Keys 100 2024: My Hottest Hardest Hundred!

Keys 100 2024: My Hottest Hardest Hundred!

“South Florida and the Keys are under a severe Heat advisory for this weekend with a Heat Index of up to 115ºF. Drink plenty of water, stay in the air conditioning and keep physical activity to a minimum!” announced US local TV stations and The Weather Channel and that definitely got my attention as I would be running the entire length of the Florida Keys, from Key Largo to Key West, and I knew then that I was glad I’d done the heat training! This race can literally throw any weather at you in May and you just have to be prepared for that.

I ran, and finished, this ultra back in 2022 in higher than normal humidity, 100% sun and no cloud cover due to a Saharan weather effect and as a result, the race only had a 51.8% finishing rate, the lowest in the race’s history according to RD Bob Becker. I thought that I had it tough then.  I was about to face even more extreme conditions in 2024 than I thought were possible as Florida was entering an unprecedented May heatwave! 

The Keys 100 is known to be a hard hundred mile race and comes at the perfect time to be used as a hot long training run for Badwater 135, which I am running 8 weeks later, for the third consecutive year this July.

Back in the UK, my training for the Keys 100 had gone really well. My completed 2024 race calendar was.. 

  • 50 mile race – TrackWars by Phoenix Running
  • Centurion Running’s South Downs Way 50
  • Country To Capital 42 miles
  • Lea Valley 50k by Camino Running
  • 5 marathons including the London Marathon

So along with my usual weekly training runs and even a little road bike action for cross training, the legs, feet and fitness felt good. 

Race day T-28 days, I started my heat acclimation which included daily saunas in my home infrared sauna (increasing time in the sweat box to 75 minutes; brutal), running on my Peloton Tread with two electric heaters blowing hot air at me which raised the room temperature to 35ºC/ 95ªF and a few horrible runs wearing lots of lots of layers! It all helps! 

The UK winter this year had been long, wet and mild but no absolutely nothing you would call warm! All this heat training culminated with another 7 sessions in the Environmental Chamber at Chichester University. 15 mins from my home, I am so lucky to have this and the great team running it led by super knowledgeable Prof Andy West. I will never go to a hot race without doing my time in the heat chamber. It works.

2 Badwaters, 1 Spartathlon, 1 Daytona 100 and 1 Keys 100 say it does!

They can dial up your needs. Keep you in the zone and teach you to recognise warning thresholds along with a host of scientific advice. The rectal thermometer being one of less memorable parts of the process. Hot/cold, Altitude, Humid/Dry, no problem! A sauna is good but this is way better!

Matthew and I flew to Miami on Wednesday, T-3 days, which gave us a couple of days to try and get over the jet lag, taste the heat and relax before the race on Saturday. Once we arrived in Florida everyone was talking about how hot it was, even the Floridians who live there were complaining! Race day forecast were highs of 32ºC/ 90ºF with a heat index of 46ºC/ 115F. 

Chatting with some very experienced runners at Packet Pick Up, (registration to us!), they all said that their race strategy was going to have to change. Being from outta town I took this onboard! My previous goal of a sub 24 hours race here would have to wait another year. I was planning a new strategy with Matthew. Run more at night and way less in the day. Lots more cooling breaks. To be honest, I think I’d be glad to just finish in less than the 32 hour cut off! 

The legendary Race director behind the Keys 100 race is Bob Becker. He is such a lovely guy, and friend, and our paths cross throughout the US running calendar, both at his other 100 miler, the Daytona 100 and also at Chris Kostman’s Badwater 135 event in July.

Bob’s events attract some big hitters in the Ultra running world so it was great for me to catch up with a few of these that I am proud to call my friends and running family. In no particular order; Mark Cudak, Taz Shepherd, Pamela Chapman Markle, Caryn Lubetsky, Kaylee Frederick, Keith Straw, Rachel Belmont, Josh Kline, Calum Blow and Susie Chan (sorry if I have missed anyone out!)

Laura at the start of Keys 100 Ultra

KEY LARGO Start Line 0520

I crossed the start line with about 15 other runners, I was on the Elite start! Eeek! 

This was the first start of many waves throughout the morning, which meant I had at least 1 hour of running before sunrise. I really wanted to take advantage of this. 

It didn’t take long before the sweating started and I mean a lot of sweating and I hadn’t even run a mile! Heart rate not under control yet. Even at this early hour it was 85ºF and so hot and humid. 

By mile 5 my clothes were drenched.

Mile 5 is where I had planned to first see Matthew. On some UK ultras with aid stations, he doesn’t start supporting me until 40 miles. I needed him early here and a lot. Here was our first crew stop. It was quick. A double water change, wipe down, spray down and I was gone and feeling good. This was how it continued for a couple more crew stops on Highway 1 South as I was ticking off the Keys and bridges one at a time. The routine was establishing itself. Water Bottle change, Electrolytes, Salt, Ice Spray, Nutrition and go.

