This 71-Year-Old Runs 100-mile Races, Directs KEYS100 Ultramarathon

ultramarathon
Bob Berg at the finish line of the Mt. Gaoligong Ultra. Photo by Alexis Berg.

With 100-mile, 50-mile and 50-kilometer ultra race distances, and the option of a six-runner, 100-mile team division, the KEYS100 is not for the faint-hearted.

The course for the 10th annual KEYS100 on May 20 and 21 spans from Key Largo to Key West (for those running the 100-miler). The shorter 50-miler begins in Marathon and the shortest 50K in Big Pine Key, both also ending in Key West.

An ultramarathon or ultra race is a footrace that is longer than the average 26.2 miles.

Bob Becker, KEYS100 ultramarathon race director, originally designed this event after Badwater 135, a 135-mile race through Death Valley in July. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the toughest footraces in the world.

KEYS100 race director, Bob Becker. Photo by Alexis Berg.
KEYS100 race director, Bob Becker. Photo by Alexis Berg.

“The idea was to make the heat in the Keys in May a difficulty factor in this race—and not simply the 100-mile distance,” Becker, a Fort Lauderdale resident, wrote to me in an email.

Even for those running less than 100 miles, it’s a daunting undertaking. The training, with attention to hydration, nutrition, salt and electrolyte replacement—even what clothing and gear are needed—make this race anything but an afterthought.

But it’s not impossible.

Becker will be 72 years old in April. He ran his first marathon in 2002 and his first ultra distance in 2005 to celebrate his 60th birthday.

“That was the Marathon des Sables, a seven-day, 160-mile stage race [a race completed over a number of days] through the Sahara Desert in Morocco. After 115 miles the medical team realized I had a fractured femur and would not let me complete the race. In spite of that huge frustration… I fell in love with the people and culture of ultramarathon racing,” Becker said. “The camaraderie, the support for each other in spite of the competition, were totally inspiring. I was hooked.”

By 2007, Becker ran his first 100-mile trail race (typically held on hiking trails) and has since completed lots of ultra distance races, including Badwater 135 three times.

“In 2015, I celebrated my 70th birthday by completing the Badwater Double, setting the age record by 11 years. The Double included running the 135-mile race, then summiting Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states; then returning to Badwater Basin, which is the starting point (and namesake) for the 135-mile race,” he said. “Last November, 2016, I completed Mt. Gaoligong Ultra in Tengchong, China. Located in the far southwest corner of the country, this 77-mile race was a difficult mountain race with over 45,000 feet of combined elevation gain and loss, and one of the most inspiring and emotional experiences of my life.”

Bob Berg at the finish line of the Mt. Gaoligong Ultra. Photo by Alexis Berg.
Bob Becker at the finish line of the Mt. Gaoligong Ultra. Photo by Alexis Berg.

Becker said that it’s important for him to inspire people to get off the couch and become active.

Once you’re off the couch, even running 100 miles is possible.

“When talking with newer runners in particular, I ask them to think back to their first effort to run a mile. It wasn’t easy,” Becker said.

Taking that up a notch and completing a 5K (3.1 miles) might have seemed unimaginable.

“That same notion is true at any race distance,” he said.

Runners thinking about competing in ultramarathons should train properly, which means emphasizing time on one’s feet, as well as strength training and core building. It should include integrating good walking technique and learning what kinds of food and fluids work best during the long runs.

“There is no magic to running an ultra, and people of all sizes, shapes, ages and backgrounds do them,” Becker said.

Becker believes in hard work but emphasizes fun and celebration. The rock band Sister Hazel is running the Keys100 as a relay team, making the trek to Key West. Then they will perform Sunday afternoon at the annual post-race party.

There will be aid stations on the course and water stops about every five miles. Runners can participate with or without their own support crews, according to race information. The race fee for the 100-miler is $265, including the signup cost. That will increase after April 30. The shorter distances cost less, and spots for all races are limited.

For more about how to participate or volunteer, go to: http://www.keys100.com/index.php.