Sunday, March 6, 2016

Race Report: Key West Half Marathon

A nice five week break separated my last half marathon of 2015 and my first half marathon of 2016.  Around the time I announced that I was given the chance to sing the National Anthem at the inaugural Rock 'n' Roll Brooklyn Half Marathon in October, I was contacted to sing at the Key West Half Marathon, happening in January 2016.  I would be given a comp entry and a guest comp entry to the race as compensation.  So I jumped at the chance - I've never been to the south coast of Florida - the furthest south I've been had been Naples, when I visited the area during the weekend of the Best Damn Race in Cape Coral in December 2014.

Driving to Key West
Later in the fall, I got in touch with my friends Jim S. from Atlanta (who I gifted the guest comp entry) and Brian from Nashville (who was getting comped for the race by pacing it).  We decided to coordinate our travel together, and meet up in Fort Lauderdale, as flying to Key West was on the expensive side.  Little did we know that accommodations on the island would be egregiously expensive as well.  We initially made a refundable reservation for a single night at a hotel on the northeast side of Key West for nearly $400, and luckily Jim S. was smart enough to call up some guesthouses the week prior to our travel date to see if he could finagle a room for a single night from potential cancellations (most of the guesthouses required a two-night minimum stay.)  Jim S. was able to get us for one night into the New Orleans House right on Duval Street, and above Bourbon Street Pub, the iconic bar setting where on every New Years Eve, drag queen Sushi gets lowered in a giant high heeled shoe from the top of New Orleans House to the ground at midnight, a la the Times Square ball drop.  We would drive back to Fort Lauderdale the afternoon of the race on Sunday and stay overnight in Fort Lauderdale in cheaper accommodations before returning to our respective homes on Monday.

Our crazy crew
I arrived before 10am on Saturday morning, Jim S. arriving around the same time.  Brian had arrived the day before.  Fort Lauderdale Airport was abuzz, and several flights arrived at roughly the same time, making for a long line to the shuttle for the rental car location.  I opted to walk which was a stupid decision, as there were no walkways leading from the terminal I landed at to the rental car location.  After spending 20 minutes wandering aimlessly around the airport, I finally made it (across four lanes of airport street traffic) to the rental car location, where Brian and Jim S. were already waiting.  We got into our rental and were on our way for the 4+ hour drive down to Key West (with a quick stop for lunch at Arby's en route)

Upon arriving, we dropped off our car at the lot near the guesthouse, and brought our luggage to our room, a large room with french doors leading out to the grand balcony overlooking Duval Street with a main level room and a ladder leading up to a lofted sleeping space where I slept.  Also, it just so happened that the aforementioned famed high heel that Sushi gets dropped in was LITERALLY RIGHT OUTSIDE OUR DOOR.  A photo shoot, of course happened. We then headed off to the parking lot for the marina at Key West Bight, where bib and shirt pickup was, before heading back to take advantage of our location on Duval Street, indulge in some Key West nightlife, and then eat a hearty seafood dinner from DJ's Clam Shack just up the street.  It had been a long day of traveling, so we went off to bed early.

Yas shoe.

Mmmmm... fried clams!
Weather reports in the days leading up to the race showed a storm coming in during the morning hours on Sunday.  The race directors took extra precautions with forecast high winds and rerouted part of the course, eliminating the out-and-back on White Street Pier, and instead adding a new section of the course in a small area in the last few miles of the race.  Overnight, the reports came true, and Key West, along with neighboring communities of Key Largo and Marathon, went under a Tornado Watch.  Just before 6am, the race directors contacted all the runners via e-mail and social media that the race start was to be delayed an hour due to the weather.  Other races held in Florida were delayed as well or were outright cancelled due to flooding on the course (notably, the Naples Half Marathon.)  Over the next hour and a half, Key West was clobbered by a line of storms stretching all the way from Cuba to Florida's eastern coast, with strong winds and rain.  It was a fast moving storm, though and it only came through the area for roughly 30 minutes.  It finally started to let up a little after 7:20, and so Jim S., Brian, and I decided to head over to the startline less than a 15 minute walk away.

It was still raining a teensy bit, and the winds were still pretty strong, but we got to the start, and I found the sound guys arranging the sound system quickly underneath clear plastic tarps to keep the water away; at around 7:55, I sang the national anthem, and then quickly headed back into the corrals with Jim S., finding the 10-minute milers... and then we were off!

Running down Duval Street
We made our way down Grinnell Street, and turned right onto Eaton Street, then turned right onto Simonton, making our way around Front Street, then left onto Duval Street, where we ran down the entire length of the street from north to south, covering just about a mile.  With the weather as it had been, and how early in the morning it was, there were not many people out - and while it was still a little cloudy, the humidity began to rear it's head, making for a mildly sweaty first couple miles.  Over the next mile (from 2-3), we took a series of streets, zigzagging our way down the coast, and past the iconic Key West "Southernmost Point" Marker at the corner of Whitehead Street and South Street.  We also began to dodge areas that had flooded over due to the storm on some of these side streets, before reaching Atlantic Blvd, the last "city road" we would run on before reaching Route A1A, the road we would run on for the majority of the race.

