Hopkin’s Prairie in the Ocala National Forest

I almost let camping season in Florida get away from me.

Last year, I took my oldest for his first overnight in a tent, which turned into a smashing success. He’s been talking about going back ever since, and I did a poor job of making a new trip happen. I can make a lot of excuses – among others, Payne’s Prairie, where we went last year, got jacked up by Hurricane Irma – but those are all excuses.  The probability of us going on a trip this year went down with each passing weekend.

But my boy, he is tenacious.  At one point he and my wife played a wishing game – I think throwing coins into a fountain – and he told her he wished for more adventures.

My heart went *bloop* because, well, I also wish for more adventures, and when my boy is wants to head down the path I want to take him down … I want to be a follow-through kind of Dad.  This pushed me to start researching dates, places, and weather. Payne’s Prairie was an option again, but the recent hurricane flooded the area and caused limited site availability. Other somewhat local state parks and designations did not have any campsite availability, either. So after poking around, I settled on a primitive, un-reservable campsite in the Ocala National Forest called Hopkin’s Prairie.

The word “prairie” deserves some discussion here – the word has been used twice now. When I hear the word “prairie,” I conjure up a mental image of the Great Plains of the American Mid-West – miles of grassland almost never punctured by trees or, for that matter, features of any kind.  In Florida, “prairie” still means grassland, but the scale is different. Here, the grasslands in question are formed by low-lying seasonal marshes that flood in the rainy season and can’t support stands of trees. The major ones, like Payne’s Prairie, can look like they go on forever when you stand in them, but for most of them you can see the forest pick up on the other side.

Hopkin’s Prairie is one of these low-lying areas in the Ocala National Forest, set in a sea of Florida scrub interspersed by islands of longleaf pine. The campsite is seasonal, only open from early November through June 1.  The primary reason for the seasonality is as much about bugs as heat, too. Any time you hear the phrase “low-lying marsh,” feel free to substitute the words “mosquito factory.”  The area is all-the-way primitive – no running water, only a moldering toilet, and the 22 campsites are not electrified – so the end of April is starting to risk yucky weather. Read more

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Back in August, relatively early in my current path to fitness, I wrote this post, in which I articulated some secondary goals related to my fitness.  These are not goals about the fitness itself – they are goals that address a theme I’d call “How I Want to Live My Life”.  For the record, though I couldn’t have done so when I wrote that post, I can sum the answer to that up in one word now – Adventure.

One of those goals is worth quoting in its entirety:

Start keeping track of bag nights.  I love to hike and camp, and I don’t do it enough because it can be hard.  I don’t have the energy, and the physical work is just exhausting.  It has been on the order of years since I’ve done even minor camping.  That has to change, if for no other reason than that I’m committed to introducing my kids to the outdoors.

And so last weekend I took my oldest son on his first camping trip. Read more

RR #21: The Florida Run at Lake Louisa State Park

Update – 12/19/2016 – the race published pictures!  I talked about each individual picture here, but I want to come back in and put them into this post for anybody that might be looking for reports on this race.  Pictures!

Here’s how the website describes, in part, The Florida Run at Lake Louisa State Park:

Known as one of Central Florida’s more challenging and unique races, the course will take runners on paved surfaces, dirt trails, grass trails and some sand.

Lake Louisa State Park is in Clermont, Florida, about a 30 minute drive from the house.  I was worried about timing for my traditional pre-run oatmeal, so I had my coffee and a bowl of cereal, snagged a couple of Lara bars, and headed out.  I have visited the park before – and I hit the gate at about 6:20am for an 8am start.  Normally the park opens at 8am, but they make an exception on race day.  I made my way to the back of the park and headed over to the lakeside bathrooms for a quick break … and saw this – which is a sunrise that you normally don’t get to see:

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Read more

RR #20: Celebration Rotary Pancake Run 5K

I registered for this race last year and wound up getting lazy and not running it.  This year, I didn’t register for it initially on the theory that I didn’t need races and would like to save the money. But I eventually relented and signed up.  This is a charity race that Celebration Rotary does each year in conjunction with the fire department.  They have a big pancake breakfast at the fire house that is free for runners but that you can buy tickets for if you don’t run.  And they have a 10K and a 5K.

