Local Runner Competes In 100-Mile Race

Luxemburg’s Russell Flemming recently competed in the Keys 100, a 100 mile ultra race in Florida. Below is an account of his experience:

With less than 5 miles to go, I was alone running in the darkness of the Florida Keys.   No blinking lights of runners in front of me.  No sign of runners in behind me.  The road was dark and empty.  I was beginning to worry.  Was I lost? I hadn’t seen a Keys 100 Mile Ultra sign since leaving the last aid station at mile 90.   Where was the finish line?   Did I make a wrong turn?  What do I do?

For the first 95 miles of the Keys 100 mile ultra race, I ran with ultra runners from all over the world:  a bus driver from Miami, a corporate lawyer from Romania, now living in Cleveland, and an emergency medical technician from West “By God” Virginia.  We all shared water, energy bars, stories of our lives, port-a-potties, and our love of distance running. 

We also shared the beautiful ocean views along the “Overseas Highway,” Highway A1 from Key Largo to Key West.   On the morning of May 19th, 148 ultra runners toed the starting line in Key Largo.  The starting gun fired in darkness at 6:10am. To our left we watched the sun slowly rise over the Atlantic. Looking to our right we could see fishing boats out on the Gulf of Mexico.   

After the first 25 miles of the race, the skies turned dark, and poured down a refreshing rain for close to an hour.  Then, suddenly as it came, it stopped.  The sun popped out, and it turned hot and humid, with the temperature rising into the 80’s.    This storm was old news for the veterans of the Florida Keys.   In May, you expected a thunderstorm or two every day, to complement the hot and humid temperatures.  As a runner, you expected it and treated the weather with respect.   Many of us stopped and changed out of our wet socks, sipped from our water bottles rambled on.

We continued Island hopping, crossing over 40 bridges connecting the islands in the Florida Keys.  One of the bridges was 7 miles long!  The locals were very original and called that bridge, “Seven Mile Bridge.”    

From “Seven Mile Bridge” l spotted a huge 12-ft long shark swimming slowly below me.  Was it waiting for me to fall off the bridge?  In years past, I have been eaten up by tough ultra racecourses, but never attacked by a shark. 

The hours and miles clicked on as we rambled down the Keys.  Ahead were the truly elite runners.  Word reached us that the first three finishers shattered all past Keys 100 mile race records.  We were still miles away from the finish line.

Mike Morton, a 40-year old, lithia, Florida native, scooted down the 100- mile route in 13:42:52, and shattered the course record by almost 3 hours!  Alyson Venti, 29, from Miami, finished 2nd in 16:07:06. Tatyana Spencer, 36, from Tucker, Georgia, followed closely behind in 16:12:57.

I slowly trudged into Key West well after midnight.  Ten miles to go, and I was feeling surprisingly strong.  At the last aid station, I filled my water bottle, ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and said good-bye to my support crew, my poor wife Pam.  She was exhausted after a long day of driving ahead and meeting me at various points along the race route with suntan lotion, ice water, energy drinks, dry socks, and insect repellent. 

Pam said she would meet me at the finishing line after taking a nap in the car.  

As she drove away, I headed out of the aid station alone.  I saw a flashing light ahead of me.  Another runner.  The light in front of me had stopped moving.  I caught up, and found a young woman, sitting on a curb, with her support crew urging her to get up.  I stopped and asked if she wanted company the last few miles, and she shook her head, and I went on, and started to reel in the next flashing light.   At around mile 5, I caught up with Wayne, from Miami.  Wayne was walking, and said that he couldn’t run another step.  He asked if there were any other runners close behind him, and I told him about young woman, and he said he would wait for her.  

I pushed on.  Only a few more miles to go, but now no more lights to guide my way.  All the local businesses along the route were closed.  Even the gas stations were closed. 

Suddenly a crack of thunder and a storm hit.  Not some refreshing little rain, but a hammer of stinging cold rain and high winds ripped across my body.  Road signs shook.  Traffic lights danced wildly in the wind, and the world turned black, as the streetlights ahead of me lost power. The street quickly filled ankle deep with water, and I slugged on.  I spotted a truck and waived down the driver, but he had no clue where the finish line was.  He didn’t even know there was a race going on. 

I hadn’t seen a Keys 100 sign for miles, and I began to panic.

Lightning flashed, and the winds knocked down garbage cans into the street.   A police car wheeled through the high water with flashing lights. Sirens cut through the storm, and the police car roared by without stopping. An ambulance screamed by seconds later, lights flashing.

I kept going, hoping to see some sign I was on the right route to the finish line.  I was greeted only by higher winds, and deeper rain to wade through.  I turned around, and ran back to a gas station.  But the doors were shuttered. Closed for the night.  I reached for my cell phone, and immediately regretted my decision to drop my water belt at mile 50 to go to a lighter easier to carry handheld bottle.  My cell phone was on my water belt in the trunk of the rental car. 

At an intersection, the road was littered with safety cones, and I took a step, and fell face down into the water.  I got up, and kept moving forward until I came to the end of the road.  I looked left nothing but closed businesses. A coke can floated by.  I looked right, and two round lights moved toward me.

A jeep, driven by an elderly woman, drove up, and rolled down her window, and she asked, “ Excuse me, do you know where the Keys 100 finish line is?”  I said no, but we could call my wife, and find out where it is.  

At that point my mind was shot.  I couldn’t remember my wife’s cell phone number.  I could barely remember her name.   Frustrated, I looked at my hands and on my wrist was my emergency ID bracelet.  I thrust my wet hand through the driver side window and told the woman to call that number.  My wife answered.  She was at the finish line, but wasn’t sure how to tell the woman which direction to proceed. 

As they talked, an older man stepped out of passenger seat and offered me a ride to the finish line.  I screamed, “No! I have to finish the race. I came all this way and I am not giving up.”  

He got back in the car, and the woman said she would return and give me directions to the finish line.  The jeep turned up the flooded road I had just swam up.  I turned around and started run after the jeep.  After two blocks the jeep turned right and disappeared into the night.  I kept going to the corner where the jeep turned.  It was the intersection where all the traffic cones were scattered and now floating in the street.

A red light flashed on and off about two blocks away.  I stood shaking in water up to my knees.  Finally, two round lights of jeep toward me, and the driver shouted, “Keep going toward the red light.  The finish line and your wife are waiting for you.”   I staggered across the finish line in 21:09:49, 11th overall, 1st in the 55-59 age division… after running a 101 miles.

When the storm hit, all the signs pointing the way to the finish line had blown away.  The race support crew deflated the large inflated finish line sign so it wouldn’t blow away, or get hit by lightening.  The traffic cones were for the runners to follow to the finish line.   After hearing my story, the race director sprang into action, and sent crews out to help guide the remaining runners to the finish line. 

Of the 148 runners starting the race, 97 finished the race within the 32-hour time limit.   

Russell Flemming is a retired Army Colonel and a certified run-walk coach.  He currently directs the Kewaunee County Walk-Run Clinic.  The clinic is free and open to every “body” types wanting to get into shape.  Beginner walkers and runners are encouraged to join. The clinic is held every Saturday, at 7:00am at the Harbor Park Stage in Kewaunee. 

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