We were both very aware of the critical importance of managing my core temperature and keeping my heart rate below 145-150. Either of these 2 running away could spell major problems very quickly. We managed this well. 

Laura drinking out of an orange cup during the Keys 100 ultra

Now passing 15 miles, and the Mile Marker 85 sign, Islamorada and the Village of Islands heading into Upper Matecumbe Key, it was now 0815 and sunny, so I stopped at one of the (41 authorised) crew check points to put on my long sleeved Patagonia SPF50 white top to cover my arms and protect me from the extreme UV rays raining down on my fair Northern European skin. I also took an orange Gu Liquid Energy. 23G of carbs and 20mg of Caffeine. These seem to work for me. Not every hour but alternating between real food every 2 hours.

Here I started running with my friend, legend and inspiration, Pamela Chapman Markle, who at 68 years young was going for her 9th Keys 100 finish. 

0900 and still in Islamorada, and almost 20 miles into the race, it was time to request the ice bandana. This self-explanatory cold roll of absolute pleasure is both blissful and cooling. Although my heat training gurus tell me the relief is purely artificial, it is absolutely heavenly! I also took some chilled Cantaloupe Melon with me.

The route so far was a mixture of seeing the Bayside Sea RHS (Florida Bay) or Ocean side sea LHS (Atlantic Ocean). The Bridges so far have been short and Islamorada is quite commercial, gas stations, McDs, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, Boatyards and Restaurants and cute shops. There has been very little breeze so far apart from when I crossed a bridge which was a few moments of light relief from the intense heat of the morning sun. 

Normally during ultras I don’t sit down, I might lean but whilst Matthew sorted out the H2O, Ice, Nutrition etc I sat in our crewing chair! We were so careful to keep the water out of my shoes and socks. Lessons learnt from Keys 2022. Matthew dried me with a dry towel to try and remove most of the moisture. We also bought a big golf umbrella which he held over me to give more relief from the sun’s rays. 

1130 MM 72 and 28 miles in.

The Monroe County Police Department were on hand to look after the safety of the runners, assisting us across the highway at various points, here they were again, stopping traffic for us as we had to cross the highway from Bayside to Oceanside to cross the Channel 5 Bridge.

Shout out to them for being so helpful to us runners. I know Matthew was keeping them topped up with iced water bottles for their troubles.

The Florida Keys have green Mile Marker signs for every mile which countdown to MM0 in Key West. I was quite enjoying seeing the Mile Markers reducing and now I left the MM70s and was at MM68, the Kwik Stop Store in Layton on Long Key. Matthew had found me the last popsicle in there which he went ahead and targeted. He hid it in the freezer section so it was ice cold for my arrival. I was craving Popsicles! 

Laura taking a seat in the shade of a car during the Keys 100 ultra

1300 35 miles & MM 65

Next was a long 5 mile stretch including the two mile Long Key Channel Bridge where we ran on the parallel Fishing / Pedestrian Bridge. I was running with Pamela again and she noticed my hands had massively swollen up, they looked horrible and were so puffy, especially around my knuckles. I contacted Matthew for advice. We’ve both had this before and he suggested every couple of minutes run with my hands raised and open/close my fist to get some circulation going. We are still figuring this one out as there are lots of potential causes. This was to stay with me for at least another 15 hours!

That long 5 miles in that heat felt like too long to not see Matthew and luckily the next few crew stops were approximately every 2 miles which was much better.

1425 39 miles MM 61

It was heading towards the hottest part of the day, the sun was beating down on the highway and I was adopting a run / walk strategy here, grinding it out towards Tom’s Harbor, Duck Key, I treated myself to a sit down inside the cool air conditioning of the car to try and cool my core down while Matthew got the waters, ice bandana and food sorted for me. This was blissful. I stuck my swollen hands in the cooler full of ice to give them some relief too but it did nothing for the swelling. 

1500 MM58

Welcome to Hells Tunnel!

I thought I was ready for this. A small pathway 4 miles long surrounded by mangrove trees on either side. No breeze and it holds the heat in and cooks anyone along it to a crisp. It lived up to its name. It was truly horrible. 45 miles into the race I emerged victorious from Hell’s Tunnel for an icy cold sprite and some Haribos. It really was a nasty place to be at 3pm. In 2022 there had been an ice cream van at this spot and I had been praying it would be there again but disappointingly it wasn’t. 

I was so desperate for a popsicle. Matthew saw this desperation and drove ahead and found me a strawberry popsicle which he gave me at the next meeting point. I cannot explain how delicious this simple ice lolly was and how happy it made me.

