You think you’re running around to get ready for New Year’s? Try walking a mile in Robert Key’s shoes. Or 150 miles, if you’re up for it.
That’s Robert’s goal, anyway.
Thursday morning, at 7:00 a.m. Central, amidst 150 or so other participants, Robert took off on his first lap around the ¾-mile crushed gravel loop inside Sugar Land Memorial Park. It was about 51 degrees in the Houston suburbs when the event began, 17 minutes before sunrise. By the time he completes the fourth-annual Snowdrop Ultra 55-Hour Race and Relay – which won’t be until 2:00 p.m. Central, on January 1st (early next year!) – he hopes he will have run 150 miles.
Anyone who puts 100 miles under their belt gets a special Texas-style trophy: a big ol’ belt buckle, of course. One hundred fifty miles earns a bigger buckle. Same with 200 and 250, but Robert would be content with the 150 buckle.
“It’s really to see how far you can go in 55 hours,” said Robert, who only did 120.2 miles last year. Only. “Some people go out to get 100 miles, and when they do, they just stop, they’re done. Others, like me, are too stupid. We keep going.”
That’s pretty much Robert’s governing philosophy: Keep going. He’s been an endurance runner most of his life, with a running tally of 20 marathons (including three Boston Marathons), 10 Ironman competitions, 10 half-Ironmans and, now, four Snowdrops.
The Snowdrop is the capstone annual event of the Snowdrop Foundation, which exists to support children who are battling pediatric cancer at the Texas Children’s Cancer Center, and their families. The race was inspired by a 15-year-old named Chelsey, who in February of 2006 underwent 27 hours of surgery to combat a rare form of soft tissue cancer that typically affects 50 people a year worldwide. Four different anesthesiologists rotated through the course of Chelsey’s marathon surgery, which is still the longest on record at Texas Children’s. Four shifts of nurses took their turns.
But two surgeons operated the entire time, one primary and one assistant. It is primarily in their honor that the length of the Snowdrop Ultra race was determined to be 55 hours: 27 hours apiece for the two surgeons, plus one hour for Chelsey, who died later that year.
Seven runners have participated in the first four Snowdrops. Six of them are over 50 years old, including Robert, a grandfather of two, who turned 57 back on December 1st.
“For 95 percent of us, to say that we run 100 miles is a misnomer. I’m good for the first 50, 60 miles. After that, it’s pretty much one foot in front of the other, however you can manage it. There’s not much running over the last 40, 50 miles.”
In other words, they keep going. Which is not easy. At some point. even Robert acknowledges, the body is ready to shut down, the spirit sagging and spent. The mind is ready to lead the mutiny. It’s there, in the darkest corners of the psyche, where most races end.
“The toughest distance to conquer in any race is the distance between your ears,” said Robert, a motivational speaker (what else?) who emphasizes that very point to most of his audiences. “Everyone goes through it a little differently, but you have to put the pain into perspective. I was doing an Ironman four years ago, and I felt nauseous, I was ready to quit. But I said outside to myself, ‘What are you going to do with yourself the rest of the day? You’ll just go home and be mad. Go ahead and finish.’ Things like that. There is no pain that I’ve ever experienced that didn’t end.”
That includes the time he very nearly died from congestive heart failure. Six years ago, the electrical system in Robert’s heart was, as he described it, going haywire. His heart was beating about 145 times per minute, and he required a radiofrequency catheter ablation, a procedure to repair his atrial flutter. It wasn’t an open-heart surgery; instead, the doctors were able to probe his heart through his femoral artery, map out the areas of his heart that were misfiring and cauterize them. At one point, they told him, they needed to stop his heart and re-start it, kinda like powering down to reboot a computer frozen with that maddening little perpetually spinning beach ball.
The first ablation didn’t take. The second one, which Robert was forced to endure a few weeks later, did.
“The doctors told me in no uncertain terms that if I hadn’t been in the physical condition I was in, I would have died. My heart wouldn’t have been able to handle the stress.”
But that feisty little muscle in the middle of Robert Key just kept going. Eight-seven days removed from the operating table, he was back in action – not merely back on track for a full recovery but actually back on a track, competing in a half-Ironman (a 1.2-mile swim, followed by a 56.1-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run, which is a half marathon). Seven months after that – 312 days after his second ablation – Robert competed in his first Ironman.
“The first two weeks were torture,” recalled Robert, who still carries with him through every Ultra race the green towel that was draped over his lower torso during that second ablation. “I couldn’t leave the house or anything. It was a very frightening time.”
To an endurance athlete like Robert – a guy who routinely receives texts from local friends looking to go run 30 or 40 miles — the hardest, scariest part was sitting.
Six years later, Robert is still going. Now, over the span of 55 hours, he’s going to find out how far.
His plan for this year’s Snowdrop (which becomes next year’s Snowdrop before it’s done) is to break 100 miles in the first 24 hours, then pick up the remaining 50 over the second half of the race. Think about that. If you were to run 4 miles per hour for an entire day, you wouldn’t make it; that’s only 96 miles.
And let’s be clear . . . no one spends the full 55 hours on the track. Because, you know, that would be crazy. Runners are free to take breaks, to leave the track and return. They can eat or sleep. They can gather with friends and families, on hand for what is a pretty unique extended New Year’s party. They may even stop to acknowledge the clock and the crowd, together counting down a calendar to its finish line.
Pretty much none of them are going to run the duration. The Snowdrop begins as a run, eventually becomes a walk, then a limp and quite possibly even a crawl. But for Robert, the one thing he can’t do is stop.
The pictures posted around the course make sure of that.
“They line the course with pictures of children who have passed, or children who are undergoing chemo right now or are in remission,” said Robert. “Sometimes, when I feel like I can’t take another step, I look at the pictures and remember I can stop anytime I want. They can’t.”
They can’t. And for them, Robert Key simply won’t.