Like most fantastically silly ideas, the inspiration behind the Cow Key Channel Bridge Run was sparked by the overconsumption of alcohol.
While having a drink or 10 one humid July night, David L. Sloan — he of “Quit Your Job & Move to Key West” and “Roosters Are A**holes” fame, as well as a startling number of other books and businesses —found himself agreeing to run the Hemingway 5K the next morning with his admittedly more athletic friend. The Hemingway race, conceived in conjunction with the notoriously boozy author’s birthday, famously leads runners toward a finish line of free beer by way of Hemingway’s favorite downtown haunts. Sloan made his way through the race with what he describes as disastrous results, while his friend attempted to goad him into signing up for an even longer one.
“When it was finished, he asked if I had any interest in the 7 Mile Bridge Run,” says Sloan. “I told him the only bridge I would ever run across in my life is the Cow Key Channel Bridge, which happens to be one of the shortest in the Keys. We need T-shirts — we just don’t need to run 7 miles to get them. There is an abundance of shorter bridges. It was a no-brainer. (Local artist and event coordinator) Marky Pierson, (personal trainer and general community activist) Liz Love and I teamed up to produce the event, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
On an island where quirky costumes are practically daily wear and 5K races are about as common as iguanas, the Cow Key Channel Bridge Run satisfies on multiple counts. First, the race is mercifully short (it bills itself as the world’s only zero-K bridge run) and is bookended with parties, a set-up guaranteed to attract a strong percentage of local participation. Second, its costume requirements are of the laziest, least-restrictive kind: an annual cow-related theme offering maximalists the opportunity to go buck wild, and last-minute procrastinators the opportunity to slap on a few black spots, throw a bell around their neck and call it a day. Third, it’s simultaneously cheap and generous. Registration runs a mere $10, with a portion of the proceeds going to the beloved and utterly inexplicable Monroe County Sheriff’s Animal Farm. (The farm’s most famous resident, Mo the Sloth, is an absurdly appropriate mascot for the Cow Key Bridge Run and attends the race each year.) And finally, it’s an opportunity to win prizes across an eclectic yet accessible spectrum of categories that require little to no athletic ability, including First Place (if you’re planning on racing in the traditional sense, 23.1 seconds is apparently the record to beat), Best Costumed Pets and People, Best Theatrical Performance on the Bridge and a Last Place award for Slowest Across While Maintaining Forward Motion. There’s even a Mad Cow award, the requirements of which are described only as Given to a Random Crazy Person. If there’s one thing Key West locals love above all else, it’s the ability to win prizes while comfortably drinking in costume. Add in a random sloth, and you’ve got the perfect Key West event. As Sloan asks rhetorically, “What is better than a bunch of future athletes stepping outside of their physical realm to support the animal farm?”
This year’s race — the event’s fifth — falls on Sunday April 15. The theme, “Discow Inferno,” comes straight from the cow’s mouth, according to Sloan. “There is a dairy cow on my aunt’s farm in Pennsylvania who dictates the theme,” he says. “She was deeply affected by the deaths of David Bowie and Prince and told me the theme must revolve around rock ‘n roll. I delivered this news to co-producer Marky Pierson and he added the ‘Icows.’ The dairy cow approved, so we rolled with it. The Discow Inferno is going to heat everybody’s loins to such a degree that we will sizzle like the finest steaks in town.”
Beginning as early as 10 a.m., participants may park for free at the nearby Marriott Beachside Hotel and make their way to the grassy area that abuts the Key West side of the Cow Key Channel Bridge, which connects Key West’s main island to neighboring Stock Island. Here they are invited to “graze” in the event’s Costumed Cow Corral, inside of which newcomers may register and purchase swag, and where previously registered runners may pick up their bibs and T-shirts. Mo the Sloth will be on hand for photo ops, and costume judging will take place until 11:45, at which point the race’s opening ceremonies are scheduled to begin, led by local celebrity Cow Key Channel Girl. At high noon, the Ringing of the Cow Bells will commence, after which the race’s various heats will be announced — the first, of course, being those athletic few who attempt to finish the fastest. (Those 23.1 seconds go by fast.) After the actual runners have crossed, the Pets with Humans heat will commence, followed by relay teams, Walking Cow Stampede, and the coveted Last Place heat.
Sixty seconds after the race has officially begun, the after party will kick off at the Sunset Green Event Lawn, located across the bridge at The Gates and 24 North hotel properties. In addition to announcing award winners, the party will feature live music, a full bar, food trucks, door prizes, wine tastings, and a suggestion box for the next race’s theme (Lime in the Cowconut? Cowvert Operations? I digress.).
“The event gets a little bigger each year, but what really wows us is the creativity,” says Sloan, who has watched the event blossom since its inception in 2013. “Each year the costumes blow away the ones from the previous year. Plenty of mad cows on the island. Plus, it’s a good excuse to dress up as a cow and then party at the new Sunset Green Event Lawn.”
Newcomers are advised to bring water, sunblock, a cowbell and a camera; though the race is only 300 feet or so, there is little to no shade available during the first two hours inside the corral, though the nearby Marriott does offer a pool bar at which bovine and humanoid guests may purchase pre-race refreshments. As for the costs associated with the race, Sloan is typically pragmatic: “Cowbells come in handy all year long,” he says, “so they are a good investment.”
And if you’re resisting the pull of the bull, Sloan isn’t too worried. “One way or an udder, we’re gonna get ya!” ¦