Laura standing and ready to go with her hand out at the Keys 100 ultra

1730 MM50 Halfway.

I had reached the large town of Marathon and was nearly halfway and had been going 12 hours, there was no sign of it cooling down but I was excited about the sun going down. Matthew had been to McDonalds and had some salty fries for me and a coke. They tasted great. The Nutrition and Hydration was going well so far. I hadn’t had any nausea (that would come later!) so I was very glad to be able to eat still. 3 miles later I made it to MM50, the Marathon Garden Club. 

Here was our planned complete service station. Clothes, I switched out to my Neon Yellow signature colours. My 0-50 Mile clothes were soaked! I took off my Hoka Bondi size 7 and replaced them with the same in size 7.5. I massively regretted taking off my Hoka outer socks followed by Injinji liner socks as I had two massive blisters on my left foot which I requested being lanced!! This caused intense stinging and profanities followed immediately after. 

I wish I had just left them. Anyway, I had to suck it up. Icy flannel and Deodorant later, I donned my Nathan Hi Viz vest and Nathan Blinky lights plus Petzl head torch for the night section and I was gone. I probably spent about 40 minutes here before I set off again. Too long under normal conditions but this was the 2024 Keys cook-a-thon and we were the main course.

Laura standing next to a road on the Keys 100

1900 MM47 

3 Miles down the road was the start of the famous 7 mile Bridge which leaves Marathon. I was delighted to get there just before sunset. It really is spectacular and very long! The sun was setting over the bay side. Beautiful. This was the last crew point for 7 miles so I had two fresh icy cold water bottles plus I was given a handheld bottle of electrolytes.  

By the time I reached Veterans Park on the other side, it was completely dark (last light was 20:35) apart from all the flashing lights that all the runners were wearing, the hazard lights of the support cars and the flashing lights of a police cruiser with Monroe County’s finest there to escort runners and support crew’s across yet another section of the road.

Probably a good time to mention our crew support vehicle. Adorned with Union Jacks, Team Laura Watts and Kit sponsor Decals plus Union Jack Window Flags. It was not easy to miss! Each time my crew chief passed me I was treated to a volley of the Ford Explorer’s Horn. It’s stuff like this that make me smile and give me a boost. Nice touch.

Laura and her husband at the finish of the Keys 100

2300 65 miles MM35 

I was feeling really quite tired and battered now. I’d been going 18 hours solid and was also a little jet lagged (4am UK). I had made it to Bahia Honda State Park, 65 miles in. I sat in the chair and slumped. With my head in my hands, I said I was going to close my eyes for 5 minutes. I fell asleep for 15 minutes and was annoyed as Matthew hadn’t woken me after 5 minutes but I needed that micro nap. It was still 31ºC/ 88ºF but for the first time in the race, I was cold! 

As soon as I got on the move again any feelings of being cold disappeared, I was back to being hot! 

MM32

I entered Big Pine Key. The speed limit at night here drops to 35mph to protect its famous inhabitants. Sure enough on the side of the road I was greeted with several sets of eyes looking at me. The Deer here are in charge. They are literally everywhere. Small and cute versions.

0040 MM31 

This race was tough. Very very tough. I was really having to grit my teeth and keep moving forward. I felt positive, I knew I would make it but it was difficult. Now it was time to throw nausea and vomiting into the ultra-marathon mix! I was really feeling sick and hadn’t eaten much for a while. 

Food was not on my radar anymore. Tiredness, fatigue and nausea were in charge of me for a few hours now and I had survived to mile 69 into the race before I started throwing up. I was probably sick about ten times in all. I was deep in my window of circadian low at 0540 UK time. I was running for a few minutes followed by a few minutes of walking. Three more Keys passed… Torch Key, Ramrod Key then Summerland Key. 

0255 MM25

This was a timing check point at Circle K Gas Station. 3am I was sitting on the back of the car questioning my life choices when Chief Marshall Mark Cudak came over to see how I was doing. He was very positive for me. Time to dig deep.

0500 MM17 

Still two hours until sunrise and I felt like I was staggering along, just moving forward in the darkness listening to the sounds of the electricity cables buzzing overhead from the high humidity touching them. I was on my own most of the time now and then I caught someone up or they overtook me, limited conversation, a muted well done or good job. We were all feeling the pain. 

There seemed to be loads of mosquitos around and I could hear them buzzing in my ears and feel them on my face and body. I kept turning my head torch down to discourage them but that didn’t work. They were very annoying. Nearly two hours passed of very slow progress and Matthew was feeling the fatigue. He would drive ahead and try and get ten minutes sleep until I appeared when he would jump out of the car to see what I needed then leapfrog ahead of me again and repeat this. 