And the start line is about a mile and a half from my house. Read more

RR #19 – The Great American Bacon Race

Selecting my first “race” (event is really more correct, but they’re called races so we’ll go with that) back from my little hiatus was an interesting thought experiment.  I’m new to the area, so I want to explore – but my son is older, too, and it would be fun to not have to drive so far and maybe the family could come.  Based on timing and theme, I chose The Great American Bacon Race in Tampa.

The Great American Bacon Race advertises itself as a bacon-themed 5K series, with everything that you’d think comes with that.  They started doing this in 2014, and they’ve only got three – Orlando in August, Miami in September, and Tampa in October.  The website is short on information (course maps, etc.) but long on really good advertising and playing up the theme.  I figured it couldn’t hurt – what the heck?  That’s about an hour drive, but since it didn’t start until 9 I thought maybe the family could come – and we might get some bacon, besides.  So I signed up.

The race goes down at the Florida State Fairgrounds – so pay $6 to park, park on the grass, and a decent hike in to the check-in.  About halfway on that hike from the parking lot, the smell starts happening.

Bacon smells amazing.

No check-in bag – just your bib, your safety pins, and a strip attached to your bib that you use to go get your shirt.  So I lined up for my shirt, and then took it all back to my car to pin the bib and put the shirt away and kill a few minutes.

About an hour before the race started, people started circulating with huge pans of bacon that were being cooked on big griddles over by the finish line.  Just huge piles of bacon.  They said at one point that about 1,000 registered, and they had around 20,000 slices of bacon.

One of the thing about themed races like this is that they appeal to non-runners, and that was evident immediately.  There were a lot of kids and a lot of people with non-traditional running body shapes.  This is not a critique, just a fact – one look at me and you know I have no place for critiques.  There were a lot of costumes – many bacon themed ones, of course, but also tutus and pig ears and something that looked like a sandwich that I never really understood.  And, a solid hour before the scheduled race start, several of the kids and costumes started lining up at the start line, which, well, tells anybody that is taking this seriously what is going to happen in the first half mile.  No judgies, just statement of fact.

Notice the children and people in costume.  Also, you can see me clearly, if you look.
Notice the children and people in costume. Also, you can see me clearly, if you look.

They got everybody lined up, countdown from 10, fire the horn, and we’re off.

First thing, I was right about the chaos in the first several hundred yards.  I lined up in the front third or so of the pack because I knew what was about to happen, and I was still dodging walkers immediately.  There was one apparent incident where a woman was tripped and fell, too.  If I were going to give a single piece of feedback to the organizers it would be on this point – add signs for expected finish times, including one for walkers at the back, and make it clear over and over that walkers need to start back there.

Great American Bacon Race Map

Now, take a look at the screenshot of the course map that I got off of my Garmin.  It turns out that putting together a 3.1 mile run inside the Florida State Fairgrounds requires a lot of out and back weaving, most of it in parking lots.  The first mile or so was all in the parking area, with each “back” leg right into the sun.  Then we peeled off, passed the first Bacon Station on the course (I expected two, but never did see the second one) and ran over near the barns and the rodeo & livestock arenas, which was much more interesting.  Then another half mile or so weaving through a parking lot, and then a bit of looping through where the midway would be, and then around to the finish.

First, and I normally give massive benefit of the doubt on this one, but that course was not 3.1 miles long.  My Garmin stopped at 2.83, and my phone, which was tracking because I had an episode of Zombies! Run going, stopped at just over 2.9.  So it appears to have been about a quarter of a mile short.  Some of that is likely due to all of the weaving around – how you take corners and run the lines makes a difference, so there is that.  Benefit of the doubt has been given.

