6:39am, one minute after sunrise, and it was 82ºF/ 28°C. I started the Keys100 from outside Divers Direct in Key Largo with 100 miles and 40 bridges of the Florida Keys ahead of me. There were no aid stations this year so I was reliant upon my husband Matthew, my solo crew although very experienced after supporting all my ultras, to look after me and keep me alive on the course.
Other runners had two or more crew supporting them. The crew points ranged between 1.5 miles and 3 miles, with the longest being the infamous unsupported 7 mile bridge, where I wouldn’t see Matthew. On a regular ultra in the UK seeing Matthew every 3 miles was far too frequent but out here in the savage heat and humidity of the Keys I was to realise that it was essential.
I started off well, wasn’t too hot and did my first ten miles in 2 hours which was the pace I was aiming for. We had pre planned regular core temperature checks using an in-ear thermometer to monitor overheating and allocating time to walk to try and get my temperature down. However the day soon started to heat up and soon Matthew was spraying me with ice cold water, covering me with ice cold flannels and Mission Cooling towels which became our ritual at every crew stop. When I left each crew stop with ice in my hat and my neck bandana I remained cool for 10 minutes; after that I overheated again!
It soon hit 88ºF-90°F (31-32°C) where it stayed all day. I was just praying for night to come all day! We have subsequently found out from the legendary Race Director Bob Becker, Badwater veteran, that this year’s Keys 100 had exceptional conditions – it was higher than normal humidity and there was a Saharan sand dust hovering in the atmosphere affecting the combined impact of temperature, humidity and intensity of the sun which kept the relief of rain and thunderstorms away. Either was it was relentlessly savagely hot and humid.
At mile 32 I arrived at the Kwik Stop Store in Layton where several runners were laid out on the floor with bags of ice on them and we heard 6 people had been taken to hospital with heat related issues. My shoes and socks were squelching with all the water I had been pouring over myself and my clothes were just drenched. I decided to change shoes and socks as I felt like I was getting blisters already and when I took my socks off it looked like I had trench foot! I don’t think I had a toe without a blister. I tried to dry my feet and put on new dry socks and shoes which felt blissful but this was the first lesson learnt for Badwater as my feet were in a bad way.
Matthew was very good at making me eat but all I fancied were ice lollies and fruit which aren’t very calorific, but I was doing really well at drinking lots of water.
On and on the miles went by, following the long straight road along the ocean, going over bridge after bridge with runner’s support cars beeping in support. Our support car was adorned with Union Jack bunting and my Team Laura Watts door stickers – I felt very patriotic being the only girl from the UK out there in the race so had to bring it home for them!
Mile 41 was “Hells Tunnel” – a 4 mile windless path with mangrove on one side and tall tree/bush on the other where the heat was oppressive. Apparently it wasn’t too bad in there today. Here I caught up with Rhys Jenkins, fellow Brit and Badwater competitor 2022. We have known each other for a couple of years ‘digitally’ but never met so it was lovely to share some miles with him and it felt like we had known each other for years. It was also lovely chatting to someone from home. At the end of Hell’s Tunnel there was an ice cream van and Matthew got me a strawberry lolly, heaven.
I was now in the town of Marathon and hit the 50 mile mark just as the sun was going down. I decided to have a complete outfit change which was a moral victory to take off the saturated clothes I’d had on all day and dry myself and put on my neon night gear and clean fresh socks. As I only had two pairs of my Hoka Bondis with me, I had to put on the first pair I started in which were still slightly wet, but which were still better than the soggy ones I had just taken off!
Rules of the Keys100 say you must wear a vest or similar item with reflective material so that you are clearly visible for 360º, as well as coloured blinking LED lights facing front and rear. I donned my Nathan bandolier vest and two clip on red lights plus Petzl head torch and was ready for the night shift!
The next crew stop was 3 miles down the road and this was the last time I would see Matthew until after 7 mile bridge. It was just a chain linked parking lot on the Bay side and I had a quick sit down in our fold up chair and tried to take on some food, Marks and Spencers iced fruit cake to be precise! This fruit cake is usually one of my fail-safe ultra foods as it’s dense and packed with fruit and calories. However I felt so nauseous and as I tried to swallow it, it made me start to retch and I ended up being sick at the back of the car. I tried to take some salt tablets too (they were like over sized suppositories!) but they weren’t going down either!
I had a Sweat Test a few weeks before the race to see how much sodium I lose and also how much I sweat. It turns out that I am a “salty sweater” and I lose 1392mg of sodium per hour. So rather than relying purely on a little tub of rock salt and using salt from food, I bought some salt tablets with the aim of taking 2 an hour to replenish lost salt. However, I hadn’t factored in the “not being able to swallow them” issue or the fact I couldn’t hold food down so I am on the look out for high dose soluble sodium for Badwater if that even exists!
I was a bit disappointed to be crossing the iconic Seven Mile Bridge in the dark as I had been looking forward to seeing this spectacle but I was just so happy it was now night and felt slightly cooler, although it still was 82º. Matthew went to get some dinner at McDonalds and planned to have a power nap if he had time at the far side of Seven Mile Bridge. Crossing the bridge, there was the most amazing strong breeze pushing me along, it was wonderful!
It was pitch black apart from the flashing lights of a few runners in the distance and the car headlights. As we were running in the bike path, literally on the side of the road, the cars were coming quite fast right next to us. It was quite surreal running over the bridge and it actually seemed to go quite quickly.
