Can I tell you a secret, from a nearly life-long South Floridian?
I have never understood the appeal of The Everglades. What, exactly, is the big freakin’ deal with The Everglades? It’s a large, stinking swamp. Marshes and mangroves and gators and mosquitoes and steamy humidity and bugs and snakes that can swallow a vintage Buick whole and why am I supposed to be impressed again?
The Everglades… feh! Florida’s great big drainage pit. The recipient of all the effluvia starting around Walt Disney World and flowing hundreds of miles southward to the Florida Bay.
The Everglades! WHO CARES??
I guess I do… because sometimes –sometimes! — it kind of looks really magnificent and majestic and breathtaking, just like it did on the morning of the 2016 Everglades Half Marathon, taking place in the Everglades National Park on November 19, 2016.
As part of the Vacation Races series of events in which you can run half marathons in the various national parks, the 2016 race represented the Everglades Half’s inaugural year. Ground floor, baby!
Now as the entire half marathon took place inside the Everglades National Park, there were certain logistical concerns that needed to be addressed: things like parking, crowd control, race logistics, litter, consumption, respecting the ecological landscape, and so forth. Not to mention wildlife. Oh, we’ll get to wildlife. Trust me.
So let’s just jump right in on this one, shall we? Let’s start with…
The Race Expo
The parking lot of the Miccosukee Indian Village hosted the outdoor race expo. To pick up your bib, you had three options: attending the expo, having it shipped to you for $20, or picking it up early on race morning. I elected to drive out to the Miccosukee Village the day before the race. In retrospect I probably should have waited for race day. It was a long drive out there; smack dab in the middle of the swamp, next to the park where we’d be running the next morning.
Thankfully it was a clear, sunny day, with clear skies and cool breezes. There were a handful of vendors alongside the usual bib and race shirt lines and a bevy of race merchandise ready for purchase. All of it looked nice enough, but I’m a bit burned out on race merchandise. I’ve forgotten more race shirts than most people will ever know, and they are the smart ones, I’ll tell you what.
Vacation Races events adhere to a strict no-cup environment. All the hydration stops feature coolers hooked up to pipes and spigots. You can bring your own hydration containment (handhelds bottles, Camelbaks, etc.) or the race can provide you with a free water pouch. The pouch resembles a thick, clip-on waterproof envelope. I went with my own handheld but I was glad they provided this option for runners.
Anyway let’s jump right ahead to the following morning, a Saturday no less, in a jolly little two-step we’re gonna call….
We met Running Buddy Kristi at our usual meet-up spot in Sunrise, and drove the hour-long trek down to the Miccosukee Indian Village, which is where everyone parked on race day to be shuttled to the Start Line inside Shark Valle. There was more than a bit of traffic entering the village, and we were some of the early ones.
Still, once past the traffic we were parked and on the shuttle in no time at all.
Once we reached the Start Area, we were greeted with a lively race announcer and coffee, hot chocolate, and cold water. No disposable cups were used, of course; they utilized washable tin cups for pre-race refreshments. We waited a few minutes for the rest of our Shenanigator crew to arrive. We didn’t have to wait long.
I have to credit when credit is due. Boots took that amazing picture. She rules. Anyway, from left to right: Bill, Jennifer, Doug, Laura, Jennifer, Hokeydude, Jackie, Kristi, Christina, Chris. Yeah, we had the shirts printed up. It was a special occasion, after all. Most of the above are from out-of-town: Bill and Jennifer from Texas, Doug and Laura from Maine, Christina from Washington, Jennifer all the way from California, and so on.
Leaving the Staging Area, we embarked upon the 0.75-mile walk to the Start Line.
Once we arrived at the Start Line, the race announcer notified us that they were delaying the start of the race, in order to give time for paramedics and emergency aid to be stationed along the course. While we had no choice to wait patiently, you couldn’t beat the company. Or the views, like this one ahead of us:
Not to mention our first Gator sighting of the day:
And then there’s this poor soul:
Anyway, the race finally kicked off around 7:00 AM. Kristi and I decided to run for fun, not pace or time, allowing us ample opportunity to take in the scenery, have fun, explore, and just generally enjoy ourselves. So we passed the Start Line, clicked our Garmins to life, and thus so began…
The Inaugural Everglades Half Marathon!