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Another interesting phenomenon – there was one couple in particular that stood out as non-traditional runner.  He was dressed up as a slice of bacon, and both of them were significantly larger than I am.  They were at the start line at 8am for a 9am start, and were among the first half-dozen people off the line when the gun went off.  As expected, I blew by them in the first minute, and wound around to start my out and around weaving.  Because of all of the weaving, you can see everybody that isn’t going all speed racer, and at about half a mile in … they were ahead of me again.  What the hell?  Took me a couple of minutes to catch them, and then maybe a mile later … they were ahead of me again.  It took me forever to figure out that they were cutting through and not completing all of the loops.

The bastards were power-leveling the 5K course.

Once I figured that out, I noticed it from several people, including one older (but fit-looking) lady that had come over to me at the beginning of the race for the express purpose of telling me she’d already had two Bloody Marys and that she planned on having fun.  This activity distracted me.  I know I shouldn’t let it bother me, but it does.  Skipping whole sections of this thing is not how this works.  I don’t care how much you love bacon, if you want to take credit for finishing a 5K, you’ve got to earn that by finishing a 5K.  Dammit.

My official finishing time was 35:34.4, and my watch had the exact same time but only 2.83 miles.  If I extrapolate up from the pace I covered my last half-mile at, this would have been a roughly 39 minute 5K, in my estimation.  My stated goal was to just go and do it, and I did that, and it was awesome.  My non-stated, but like-to-have goal was to make sure this stayed under 40 minutes.  Check.  And my dream goal was to get under my first ever 5K time, which was 38:15 … that didn’t happen, but I’m happy nonetheless.  It felt really good to get back out there.

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A finish line picture!

Notes:

  •  No, really – it felt GREAT to get back out there.  There is just an energy around these events.  Being around generally fit people is inspiring.  Being around generally not-fit people who are working their asses off is inspiring.  Just being a part of something going on is exciting.  I love seeing new things and being out in the morning.  Really – getting back out there was a good thing.
  •  My hat, it turns out, does a poor job of stopping sweat.  And one of the things about running in the daytime versus in the morning before sunrise is that I sweat more.  And it all ran into my eyes.  And stung.  So I purchased a headband at the race, and I’ve got another, and I’m going to see how I like headbands.
  • The running-through-the-parking-lot bits of this were tedious, but the other parts of the race – the barns and the arenas and the midway – that was pretty cool.  It would be nice for that course to try and incorporate more of that.
  • I never walked.  I spent a lot of time around people that were doing a run-walk strategy – they’d blow by me when they were running, and then I’d pass them 30 – 60 seconds later when they were walking.  But I kept ’em churning.  Nobody impressed me more than the speed-walking lady that passed me at about mile 2, though.  I had passed her early in the race, but apparently I slowed down and she hit her stride, because, wow.
  • No real swag in terms of a bag of crap.  But the quality of what we got was quite high.  We got a medal, which is something I’m not accustomed to in a 5K.  I almost feel bad about hanging it next to my half-marathon medals – but not bad enough to not hang it.  The bib was specific for this event, which I love, and the shirt was a very high quality cotton shirt with a nice logo – a shirt I’ll actually wear.  One thing about for-profit races, they don’t need to fill their shirts with sponsor logos, so that helps.  In the picture below, I purchased the headband only…

    SWAG
    SWAG
  • Next Race:  Celebration Rotary Club Pancake Breakfast 5K on October 31st. Hopefully this one winds up being somewhat faster.  We’ll see.

No, seriously – LEGO DINOSAURS

I mentioned at last Friday’s weigh-in that we had a plan to visit Legoland Florida over the weekend – and visit Legoland we did.  The tickets are pretty expensive (and don’t include parking!), so we found that it made sense to buy season passes.  All we have to do is go one more time and they more than pay for themselves.   I ordered them online last Friday, and off we went.