I didn’t really need anything during this section as I wasn’t eating or drinking, it was just moral support. Just before 5am I hit the wall of tiredness and couldn’t keep my eyes open. I felt like I was taking micro naps while on the move. Matthew was at MM17, the car park of the Sugarloaf Lodge Motel and I said I was going to come over and have a sleep. I sat in the driver’s seat of the car which had a brilliant angle of recline and I was gone. I wanted ten minutes sleep; I woke up after 20. Matthew was asleep in the chair outside the car. I jumped up and set off again. I had 17 miles to go. Normally that distance is nothing but it felt like a long way! 

0825 92 miles on the legs MM8 

I was running again, albeit slowly, over numerous bridges and would see Matthew every 2-3 miles. First light came at 6:05am followed by Sunrise at 6:35am. What a difference I felt in the daylight. I was now seeing the same support teams at the various crew points and was feeling lots of encouragement from them as they could see how hard we were all working to make it to Key West and what we had all been through for the last 25 hours. 

MM8, 92 miles into the race, was by the entrance to the Naval Air Station. It was hotting up so I had a spray down with the icy water from the spray gun and put more suntan lotion on and the ice bandana. A few steps down the road and a car pulled up alongside me, it was Taz. She ran the 50 mile race yesterday and it was lovely to see her. She said you only have 8 miles to go and was so full of enthusiasm and that she would see me at the finish line. That made me really happy! 

MM5

I saw Matthew at the Shell gas station. He was feeling upbeat after a coffee and was really positive. Throughout the race he had been updating my Facebook page and was reading me some of the wonderful messages I was getting from my friends back home. The messages were inspirational. I couldn’t believe the support. I was emotional.

I hadn’t been sick for a while so had a Diet Coke and fresh water and was back running. The sun was behind me and it was burning my back. I must have looked like a lobster but I didn’t care. I needed to get this done.

MM3.8

The route leaves the highway and you turn left onto South Roosevelt Blvd which takes you all the way down around Key West Airport with the Atlantic Ocean on your left hand side. Cars were beeping me in support and pedestrians were saying well done. One guy asked where we had all run from and when I said, Key Largo, 100 miles away his jaw just dropped. Matthew parked at the Pines Park Lot just past the airport which is the last crew stop and met me along the oceanfront route to escort me back to the crew support vehicle. I was done with running at this point. 

I was going to walk it in. Matthew got my Mum and Dad on FaceTime to get me fired up and they were with the rest of my family so it was great to see them all, although I probably wasn’t making much sense, he did most of the talking. When we got to the car Matthew got my Union Jack and I held it tight for the last two miles of the course.

 I carried on along Smathers Beach then turned right into Bertha Street where I was met by a lovely member of race staff who walked with me for a bit and listened to me shedding some tears then it was left onto Atlantic Blvd and I knew the finish line was just over half a mile away. Now I started a slow run and cars again were beeping their horns for me. Matthew was waiting for me on the corner 100 yds short of the finish line. He filmed me as I held my Union Jack behind me in my last 30 seconds of glory as I ran across the finish line. God I love a good finish line!  What a feeling. I was ecstatic. I have made it to Key West.

It was a true test of my grit and determination and I spent a lot of time in the pain cave but when I crossed the finish line at Higgs Beach, Key West, the feeling of joy and elation numbed any feelings of pain. I ran into a wonderful reception on the beach where the awards ceremony was taking place and our wonderful race director, the legendary Bob Becker stopped the awards to introduce me as I ran in and everyone was clapping and whooping. 

One of the awesome things about this event is you don’t just get one medal, you get two!! A beautiful medal and a 100 mile finishers buckle which I will treasure forever. They don’t just give these away. Bloody hell that was savage. That was my Hottest Hardest Hundred. 

In summary, The Keys100 didn’t disappoint with its reputation of being one of the hardest hundred milers out there. It was 100 miles of blood, sweat and tears. My feet and legs took me on a savage journey throughout the beauty of the Keys. It delivered more heat and humidity than anyone would ever want to run in. 115°F heat index, night temps never went below mid 80s, days were in the 90s. 

I faced hugely swollen hands, lanced blisters, sleepwalking, was sick at 60 miles but conquered Hell’s Tunnel and went over the spectacular 7 mile bridge at sunset, ran over 42 bridges and was attacked my mosquitoes and got cooked. All this because I absolutely love this event and plan on being Barbecued again in 2025!

I had to rethink my race strategy when we heard about the heatwave and any time goals were forgotten. The priority was to make it to Higgs Beach… alive and within the 32 hours. Mission accomplished. 

29.54.44

49th out of 88 finishers of the 100 mile race. 103 DNF’d (53%) 15th female out of the 47 that started. 

Next race… Badwater 135 in 8 weeks.

Daytona Delivered – Daytona 100 Race Report
Daytona 100
The keys 100 race report
Keys 100 2022

"The Keys100 didn’t disappoint with its reputation of being one of the hardest hundred milers out there. It was 100 miles of blood, sweat and tears."

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