story for all of the warriors there fixing their feet and other body parts: at the finish line, we would all receive $500 and balloons and confetti would fall from the sky.
I am genuinely so happy to see my dad at these events to first let him know that I am okay, to make sure he’s okay, and then to be reminded that my dad, like some hidden superwoman aspect of me, expects me to finish. And so, that’s what I committed to do. After our catch up, I drank a Starbucks espresso drink. In my real life, I rarely ever drink coffee, so the espresso drink made me really high energy or more likely what some folks at that aid station would have described as really wound up and rambling. Before we headed out, we all equipped ourselves with our night gear, which consisted of lots of lights – for me, glow in the dark suspenders, front and back blinking lights, and a head lamp, which would later end up around my waist. And then we were off toward 7 mile bridge!
Mile Marker 50-25
At some point in watching so many folks pass me by or catch up to us, I became fixated on the matching ankle bracelets that linked us – in reality, the race timing chips – and began to feel a new founded camaraderie for my fellow inmates. We were all in it together, and Mike Melton, who waited for us at the finish line, where he would collect our inmate ankle gear, was the gate keeper.
The 7 mile bridge in the dark felt nothing short of 70 miles. On bridge I was praying to my mom to keep us safe. At some points, I was even able to see her face, right there in front of me, smiling. But oh, how she would have cringed from the speed and proximity of the cars. Stress had a whole new definition on that bridge: as a car veered into the emergency lane that us runners marched along in, I thought – please don’t kill us; I don’t want to fall into that water. Our lights blinking and illuminating us as darkness settled over the skyline, we jogged along on the bridge and must have looked like glow-in-the-dark apparitions to the cars that zoomed by. Two long hours later, we made our way off the bridge into more-done-than-not territory. 40 miles left to go – nothing! Less than two marathons! We were almost there.
Somewhere around MM 42, which meant we were 62 miles in, the foot shuffle/drag began. Chris called me out on it, “You’re dragging your feet,” he said. It was matter of fact, meant to help me, but I took it as a challenge. “Okay, I’ll be sure to pick them up,” I said, and the moment he started to drag his feet, I was sure I told him so.
Around MM 35, Chris transformed into dead man walking. “I feel that drunken feeling,” was all he said, and I grew tense. We were on a deserted road, no one’s crew around, almost out of water, and I hadn’t quite thought out what I would do if Chris, who is way taller and bigger than me, collapsed. He became zombie Chris, stumbling along, and in his desperate state, I let him lead the way as he had told me he couldn’t keep up with me. When we hit Pine Key, he seemed to get better, as then he was calling the deer to us with deer talk that he apparently knew. I said, “What are we going to do if the deer all come to us?” I envisioned them trying to eat us, or worse, steal our water. It was somewhere along this stretch that we created an elaborate story: we were going to find a Walgreens or CVS, in which we would buy tape and other blister paraphernalia, and sit on the floor in the air conditioning, and tape up our feet, good as new. Only every drugstore we saw in each of the deserted towns was closed.
At MM30, we were intercepted by Scott and Seth, and Scott opted to come along with us for a bit, joining our shuffle. As we were completely immersed in will-this-race-ever-end world by then, it’s somehow amazing to me that anyone would want to deal with us at that point. The highlight of that expedition was Scott telling Chris about the grilled cheese at MM25. I had not seen Chris pick up his speed with such zest in hours! He transformed from zombie Chris to grilled-cheese-go Chris.
Mile Marker 25-0
The wonderful Tim and Linda O’Brien greeted us at MM 25 AS, and I plopped down in a chair – a usual no no for me at an ultra--and allowed them to fill up my bottles and fill me in on race gossip – who had finished, who had dropped, etc. I was thrilled to hear that many of the FUR crew was running solid and strong and that some were long finished! Seth joined us at this point, so that we grew from two unsupported runners who barely had enough water to make it to the next aid station, to three such runners. The best way I can describe the last 25 miles is to equate it to watching a rerun of Seinfeld over and over for 8 hours. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s so stupid it’s funny, sometimes you are just over it, and other times you don’t hear a word of it. The pain in my calf was there—dull and deep and by then—and a new pain in my ankle/foot was there, and I was still somehow hot, as in sweating, although it was the middle of the night.
