Anita, Rebecca and I have been planning for the Key West Half Marathon for months. We first blogged about it back in August. Well, the big day has come and gone, and for my part I can truly say that the Key West Half Marathon is a “destination” event worth working into your plans (if you’re into and able to partake in that sort of thing–I’ll be posting about destination events on Thursday).
Rebecca and her partner, Dan, flew into Fort Lauderdale late Friday and spent the night on the boat with me and Renald. The four of us made the five hour drive down to the southern most key (Key West) on Saturday. It’s a gorgeous drive with clear blue water on both sides of the road for much of the way. We hit a bit of traffic because we were not the only ones headed that way and the half marathon was not the only happening event down in Key West that weekend. But what a stunning drive.
We checked into our quaint little hotel and went down to the Waterfront Brewery to pick up our race kits. That evening, we met Anita, her husband Rob, and their friend Shannon for dinner at Mangia Mangia (Italian, of course! I don’t care what anyone says, pasta the night before is essential!) on Saturday night. After dinner we strolled home past the cemetery and turned in for an early night with a plan to meet the next morning at 6:15 a.m. to walk down to the start line together for the 7 a.m. start time.
I’ve been really excited about this event for a long time. Not only had I never been to Key West (or any of the Florida Keys), but it’s a treat and then some to be able to do a warm-weather race in January. And I’ve been away for weeks (since Christmas Eve), so it was cool to be meeting up with friends for this.
It was still dark when we walked down to Caroline and Grinnell, where the race started. Renald came with us to take in the energy of the race start and help with the mandatory pre-race pics.
Me with Renald at the start line, just before dawn.
Dan was also out bright and early because he was running the 5K at 7:30 a.m. Here are the four of us, all stoked for the big event!
The half marathon course was spectacular, with the majority of it along the water. At one point we even had an out and back on a pier. I mean really, where else do you do that? When we weren’t on the picturesque path beside the beach we were running through the charming town of Key West. It’s a high-end tourist town teeming with tiny little cottages that are probably worth millions and lots of cafes, shops, restaurants, bars, inns, and people. The race volunteers were excellent and I have never seen so many water stations for a half marathon.
It was an awesome experience and I would do it again. Here are my impressions, followed by Anita’s and Rebecca’s.
I had a good race. As I already said, it was a spectacularly beautiful course along the water. The weather was perfect. We’d spent many months fussing and worrying that it would be too hot. I had had a brutal training run (21K) just after New Year’s in Fort Lauderdale, where I had to stop at the beach showers all along my route to cool off for the last half of my run. If I had never quite appreciated the meaning of “endurance running” before, I did on that training run. But Key West was perfect. It was warm enough that we could go down to the start line without worrying about an extra layer over our shorts and tanks. But cool enough, with cloud cover and no humidity, that there were no unbearable moments (for me, anyway). Once in awhile I used some of the water from the water stations to cool my hands or neck (I love how that feels), but mostly I was good.
Anita and I ran together with a goal of making under 2:30. This is reasonable for us. We usually include walk breaks in our long runs. We shortened them from one minute to 30 seconds for the first half of the out and back course. After the half way point, we took a few full minute walk breaks. But neither of us felt especially taxed until quite close to the end.
I had one amazing 10 minute run interval where I just hit my stride, picked up my pace, and felt like I could go forever. But I couldn’t keep that up and I never recaptured it after the next walk. I wonder sometimes about my run-walk strategy but so far haven’t attempted to skip walk breaks on a long run.
Besides the awesome beauty of the course, the volunteers were super supportive and the live music at various locations added something special.
The course is basically flat. At one point near the end one of the volunteers assured us that we were about to take on “the last hill.” I hadn’t noticed any hills to that point and honestly couldn’t tell what she was talking about. In fact, I asked her “is it an uphill or a downhill?” Apparently it was uphill, but if I thought London, Ontario was flat, Key West is a whole other order of flat.
For the last 3K I felt like we should gun it. I suggested that to Anita, but she wasn’t as enthusiastic as I was about that. With just over a kilometre to go, she took a walk break that I decided to skip. I just didn’t feel I would be able to get my legs moving again if I slowed down. I chugged along, feeling my energy fade but there was a boost when we rounded a corner to volunteers shouting “you’re almost there.” Anita caught up to me and we approached the final stretch together. We passed Rob and Shannon, who took a bunch of pics of us coming into the finish line. We crossed together at 2:27:27. Rebecca wanted to know if we were holding hands. Not literally, but “in spirit” as Anita said. Rebecca didn’t know because by the time we crossed she was long done with her awesome 2:02 time (so so close to breaking 2 hours next time!).
All in all, it was a great race and I would do it again.
What’s not to love about running a race in the Florida Keys? The sun, pools, beaches, cute shops, bars, tourist traps – I loved it the minute I got there. I wanted to savour every moment. Tracy and Rebecca arrived in another car, about an hour earlier than me. We were meeting up that night for a pasta dinner so in the meantime I wandered over to the race bib pick up site and expo with my friend Shannon. Only about five booths were selling running stuff. Shannon thought it was slightly disorganized but also acknowledged that it was a smaller race in a somewhat far away venue. We both agreed that the shirts – of the Hawaiian shirt genre, if you catch my drift – were terrific.