I was 65 miles in and entered Bahia Honda State Park. 4 miles and 5 bridges later I was in Big Pine Key. The speed limit for cars at night in this section was 35mph as it is a deer protected habitat and sure enough on the side of the road I saw two deer just looking at me, probably wondering who all these people were disturbing their peace!
I think it was around this time that I shared some miles with a legendary runner, Pamela Chapman Markle. At the age of 66 she was running her 7th Keys 100 race, has run Badwater 135 4 times and is going back again this July, and has a heap of US records for 24 and 48 hour distances. It was wonderful to chat with Pamela and she is an inspirational woman. My feet were really starting to hurt now and I could feel some bad chaffing around my back and tummy from my running vest. I had also tried to take some painkillers earlier but again was unable to swallow them so this is another lesson learnt for future, to have some soluble painkillers in reserve.
I crossed the 75 mile timing mat which was at Dion’s Store, although it was the middle of the night and was closed. The race staff asked if I was alright and I said I was looking for my husband as I couldn’t see the support car. They were so sweet and offered to go and drive to look for him, they were genuinely caring. But no need as Matthew was parked on the far side of the car park. One thing with Matthew, he gets the best parking spots, he likes to be as close to the course as he can legally get so I don’t have to walk far. I think he was trying to close his eyes and get some rest but he dutifully got out the car, got my chair out and tried to cool me down and refuel and rehydrate me.
I was now adopting a run/ walk strategy but was starting to feel very tired and dizzy. I felt like I was staggering along. The runners at this point were very sparse but what other runners I did see, did seem to be suffering too. I think after 14 hours in the scorching sun and heat plus the heat of the night was starting to take its toll on people. I continued pushing on and feeling pretty wretched until Mile 83 where Matthew was parked in the Sugar Loaf Motel. I told him I felt really faint and needed to lie down and raise my legs. It was just before sunrise. He laid out two towels on the floor of the car park, got the chair out for me to put my legs on and a bag as a pillow. Bliss. I lie here for a few minutes and decided I needed to go to sleep. I asked Matthew to wake me in 20-30 minutes but I woke up naturally after 30 minutes and had an internal chat with myself to “get it done”. It was now light. I felt like a different person, the faintness and dizziness was gone. I started running again.
17 miles to go. I knew I was going to do this. When I started the race I had no expectations of how long this would take me as I had never run so far in the heat. As long as I finished within the 32 hour cut off I would be happy. I had now been going 24 hours so I knew I could do 17 miles in the last eight hours even if I death marched it out.
7 more bridges and it was lovely seeing the beauty of the Keys in daylight. The temperature had been bearable but at 8am it was like someone had opened the oven door; the temperature shot up and I could feel the sun burning on my back. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and was grinding it out.
Soon I was at 94 miles and I had to cross under the highway to the Bay side. The only thing I had been able to eat since Mile 50 was ready salted Pringles and watermelon with some sips of Sprite but I was doing well with drinking water. At the crew point at mile 95 Matthew got the last of the ice (he bought 9 big bags throughout the race) and put it in my hat and neck bandana and off I went. I was so ready to get this race done!
Soon I was to leave the highway US1 and I turned left into South Roosevelt. This road was heading straight to the Ocean in Key West. Cars were beeping me as they went past and waving. Now I was feeling emotional.
As I rounded the sidewalk I saw Matthew who had got out of the car to come and walk with me for a bit. We passed Key West Airport and Matthew got my Union Jack out of the car for me to have for the finish line. This was the last crew point so Matthew headed to the finish at Higgs Beach and I powered on, reflecting on the race and how far I had come whilst holding back tears. Two more roads to go, right on Bertha Street for one block then left onto Atlantic Blvd to the finish line. I could taste the finish!
Atlantic Blvd seemed to go on for ages then I saw the Ultra Sports sign saying Finish Line ahead. Matthew was on the corner videoing the finish so I held my flag behind me and ran into a fantastic welcome at Higgs Beach and crossed the finish line 29 hours and 38 minutes after I set off from Key Largo Saturday morning! I was so happy! Someone immediately put a medal round my neck and handed Matthew my buckle to give to me. The atmosphere was amazing and they had even paused the awards ceremony for everyone to cheer me in.
Matthew asked me how I was feeling to which I replied “knackered” then someone asked me where in Australia I was from! There was a barbecue going and a party atmosphere down on the beach but we just wanted to get to our hotel and air-conditioning!! We took a few photos then I hobbled to the support car and headed to the hotel.
Wow, what a race. What a challenge. Even though I had been heat training in our home sauna for four weeks before the race, spent ten days in Barbados prior to flying to the Keys and had a session in the Environmental chamber at Chichester University I still found the heat and humidity really tough.
In the post race email from Bob Becker, he wrote “the past weekend there seemed to be a little something special. Proof? The finishing percentage in the 100-mile individual race, our usual bellwether, was 51.9%–the lowest percentage in race history. Perhaps it was higher than normal humidity. Maybe it was the Saharan sand dust hovering in the atmosphere affecting the combined impact of temperature, humidity and intensity of the sun. Whatever it was, the effort by everyone, on or along the course or at the finish line, was quite extraordinary.“
I couldn’t have finished the Keys100 without my amazing husband who selflessly looked after me on the course and literally kept me alive.
A week later and I have lost four toe nails, the serious chaffing on my middle is starting to heal and I have slept lots. I have learnt a great deal for Badwater 135 in 5 weeks. Its already 45ºC/ 113ºF out in Death Valley but I am looking forward to running in a hair dryer with zero humidity.