At MM 20, Chris was overcome by copycat syndrome when we encountered a woman at the aid station vomiting. Suddenly, he was sure he was going to vomit, too. “That woman,” he said. “Watching her made me sick.” Somehow, though, he managed to pull himself together, get down a Perpeteum horse tablet, and miraculously, he made another comeback.
Soon after MM20 is when the next phase of fun and games set in, although it alternated between my feeling like I was going to pass out and having mounds of energy each time I ingested anything with calories. When the fun and games were in play, we talked about all sorts of things, like the temporary tattoos we were going to get in Key West. I wanted to get “Running Sucks “sprawled across my back.
I laughed about what I called the store on our suspenders – I had lights to sell, sometimes a water bottle was clipped on there, Seth had my hat attached to his suspenders and his own water bottle on there. We were like walking street vendors.
At MM10 – a grand landmark--we encountered superstar runner Krystal, who was in an ambulance getting an IV. I stopped by to wave at her and told her that she should go on. I then went back to the AS folks and told them that they should tell her to go on; my instinct was that she would regret dropping out with ten miles left to go. Soon after we were on our way, I told Chris and Seth all about the Key West tour I was going to give them later that afternoon, after the race. There was the house in Truman Annex that I lived in for a while, the spot on Flagler and Roosevelt where I had my major bike wreck years back (I was sure to tell them all about the staples in my head); my favorite Cuban spot to get café con leche, the Hemingway House, where I was once married; my favorite yoga studio, the vegan cafe. All the places I would take them to see – I could sense they were excited! All we had to do was finish up the race. At one point when I was really out of my head, I asked Seth to tell us a story about when he was 14 years old, and he shared one about almost getting suspended from high school for a reason I can’t quite recall now. Fun times. Miles, heat, pain, all en route to Key West. I could almost hear my friends saying that normal people drove to Key West when they wanted to spend the weekend there.
The mosquito attack occurred around MM8; out of nowhere, we were swarmed, and somehow, Chris was able to differentiate between the two different breads of mosquitoes that overtook us. The best part about this surprise attack was that it distracted us completely from any pains or other lowly moments, as our main mission became to protect our flesh from these ferocious creatures. Then, like a dues ex machina, someone else’s crew pulled off the road ahead of us, and with a can of bug spray, he came after us, holding it up, ready to take aim at our exposed skin.
MM5 amounted in yet another meltdown. It’s seems hard to imagine that with 5 miles left of this journey, Chris and I were still struggling, but somehow we were, the only difference being that our sense of humor had magnified with the mileage. We searched for the ice cooler, but were pleasantly surprised instead to see a white tent. White tent meant real live people with aid. It was then and there that I realized that if I didn’t remove my compression sleeves from my screaming calf, it may explode. My first thought was to cut them off – removing my sneakers seemed like an impossible event. “Do you have a scissor or a knife?” I asked the aid station folks. They started to search, but then Seth somehow convinced me he would take off the compression sleeves. With no scissor, I had to concede. Somehow, he was able to get the suffocating sleeves off and when I saw the size of my calf – thick like a tree trunk, I started to think that maybe a 100 miles, or 95 at that point, was not the right thing to do with an injury.
Five miles. My shortest run of the week is normally 8-10 miles. 5 miles was nothing. I could do it in my sleep. And yet the sun was scalding at that point in the day. Another hot, steamy Key West kind of day. I was so hot, but couldn’t think of putting my hat back on; anything that touched my face or head strengthened my headache. Having lived in Key West, I knew every inch of that last stretch from countless runs and bike rides in the past. There was the Chevron Station, the recycled bike store, the college on the left, and then somehow, someway, we hit that magic moment of 4 miles left to go: we made the left turn onto Roosevelt Avenue! We were in Key West.
Along this final winding stretch, we passed hotels, the airport, people biking, and even some recreational runners, one of whom was jogging along at a steady pace, which made Chris remark, “Show off.” This was the point in the race in which everyone started to talk to us and cars started to beep beep beep at us. Normally, I love people, love to chat along the way, but then and there, I couldn’t muster the energy. “You have 3.3 miles to go,” one person said; another told us it was less than a mile (liar) another assured us that we had 2 miles. I heard Seth’s Garmin clocking in the mileage, but dare not ask him for the truth; I didn’t want exact details just then.