And on to the race…although somewhat unusual, the 7 am start time was perfect given the Floridian heat. Tracy, Rebecca and I had talked for days about this heat; we were quite anxious about it, actually, but in the end the morning turned out to be perfect. A little breeze to cool us off, and most of the time the sun hid behind the clouds. The route was breathtaking. We ran most of it along the ocean front, and as we ran we enjoyed the various bands and musicians scattered throughout the route. It was truly one of the prettiest races I’ve ever run. My only complaint was that it wrapped around a lot of corners so you couldn’t see the turn around point or the finish line. Rebecca, aka as The Whip, was way ahead of Tracy and me, as we knew she would be. Tracy and I tried a somewhat different strategy this time: no full on conversations in order to use our energy for running. (We run side-by-side on account of our similar pace and speed). Although I think our strategy worked quite well, by about the last half hour I had to pull out my bag of tricks to keep going:
-repeating my new mantra (“you are stronger than you think”) in place of my old one (“slow and steady wins the race”).
-focusing on my breathing
-and a new technique for that last km: pick out something bright in the distance, like a stop sign, and run while focused on it, saying “if you can see it you can run it.” Once I got to the marker I had to find the next one. I picked red markers to match my shirt.
I stopped to catch my breath at one point but Tracy kept going. I caught up with her, and we crossed that finish line together. We did it! All three of us rocked that race, with times that we were happy with. I love my running pals! We’re definitely addicted to destination races (and have started talking about the next one)!
I had been training for this race for months, but by the time I made it down to Florida, I was less excited about the race than I was about escaping my home in Washington, DC in order to avoid the depressing winter and even more depressing inauguration preparations, for a few days of sun, ocean, and fantastic company. I was worried the racing conditions would be far too hot and humid for me to make my goal of breaking 2:05, for a half-marathon PR. I also have a maximally intense boxing bout coming up in two weeks, in which I am definitely the underdog fighter, and I am a bit focused on training for and surviving that, at the moment. I couldn’t wait to spend a couple of nights on Tracy and her husband’s lovely catamaran, and to wander Key West with good friends. I had decided that if my race time was terrible, I was fine with that. I had already proven to myself that I could finish a half marathon, so unlike when I did the Niagara Women’s Half with Tracy and Anita last summer, I was not afraid of literally dying or needing to be carted off the course mid-race.
But race morning turned out to be balmy and beautiful, and when I started running I felt totally comfortable and light on my feet. By the time I had run for a mile or so down little Key West alleys, my competitive nature had kicked back in, and once we broke out onto the gorgeous oceanside trail, with the sun rising beside us, I decided to break away from my pacing group and try for the best race of my life. For a solid 10 miles, I felt like the total master of my body and my world. I didn’t take any walk breaks, I skipped all the water stations, I ignored my energy snacks, and just ran, pacing myself exactly how I wanted to, slowly but surely increasing my speed as I went. I mentally calculated that I was now on track to finish several minutes ahead of my 2:05 goal. I began dreaming of breaking 2:00, and increased my speed yet more.
Unfortunately, right after that, we took a turn out onto a pier and the sun hit me full force, reflecting off the pier and blasting my face with hot air. At the same moment I saw the 2:00 pacer coming back off the pier, at least two minutes ahead of me, which was disheartening. I lost my steam, both psychically and physically. Coming off the pier, I took my first walk break, and found that once I started walking my legs began to shake and I became hyper-aware of my labored breathing and rapid hearbeat. Bad plan! Bad plan! I broke back into a run and decided to really push myself to my absolute limit for that final 2.5 miles or so. I ran fast, but that moment of overheating and discouragement had broken my racing magic, and I started having to alternate between bursts of speed running and slow jogging. By the time I passed the 12-mile mark I was exhausted. I started looking for the finish line around every corner. Perhaps 250 meters before the finish, I saw my sweetie, who had run the 5k earlier in the morning, cheering me on. I didn’t want to look weak in front of him – obviously!! – so I grit my teeth, bolted past him as he high-fived me, and sprinted my way to the finish. My final time was 2:02 and change, safely under my goal and a clear PR, although I didn’t manage to break 2:00 as I briefly dreamed of doing. That was by far the closest I have come to running at maximum intensity and using up all my reserves.
By an hour after race time, I was in the hotel swimming pool, fully energized and refreshed and on an enormous high. This was my first real ‘destination race.’ I know that I am ridiculously privileged to be able to do ‘destination races’ of this sort. I feel so grateful that I am in a position to do something so very self-indulgent. But honestly, if I am going to treat myself to anything, this is about the best treat I can imagine giving myself. I’m sold on these! I had a fantastic mini-vacation with wonderful friends and I am super proud of my performance, bumps and all. Of course, when Tracy, Anita and I finally managed to sit down together for a moment after the race, the first thing we did was start talking about our next race. Las Vegas in November here we come, maybe… I hope?
Anita and I doing our signature medal-biting pic at the end.