Legoland Florida is in a town called Winter Haven, and has only been in existence since 2011.  I’ve been coming down here now for 9 months, and from the beginning I’ve thought that Winter Haven was a weird place to put a major amusement park.  It turns out, though, that the site for Legoland is the site of an old Florida institution called Cypress Gardens.  Cypress Gardens went bankrupt in the 2000s (9/11 and the three-hurricane year of 2004 did them in), and Legoland bought the whole shebang and fixed it up.

Our first impression was that the administration of the park, and in particular the lines, feels like an old, somewhat rural, amusement park.  Disney World is famous for how well than handle a huge number of people and their line management.  Busch Gardens is also quite good at it.  Legoland?  Not as much.

Not that this is going to be a negative post – that’s pretty much my only critical comment.  We had a really good day.

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Right inside the gates. This little chef is amazing, and is just a tiny taste of the Lego creations…

Two things really stood out early in the park.  First, the large-scale Lego “statues” are unbelievable.  The chef in that picture above is almost an afterthought, and had to have taken hours and hours to build.  Second only to the grandeur was the attention to detail – there were little Lego details everywhere.  Squirrels in the trees, stop signs made out of Legos, just every detail.

Right inside the park there is a carousel.  In retrospect, we should have headed straight to the back of the park and worked our way forward – the line was long and the rides were short.  But we got in line, and rode the Lego horses.

He was already anti-picture
He was already anti-picture

And then we came to the most amazing thing.

They call it the Mini-City.  They have all of these scenes and cities that they re-create … with Legos.  The attention to detail is mind boggling.

The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge
On the pirate ship
On the pirate ship
The grandstand at the Daytona 500
The grandstand at the Daytona 500
The infield at the Daytona 500
The infield at the Daytona 500

They have the Florida State Capitol, Washington DC, Times Square and Grand Central Terminal in NYC, just an unbelievable spread of Lego detail.  We were amazed.

Just up from that is a sandwich place for lunch, and then we split up so I could take a look at a couple of different things.

Lunch time is the best time...
Lunch time is the best time…

The original Cypress Gardens Park had been built around a big botanical garden, which itself was built around a big banyan tree that was planted back in the 1930s.  As the park started going through financial distress and started changing hands in the 80s (and all the way through 2011), there was some concern in Florida about the “old Florida” elements of the park – and particularly the botanical garden – being dismantled and swept away.  At one point either Polk County or the State of Florida actually owned the property and just leased it out, to make sure that this didn’t happen (not sure how that ownership works now).  As part of that, in the middle of Legoland and on the edge of the lake, the old Cypress Gardens Botanical Park still exists – and I needed to go take a look at that.  So my wife took the bigger kid and they went looking for rides, and I took the baby and we went for a walk.

Obligatory alligator, because Florida
Obligatory alligator, because Florida

Right inside the gate we saw our alligator, so we got that out of the way.  Little guy, but he was there.  And then we started winding through the grounds.  Because of the middle of the day and the fact that I couldn’t chase birds and butterflies (babies, you know – plus people waiting on me), I didn’t get a ton of pictures.  But let me tell you, the place is beautiful … and then you walk up on the banyan tree.

Pictures do not do it justice
Pictures do not do it justice

This thing – wow.  As the limbs grow, they send out their own roots that, when they find the ground, develop into their own little trunks to support the limbs.  Over the course of 80 – 90 years, it develops into this massive system of limbs and trunks and roots and just an amazing piece of nature.

Just past the banyan tree
Just past the banyan tree

We walked around a bit more, and then hurried back to meet up with the other two.  When the weather breaks a bit here, I’ll go back during the day (I only work 15 minutes from Legoland) and get some good pictures.

And then came the rides and the ice cream.

He got a driver's license for this.
He got a driver’s license for this.
This is his
This is his “don’t take a picture” face
Coastersaurus - and his first roller coaster!
Coastersaurus – and his first roller coaster!