With roughly 2 miles to go, Chris had his last meltdown: “I don’t think I can finish,” he said. He was mumbling something about sitting down at the bus stop shelter and going to sleep. It was then, that Seth and I pulled ahead a bit. I was fearful to slow down as we had begun to pick up a bit of speed.
One of the two highlights of that last stretch was a man on a bike circling Seth, stopping in front of us, and asking if we were in a walkathon. “I saw a lot of walkers all morning,” he said. “Are you all walking for charity?” Seth paused, unsure of how to react, and the situation made me smile. I was thinking: go away you annoying person. Scat. But then I think I told him it was the Keys 100 race and we were almost done. The second highlight was our encounter with runner Daniel, who had dropped from the race around MM50 due to a knee issue, who appeared with ice, a cooler, his wife – all smiles, all support, all good cheer. This is the amazing aspect of ultras: people you share those miles with and their crews are extraordinary human beings. That final ice boost was just what I needed.
This was the point in the run when I had a moral moment: for me, these runs teach me that when I feel that I cannot go on, in actuality, I can. What a valuable thing to know. I often think of my mom when my struggle hits hardest, and how she must have felt the very same way at points – that she couldn’t go on, but always she did, and more often than not, she did so with a smile on her face.
And then we hit the turn along Bertha Street, and wrapped around to Atlantic Boulevard, and I knew it was almost over. I felt my breathing growing shallow. That last stretch of houses along the water – how well I knew each one of them from daily passing when I was a KW townie; I saw White Street Pier beyond, and I knew, even without seeing it, that the finish line was so close, right there on Higgs Beach past the Key West Garden Club. Usually, at this point in a race, I am overcome by a feeling of relief and gratitude and joy that the universe converged to let me accomplish this one small, little feat; it’s a welcome point of no return. Mingled with those feelings there’s always the strangest sense of anxiety, excitement and something else that I can best describe as knowing that overcomes me when I am so close to being done; it’s as if suddenly I need to slow it all down, catch my breath and take in the reality of what has just transpired, because once I cross that finish line, it’s over, the struggle, the hardship, the laughter of that race, and I cannot get it back quite that same way until…the same moment at the next race. For me, this Keys journey was one filled more often than not, with a feeling that I could not possibly go on – I was hurting. And yet, the moment we started to jog so slowly towards that finish line, it was all worth it to me – every last mile was worth it. I can’t really explain why, but these events are truly life changing to me – with each finish line I cross, I am so grateful for the voice within me and the encouraging voices without that propel me forward, and help me to get further in my life, closer to whatever it is that I seek in this great big world. I finished in 29:12 and Chris finished just a few minutes behind.
Chris with Joe Buono running him in - done!
Later that Sunday night, as we were all headed to Blue Heaven for a post race dinner fest, there, in the middle of the road, stopped a rooster who proceeded to chase his tail, over and over, his circle dance continuing so that he must have been dizzy; we were all in hysterics in the car, transfixed on the comedy. I don’t know what the rooster was after, but at some point, he must have found it, because in a few moments, he stopped, and was on his way. Sometimes in life, it’s fun to be the rooster. Road to war paves way to life of running for one Pave Hawk pilot
By Maj. Cathleen Snow 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. - Air Force Reserve combat-search-and-rescue helicopter pilot Capt. Jason Tomas, 920th Rescue Wing, did not start out as a runner. But now, he asserts that not only was he born to run, but we are all born to run.
Going to war led him to this philosophical belief about running, and to his biggest running feat to date—a 50-mile ultra-marathon in the Florida Keys—The Keys100 on May 18. His ultra-marathon journey began at mile marker 50 on Marathon Key and ended at Higgs Beach near the southernmost point in the continental U.S., Key West.
Tomas’s experiences as a combat rescue pilot led him down the path to running.
“Often times we are the first ones to get to a guy who just had his legs blown off,” he said, explaining that Air Force Rescue Teams are the 911 of the military. “You see a lot. I’ve seen young kids who will never get a chance to run.”
Put simply by Tomas, he runs because he can, “If you got it, why not use it.”
Today Tomas runs for relaxation and to challenge himself. But running wasn’t always his thing. He grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., surrounded by sand and surf. It’s also where Tomas’s pursuit of service began—first as an ocean rescue lifeguard, then as an EMT, and then as a sworn in beach patrol officer. Finally, in 2006 he was able to intersect his life of service with his lifelong dream of flying, and earned his Air Force wings.