The Southernmost Point marker!
Getting onto the A1A
The course got dirty from the storm
This was just before the mile 3 marker, and it was also the first area we could spot the Caribbean.  And while the water had been a brilliant blue the day before when driving in, the storm churned up the sand and sediment, turning the water a murky brown color - and the wind was definitely playing a factor as we were right on the shore.  We could also tell the course had been affected a bit by the storm, as there was a lot of wet sand blown onto the street.  We were dodging a few more puddles, then turned onto Bertha Street, before reaching the A1A, which we would run on for the next 5 1/2 miles.

Dodging seaweed on the course
As soon as we got onto the A1A, the wind picked up considerably.  Thankfully it was a tailwind, which helped us move forward, but then we knew it was going to be a factor in slowing us down on the way back.  As soon as we got onto the A1A, the course got a little crazy -- the storm had blown in TONS of seaweed and seagrass onto the sidewalk and road, making for a very slippery area.  Not only was there seaweed - but scattered on the course were also jellyfish bladders, which many actually pointed out after the race were PORTUGUESE MAN O' WAR (technically siphonophores, and not jellyfish) - notably known as some of the most venomous sea creatures, if contact is made with their tentacles.  Thankfully, I took it slow across this area, but Lord - had I known what was actually was there, I would've avoided the area completely!

You don't want to touch one of these.
The seaweed dissipated as we ran near a section of the A1A that had a seawall blocking the road from the beach.  A couple miles into the stretch along the A1A, the leaders of the race began to run toward us, already having completed the out-and-back, still clocking in some super fast 6 minute and under miles.  We saw their struggle, running into the wind that was helping to carry us forward.  As we ran further along the coast, we had to try to keep our mind off of the fishy, sulfurous stink of the sea. We continued along the coast and heading toward the 10K mark which was where we would turn around.

Hope noone was in it...
Throughout this entire stretch, we had the sea to the right, but green on the left, and in actuality, we were running around the perimeter road that skirted the Key West International Airport - though we couldn't really see any planes or the runway from our vantage point.  We neared the turnaround point, and I caught up to Jim S., and we walked and chatted for a little bit, playing a bit of leapfrog as we braved through the (now) headwind we were running into.  It was running into this wind when we realized how strong it actually was - there was even a port-a-potty on the side of the road that had tipped over (I hope nobody was in it!)  Running into the wind on the A1A was TOUGH, but we finally got past it by mile 9.

Running into the wind... UGH.
We retraced our route heading back through the zigzag of streets, and past the Southernmost Marker, which by this time of day started to have a bit more activity around it (it was practically deserted earlier in the morning when first passing it), and we then headed up Whitehead Street for the last couple miles of the race, at one point passing by the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum.  At about 11.3 miles in, we made a left turn onto Southard Street, and headed into the area known as the Truman Annex, part of Fort Zachary Taylor, a decommissioned U.S. army installation.  We ran around a plot of land before heading back onto Southard and onto Whitehead again.  As we passed the "Mile 0 Marker" on Route 1, we hit the 12 mile mark, and then were directed onto the waterfront of Mallory Square, adjacent to Key West's cruise ship port.  We then made our way through another couple zigzags of streets before heading to the last few hundred meters of the race, finishing at the historic Seaport.

Key West's famous wild chickens
With the Marinos after we finished!
I finished the race in 2:17:15, not bad for my first half of the year after a five-week long hiatus from running distance (I had run a 10K the weekend before to kick off my NYRR running season).  Soon after finishing, I met up with Carl and Ilona, who were in town after finishing a cruise out of Fort Lauderdale with fans of the TV show Carl is on (Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda, on Discovery ID - check it out), and we indulged in the free post-race beer.  After a little while enjoying the cover band, Brian, Jim S., and I headed back to the hotel for showers before getting lunch and then heading back out on the road for the 4 hour+ drive back to Fort Lauderdale.  We arrived a little past 7, settled in and then went out to enjoy Fort Lauderdale's nightlife for a bit, before hitting the hay, as both Jim S. and Brian had early morning flights -- I wasn't flying out til 4pm.  The next day, I spent biding my time (hitting up Fort Lauderdale Beach, though the weather was kinda cold), and meeting up with fellow runner Seth, who lives in the area, for some lunch.  I headed back to NYC, having racked up another half marathon, and one to start off 2016 right!

Victory Headstand #1... the High Heel Edition
Victory Headstand #2, at a tourist trap.

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