Let’s take a look at the course map, courtesy of Google Maps and my omnipresent Garmin 920Xt watch:
… and there’s not much to say, is there? We basically ran most of the 14.5-mile Shark Valley loop. If nothing else, check out the satellite imagery of absolutely NOTHING surrounding the area but swamp. Pretty cool.
Anyway, it was a pretty perfect morning in South Florida. Humidity was super low, with temperatures in the mid 60s, and a nice cool breeze throughout the race (although the last few miles had us facing some head winds; they weren’t a significant impediment, but they were there…) Kristi and I took off in easy 5:1 intervals and, as mentioned earlier, stopped a few times throughout the race.
I was also experiencing some pain in my left hip. Later the next week, I visited Buttkickin’ Physical Therapist Tracy who informed me I had a literal buttkickin’ diagnosis of hip tendonitis. Most likely, this occurred because of my hamstring issues during the New York City Marathon. More on this as it develops.
Anyway, we had a great time. The course was a bit on the narrow side (it’s a two lane road, more or less) but after the first few miles the crowds opened up more. The views were pretty spectacular; as I mentioned before, watching the sun rise over The Everglades was stunning. Plus we managed to count every alligator or crocodile we saw. By race end we got to 9 or 10.
We also stopped for several minutes to take in the scenery from the Observatory Tower.
The Tower afforded terrific panoramic views of the Everglades. We scoped out the surrounding marsh as best we could, but couldn’t any wildlife from above. That changed soon after as we left the tower, as one friendly gator pulled himself up onto the banks and offered to pose for photos.
I will readily admit that, while this pic was being taken, I had to nervously look back a few times. I needn’t have bothered. He kept to himself. A couple of times he lurched forward just a few inches and grinned a bit. I’m also entirely convinced he did that on purpose, just to mess with people. I wish gators could chuckle menacingly, like they do in cartoons.
Another memorable moment occurred a few miles later, when Kristi and I heard a wild cat (a panther or bobcat, most likely) roaring maybe 30 yards from us. Every runner around us leaped three or four feet in the air without even thinking. We’re talking a full-on, wild, savage, predatory ‘ROWWWRRRRR!’ Very cool.
The race was laid back, friendly, low-key, and enjoyable. You could spot a new exotic bird almost every half mile, which makes the race a MUST for you Bird Bingo enthusiasts, if you people really exist. I hope you do. And despite the presence of all the large predatory reptiles, the crocs and gators kept entirely to themselves. Mostly they just looked annoyed at all the sweaty, stinky humans bouncing through their habitat.
The pain in my hip felt sharper and more pronounced by the time we finished, and while I was glad to be able to stop and stretch it out, I was a little bummed that the race was ending. Still, we crossed that Finish Line with as much style as we could muster.
We then received our medals, which were huge and beautifully designed:
The post-run snacks consisted of your basic healthy eats: crackers, bars, fruits, water, and a plant-based protein shake that, as Kristi put it, “tasted like dirt.” I agreed, but we both drank it anyhow. We then sat and waited for the rest of our crew to come in.
As they did, I noticed a big commotion 50 yards down. I went to investigate, and discovered this fun guy right here:
This poor, cold-blooded guy had emerged from the water and just wanted some heat and sun. He lay there immobile, almost sleeping, really. Many people were posing with him (from a small but reasonable distance). Just like your humble narrator:
Everyone seemed to agree that the race was a lot of fun, definitely unique, and worth the trip. High spirits were all around as we took our requisite post-race pics:
It was a long schlep back to shower and change, but we managed to meet up at the Carolina Ale House in Doral for some post-race grub and libations. Great beer selection, that place, even if I went with my traditional craft beer choice of Funky Buddha Floridians.
We had a wonderful time running the 2016 Everglades Half Marathon. While there were a few kinks that need to be worked out– mostly related to the parking issue, getting the race started on time, and some rather disappointing post-race snacks — my overall impression of the event is very positive. This was a memorable romp through one of the most unusual courses I’ve ever experienced. And of course now it’s got me interested in hitting up the rest of the Vacation Races cadre of events, because once you race in one National Park, you have to do them all, right? But only one of them will take you through Downtown Gatorville, so mark this one on your list as a intriguingly different kind of half marathon.
Anyway, here’s the video. Take it away, Tony Joe!