Above flying, surfing was always his passion—he even took a month off after pilot training to surf the entire east coast of Australia. After chasing waves, he was cast into a new environmental setting where he ran his first long run during an overseas deployment. A fellow crew member/pararescueman invited him on a group 10K run. Tomas recalls after that run, he asked himself—and has kept asking—“How far can I really push this?”
Landing in Khandahar, Afghanistan in 2007—one of three deployments to the landlocked country—he found himself surrounded by dry, mountainous terrain. Swimming and surfing were definitely out of the question, so running it was. In 2008, he ran his first marathon on a squeaky treadmill inside a dusty tent that served as the base gym.
“All 26.2 miles,” he said.
The challenge of running soon swelled into an unquenchable thirst. He began reading others’ stories about running, and his love of running started to redefine his life.
One of Tomas’s most inspiring role models is Dean Karnazes, an ultra-marathon runner who wrote Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner (among several other books). Tomas’s favorite quote from the book reads: “Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living. If you're not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you're not demanding more from yourself - expanding and learning as you go - you're choosing a numb existence. You're denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”
Karnazes’ quotes and stories have been an inspiration to the Air Force captain, almost as much as the people he meets on his running journeys.
“Running attracts all walks of life,” said Tomas.
For example, at the Keys100, athletes from 13 countries and 33 states tested themselves. It was there that Tomas met a fellow runner from Germany who wasn’t accustomed to the intense South Florida heat. Tomas and his personal crew—wife Kaili and 11-year-old daughter Alani—came to the runner’s aid [M1] and helped him finish the race by providing cold drinks to him along the route.
“There was a ninety-five percent chance that if somebody didn’t make it, it was due to the heat,” said Tomas.
In fact, the race director Bob Becker emailed the following to the runners after the race: The difficulty of this race is often underestimated by those who have never competed here; the KEYS100 is a very tough race, indeed, and the heat may have been a bigger factor in 2013 than ever before.
Even for Tomas, who is used to running in incredible heat, the race was tough. While the cool wind on the bridges was “heavenly,” he saw a lot of people fall out of the race because of the heat (lower to mid 90s), especially in the hotter interiors of some of the larger keys where the trees blocked the five-knot quartering tailwind. Then, when the sun went down, there were other obstacles besides heat.
“There were so many mosquitoes swarming my body that I had to put my sunglasses back on to keep them from bouncing off my eyeballs,” he laughed. “I’d take the mosquitoes over the heat any day.”
Had he been able to run without stopping, he would have finished the whole 50 miles in about 10 hours. But he took frequent breaks where he would spend anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes with his support crew Kaili and Alani providing him ice, “just trying to get my body temp down.” This added 4.5 hours to his completion time of 14.42 hours. Tomas figures he burned 13,000 calories at the Keys100, which he calculated off his GPS watch by synching it with his heart-rate monitor.
Even though he lost his appetite from the heat, he forced himself to eat four bananas, four gel packs, a cookie and two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He also guzzled lots of Gatorade and three Red Bulls to keep his energy levels up. Another trick that helped him avoid getting picked up by one of the many ambulances busy responding to runners with heat exhaustion, was by packing ice into a fishing scarf around his neck. “This was good for two-three miles till it completely melted.”
Running an easy pace is what it’s all about when you’re going for mileage, Tomas advised.
“When you get that runner’s high you can take on anything, regardless of what your day throws at you. Running takes the stress away. It naturally makes you feel good. And at some point when you are running, you get so pumped with endorphins that you no longer feel the pain,” he said.
Tomas said running long distances allows runners to take in natural beauty they might otherwise miss. An endangered Key Deer, an animal that can only be found on one of the Florida Keys, came right up to him (he helped clear it from the roadway with another runner’s help). The endangered Key Deer weighs only 50 lbs. and stands only 30 inches high at its shoulder, so the sighting was quite unique. Tomas also enjoyed the beauty of his marine surroundings, the Gulf of Mexico on the right side of the road and the Atlantic Ocean on the other.
Tomas has logged a lot of miles and seen a lot of scenery changes in his years of running. He’s run two local Melbourne Music Marathons, and a 30-plus-mile run to his favorite watering hole. To prepare for the Keys100 he trained by regularly running back and forth to work at PAFB, just under 7 miles one way.
