Saturday, October 3, 2009

San Felasco Hammock, a jewel in the rough of NW Gainesville

I was at the bank a few months ago and one of the teller's told me that he was a runner, but never ran on roads, out of concern for his knees. Curious, I asked him about where he ran and he said almost exclusively ran in San Felasco Hammock. He described it as a shaded running trail with soft ground and grass. It is a bit of a drive and costs a few bucks (FL State Park) to get into. It sounded interesting, but I have never had much trouble with my knees and the roads and trails near my house were free and out the back door, so I didn't try it out.

Well today, the FL weather was not "melt your face off" but more of a "nice day in hell" kind of temperature and I was looking to run around 2pm. The roads near my house are not very shaded, and having listened to "Born to Run", my intrigue about trail running got me thinking about the Hammock. I read up about it at the Florida Track Club site and a few others.

The Hammock is a state park and natural preserve area NW of Gainesville, FL. Open sunup to sundown (or else get lost in the wilderness) it is about 8 square miles of native Florida wilderness. There are sinkholes, pine groves, lowgrass "savannahs", saw palmettos, and plenty of wildlife (which is easily scared off by your noise, don't be scared of the deer). Shade covers over 90% of the trails. The ground you will encounter includes hills with mild erosion and exposed roots, well packed dirt, loose underbrush, grass several inches tall, and in some parts loose "sugar" sand.

There are two main trails, yellow (5.4 miles through the west park) and blue (4.8 miles through the east park). They share a common trail for the first 1.5 miles then split and loop back to the trailhead. Running the perimeter of the pack on both trails ends up being about 7.5 miles, which I did today in just over an hour. There are two "cutoff" trails that slightly shorten the length of the run but I think primarily add variety for people.

The State calls these hiking trails and I will say that they are very similar to Florida hiking trails I have run the the past. There are no mountains to speak of in Florida, but there is still hiking.
Going out there for a trail run proved to be one of the hardest runs I have gone on since my first marathon.

I sights were incredible. I started out with my MP3 player but figured I was not going to need it and that is for sure! The landscapes and sights to see were far more interesting and exciting than any music or podcast. I had my visor and sunglasses but found I needed to take them off because they were obscuring my view. To be honest, even if I found the sights on the trails boring, it would have been foolish in my opinion to use an MP3 player since some parts were so narrow, I could have easily collided with an oncoming runner if I had not heard them approaching. For that matter, it took quite a good bit of concentration to be able to avoid loose rocks, stumps, sticks, holes, and roots. I did not see any snakes, but certainly there must be plenty there.

I ran the blue trail first, in reverse, connected to the yellow and back to the trailhead where I elected to run the blue trail forward once to complete a 12 mile run. It took me a total of 1 hr and 40 mins. Some parts of the trails intersect with the access trails/roads for park service trucks, and those are nice and wide. Off of those parts, the blue trail is narrower and snaps left and right frequently and abruptly. The yellow trail (from the back end) is wide, open, and picture-perfect North Florida pine grove. When you get closer to the trailhead, it becomes quite hilly and there were a few spots I had to walk due to muscle exhaustion and concern I would trip on an exposed root.

How did I feel? Incredible, free, open, and connected to Florida. At one point I saw deer (and I think turkeys, possibly a fox) cross the trail not 100 feet in front of me. The best though was after being out there for 90 minutes, at mile 10.75, I spotted a deer in the trail. I slowed my pace, and ran quietly towards him. Initially, he was a good 200-300 yards out, and I was amazed at how close he let me get. The closer I got, the slower I ran, to avoid scaring him until I was walking and no more than 50 feet away. I stopped, we met eyes and stood there for a minute or two. Silent. Observing and respecting one another. He only flinched when I began to trot down the trail again. He ran a five and out, off the trail. I figured he would be long gone, but when I got to the spot where he left the trail, he was just off it, again, not much more than 50 feet and we watched each other as I ran off. I almost expected him to return to the trail and watch me run off.

Now at home, I am unbelievably sore. My balancing hip muscles are worn out from catching me from falling a thousand times on all the aforementioned trail obstacles. But it felt great. Like I said, one of the hardest I've been on in years, but easily one of the most enjoyable.

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