Friday, July 26, 2013

Wekiwa Springs State Park, FL

A trip across the Florida Alps

I hate flying into Orlando. Even a flight from San Francisco with a 1am arrival time is unpleasant. Yes, it’s great for families and kids to travel with heightened anticipation of the vacation to come but for a 100,000 miles a year traveller like me the shine has worn off a little. 5.5 hours of intermittent shrieking, screaming and crying were quickly left behind on the suffocating jet bridge and the roads were deserted on my way to my Mickey Mouse infested hotel. 3am to bed and 6 am back at work, but I had a few hours free in the afternoon that I intended to make the most of.

Sitting in my car at Wekiwa Springs State Park I pondered my options. The heavy rain drumming the car, the black sky split by searing lightening bolts, suggested a damp afternoon. The Park Ranger struggled with my ridiculous question – “Will the trails be muddy?” It’s awkward getting running shoes dry in time for a return flight.

I removed my tee shirt and emerged into the rain – no point carrying redundant weight – and once my GPS satellites had been detected I jogged off along the White trail. Thirty miles south in Disney’s Magic Kingdom is the log flume ride “Splash Mountain” where, on entry, the greeting states, “You will get wet, you may get soaked.” It was a more appropriate warning for my trail run. I started in a downpour that quickly became a drenching and deteriorated into a deluge. Apart from the fact that it rained the whole 2 hours of my run, it was completely dry. As my father used to helpfully point out during rain storms in the UK – “It isn’t raining between the raindrops.”

The initial section of trail meanders west through thick woodland before swinging to the north where the woods thin out. It was completely deserted except for deer and lizards. I’ll come to the insects later. The trail surface wasn’t too bad, just occasional pools but not much mud. There was heavy sand on the trail surface that turned into oatmeal in heavy rain and this made running very challenging. The second mile was on a harder surface and I ran this in very quick time. Otherwise I just kept a steady pace and enjoyed the solitude and quiet.

Six miles into the run I was feeling pretty good, but didn’t expect to find the surprises yet to come. At this point the trail veers east and joins a bridleway. Almost immediately I was thigh deep in swamp water. The trail blazes on the trees told me this was the right way and I waded along getting into deeper and darker waters. I was anxious about gators as I knew there were some in the park. It was a little disconcerting to be splashing through deep dark water with the thought of gators in my mind. At one point I was surprised to run next to a pool containing about a dozen eels writhing close to the water surface. They didn’t look pleasant and I didn’t want one sinking its teeth into my leg. At another point I steeped on something that looked hard but that moved under my foot. I didn’t wait to find out what it was. My worst fear was over with before I even realized it had happened. Simultaneously wading through deep water and ducking under low branches I missed movement in the undergrowth to my right. Had I seen it I would have stopped and that would have been really bad, but I didn’t and I emerged on a small dry plateau just as the gator rested its heavy jaws a few feet away. I leaped forwards quickly and covered 50 yards before turning around to check the pursuit. Thankfully, the gator still hadn’t left the plateau and I was able to admire it from a safe distance, ever aware that where there was one there may be others.

This swamp running lasted for nearly 4 miles. The trail switched from easterly to southerly and wound in and around clumps of trees and bushes. Along one section there were intermittent deep pools, some of which were waist deep, and this made the going very slow. No sooner would I get into my stride than I would disappear into a hole full of water. It was frustrating and refreshing. I don’t know whether I ever broke into a sweat because the rain water was streaming down my head and body. All the time the heavy thunder rain hammered down.

Of course, this is Florida so it is always warm and humid. Different swamps and pools were of different temperatures. Wakiwa is a cold spring and some of the pools were refreshingly cool, but other pools were so warm they felt like bath water. But the never ending swamp running was wearing and I felt very tired. As the trail meandered south I just wished for the parking lot and the chance to get dry.

After spending the last few years living and running in the Colorado Rockies I have been spoiled by the clear, dry mountain air and the almost complete absence of nasty bugs and insects. Florida is a little different. As my pace slowed I became more aware of the leaves, branches and tall grass fronds that brushed my bare upper body. I wasn't surprised, therefore, to see that I was covered with small leaf and grass fragments and I would sometimes try to brush these off. But I wasn't having much of a success. Stopping to navigate by a really deep pool I tried to do a better job and noticed that they weren't bits of leaves and grass at all - they were shiny-backed green insects enjoying a really good meal and as I looked at them I began to feel their nibbling activities. I picked up a twig and began scraping them off my body. So much for running without a tee shirt.

At 11 miles I turned a corner in the trail and came head-to-head with a fawn deer. I stopped close enough to reach out and touch this beautiful creature. It didn’t seem afraid, just anxious. I took a couple of steps back and allowed it to wander into the woods before resuming my run.

After I returned to my hotel and downloaded my data I couldn’t believe that I had clocked nearly 1000 feet of ascent, this being Florida after all. I also couldn’t believe that I had achieved my fastest ever run for a one mile distance. It didn’t seem like I had been running fast.

On reflection, this was a fun trail to run. The swamp trotting turned out to be better than I expected. But this isn't a place to run in dry shoes. Even on a dry day it is difficult to imagine these trails ever being dry.

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