“I tried to time it so I was running in the heat,” he says, “especially if I was flying at night.” His pace was a comfortable 6 miles per hour. “Kinda slow,” he said, “just to cover the distance.”
Tomas said an ultra-marathon is considered anything beyond 26.2 miles, but most ultra-marathoners don’t consider it an “ultra” unless it’s at least 50 miles. Despite earning this new title, he plans to keep going even farther. “After my upcoming HOA (Horn of Africa) deployment, I’ll run 100 miles.”
A lot of people are quick to say they can’t do something, especially running. But Tomas contends that “Everybody was ‘born to run’ – read the book.” He advises new runners to try to run the length of their driveway barefoot. This immediately critiques if you are striking mid-foot versus the cause of all feet and knee problems – the dreaded heel strike. Then emulate that foot strike in running shoes when going for distance. Keep at it and you’ll improve, just like anything else.”
“You’re not going to go out there and run 50 miles your first time out,” he said. “But if you want something bad enough, set goals now and go and do it. Everyone should challenge themselves to do one thing that scares the Hell out of you, that you don’t even know if you’re capable of, and never quit until you achieve it.”
Editor’s note: Captain Tomas deployed to Khandahar in 2007; Khandahar in 2008-09; and Camp Bastion/Leatherneck in 2011.
*The HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter is the Air Force’s version of the Black Hawk, with an avionics system on steroids. It’s used for pulling off search and rescues in bad weather on dark, dark nights.
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Here are some of his favorite quotes from Dean Karnazes’ book, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner.
“I run because if I didn’t, I’d be sluggish and glum and spend too much time on the couch. I run to breathe the fresh air. I run to explore. I run to escape the ordinary. I run…to savor the trip along the way. Life becomes a little more vibrant, a little more intense. I like that.”
“People think I'm crazy to put myself through such torture, though I would argue otherwise. Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness. Dostoyevsky had it right: 'Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.' Never are my senses more engaged than when the pain sets in. There is a magic in misery. Just ask any runner.”
“If you can't run, then walk. And if you can't walk, then crawl. Do what you have to do. Just keep moving forward and never, ever give up.”
“Most dreams die a slow death. They're conceived in a moment of passion, with the prospect of endless possibility, but often languish and are not pursued with the same heartfelt intensity as when first born. Slowly, subtly, a dream becomes elusive and ephemeral. People who've lost their own dreams become pessimists and cynics. They feel like the time and devotion spent on chasing their dreams were wasted. The emotional scars last forever.”
“Sometimes you've got to go through hell to get to heaven.”
“Pain is the body's way of ridding itself of weakness.”
“How to run an ultramarathon? Puff out your chest, put one foot in front of the other, and don't stop till you cross the finish line.”
“I wasn't born with any innate talent. I've never been naturally gifted at anything. I always had to work at it. The only way I knew how to succeed was to try harder than anyone else. Dogged persistence is what got me through life. But here was something I was half-decent at. Being able to run great distances was the one thing I could offer the world. Others might be faster, but I could go longer. My strongest quality is that I never give up.”
“The human body has limitations; the human spirit is boundless.”
All photos may be downloaded, saved, and shared at no charge, but no commercial use, please. Photos by race photographer, Tuan Nguyen: https://www.flickr.com/photos/195712961@N04/albums Photos by Race Volunteer Alan D: https://www.flickr.com/photos/195712961@N04/sets/72177720299472491/
2021 Photos & Stories All photos may be downloaded, saved and shared at no charge, but no commercial use, please. Race Photos by Amber Hall https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1odZKckkOwEHTut9nrvXUOfn2lyXe_5lc?usp=sharing Race video by Tuan Nguyen. View it HERE Race Photos by Tuan Nguyen https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1aQMPQ8GeWYs9GW_SgHKjOID4ki0ae2H7?usp=sharing Race Participants Submitted Photos https://www.facebook.com/media/set?set=oa.3939851506109521&type=3 Race Report, by RD Bob Becker "Ultra Running" Magazine, June 10, 2021 issue: https://ultrarunning.com/featured/keys100-ultramarathon/ Brett Sanborn, 100-mile record holder and 2021 100-mile winner--RACE REPORT: When I decided to run the Keys 100 for the first time in 2019, I did so because of the guaranteed Badwater entry that goes to the winner. That year, I had a great run and enjoyed the heck out of the race, so when races started happening again in 2021 after a depressing 2020, I wa