As I wrote a few weeks ago, I am in the final weeks of training for my first half-marathon. I reworked my training plan before hitting the road to ensure I would be able to fit in both short and long runs in between our road travels. This week’s plan called for 15 miles, and I planned to pick up 2 in VA and 3 in TN before a long 10-miler when we reached my aunt’s house in Tampa. I researched running trails in her neighborhood and found a nature park with a 7-mile paved loop. The entrance appeared to be right around the corner from the house, perhaps a mile away, so if we ran there and back, we’d get 9 miles. Good enough for a safe, scenic route.
As it turns out, I grabbed just 1 mile in VA, 2 in TN, and zero in the Smokies…although we did hike 11 miles on Wednesday, which definitely counts as cross-training and a short-mileage substitute. So I arrived in Tampa on Thursday night with plans to go for a long run on Friday morning early enough to beat the heat. I thought we could do 10 miles in just over 1 ½ hours.
We set out early, entering the park via the North Tampa Nature Trail, just a half-mile from where we were staying. We wove our way through a bug jungle before we connected to a spur of the main Flatwoods Loop trail that I had read about. At the time, we didn’t realize we were on a spur and thought the 7-mile loop had begun. We stuck together for the first three miles and then broke off to run at our own paces…specifically, for me to slow down. I was feeling the effects of the heat and humidity, and I contemplated cutting my run short, to 6 or 8 miles instead. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep pace for 10.
We agreed to finish the loop separately and meet back at a water station we had passed earlier. It was a loop after all; as long as we kept running in the same direction, we’d get back to where we started. Or so we thought. I watched M run out of sight around a bend in the trail. There were plenty of people around—several bicyclists and a few other runners—so I didn’t feel unsafe. Plus, I had my cell phone with me, and the park was patrolled by rangers who could be also be contacted by phone (every water station listed the emergency number). I kept running, hydrating and enjoying the scenery of the first few miles.
After five miles, I needed a break. I walked a bit of Mile 6 and refilled my water bottles. I jogged a bit more, and then walked again. Somewhere around Mile 7, there was one fork in the road, where two separate loops appeared to join. It wasn’t clear which direction to go, but after some debate with myself, I decided to stay to the right. I was running clockwise in a circle; best to stick to the inside track.
Friday turned out to be an unseasonably warm day in Tampa—86 degrees before noon—and I quickly finished the water I had brought with me. Fortunately, the park had basic water stations every mile or two around the loop. And that loop…well it turned out to be further than I estimated. Not the loop itself, but the fact that we had started on a spur instead of the main trail. I was expecting to meet back up at around the 8-mile mark on my watch. I kept running. The sun shined brightly in a cloudless sky. It was hot, and there was very little shade on the trail. I ate a Goo (an energy product) and ran a bit more.
The GPS distance tracker on my watch kept increasing— 7 miles, 8 miles, 9 miles—and the trail kept twisting and turning with no end in sight. What happened to a 7-mile loop? There were fewer and fewer people on the trail. I ran long stretches without seeing another person while lizards and armadillos darted into the brush beside me. I kept running, drinking, running, walking. 10 miles, 11 miles. I kept thinking back to that fork in the road. What if he went left when I went right? What direction were we supposed to go? Why did we split up? Why didn’t he have his phone with him?
To say I was panicked would be an overstatement, but my level of anxiety was rising with every mile. Finally, around Mile 11, I flagged down a bicyclist and asked if she had passed a water station at a four-way intersection. “Oh, sure,” she replied. “About half a mile back.” I don’t know where the speed came from, but I practically sprinted the next half-mile. As I rounded the last corner, I caught a glimpse of the water shelter: empty. M wasn’t there. I lost steam and started trudging, thinking about my next move.
And just then, he emerged from around a bend, walking in my direction. I waved my arms to catch his attention. I was sweaty, sunburned, exhausted, and safe…but I wasn’t done running. We still had another mile to go before we got home. Final distance: more than 12 miles. What should have been an easy training run turned into a test of conditioning, endurance, and mental toughness…and I think I passed. I also think running 13.1 hilly miles in New Hampshire will be easier than yesterday’s run in the park. -J