At this point, the day was hot and we were starting to lose our children to tiredness and crankiness, so after that dinosaur roller coaster we mostly just pushed through.

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One thing we had missed, though, over by the Mini City, was the Star Wars section.  They had scenes set up from the movies, but the cool things were the statues.

Darth Maul is apparently a short guy
Darth Maul is apparently a short guy

Here I will say that Darth Maul is an under-rated Darth, I feel.  There was also a Darth Vader, but the line for him was several people long.  We waited zero minutes at Darth Maul for the opportunity to take a picture – and he was really cool.  #nerdalert

We really had a great time, and we learned some things.

  1.  11am on Saturday morning is not an ideal time to arrive.  Chaos entering the park, but it was calm and quiet by the time we left around 4pm.  Either get there early or go ahead and wait until after lunch.  This may change when the weather gets better – if the park fills up, all bets are off.
  2. When it is busy, head straight to the back of the park and work forward.  You’ll be working the opposite way of the crowds.  This is a good thing.
  3. There are lots of scheduled things – shows, etc. – that, now that we’ve seen the whole park, we will be sure and make time for next time.

Will let you know how it goes when we take our next trip.

Photo-op Saturday

Got up this morning to go for a scheduled 4 mile run, but I was having some gastro issues and lets just say that I was nervous to be 2 miles from the house this morning after having run to get there and move on.

Instead, because I was up and had a rare free morning when the sun was coming up, I grabbed my camera and headed out to the big pond / little lake out here by the house that I see so much wildlife in as I drive by on the way to and from work.  This is the same lake where I took the picture of the big alligator a few weeks back, and I thought maybe I’d find something interesting.

And I did.  Lots of things.

One thing I have to say about Florida – when the sun isn’t directly overhead the landscape is absolutely beautiful.

 

Kind of perfect, really...
Kind of perfect, really…

So I walked up and spent a couple of minutes looking around, just to see if there was anything obvious to see.  There wasn’t, so I started walking down the edge of the water.  Within two minutes, I made a new friend.

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This was not the big guy, but I was able to get up very close to him and get some pictures I really like.  This was a rush.

Then I went and found the birds.  A great blue heron:

2015-09-05 08.04.04A great egret:
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A red-winged blackbird (actually a bunch of these, but they didn’t sit still for pictures):

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And a little blue heron (which is a distinct species, not just a small specimen):

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The light was challenging, but I want to practice my photography and try and get better – there is so much here to take pictures of, and it is frustrating to know what you want the shot to look like and not be able to execute.  So I’ll keep practicing – and seeing all of this wildlife is really a rush.

Tomorrow, though, I’ll be running.  I’ve got a 4-miler to make up.

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You must go to Gatorland

Took the family to Gatorland in Orlando today, and here’s the thing about Gatorland – you need to go.

No, seriously, whatever it is that you have planned in the Orlando area the next time you come around, you need to just go ahead and shuffle that around and make a trip to Gatorland.  If you’re here for Disney, just take the half day or even full day and skip Disney and head over there.

We went in with low expectations.  Frankly, it seemed like it had an opportunity to be very cheesy.  And, in spots, it was.  But that was more than made up for by the just unbelievable wildlife – there are so many alligators that counting becomes pointless. And snakes and birds and crocodiles and you name it – this place is incredible.

We didn’t see the “famous” Jumperoo show, but we did go and take in the alligator wrestling.  Picture a sand pit in the middle of a little arena, bleachers on all sides.  The pit is surrounded by a moat, in which swim a dozen or so alligators and over which is a single bridge that has gates on both ends of it.  Some crazy-ass dude walks in there, asks a little kid to pick out which gator he’s going to “wrestle” – and the little kid OF COURSE picks the biggest one in the water.  Because, OF COURSE.  This thing is mean, and our man struggles to get it out of the water.  So he STEPS OFF INTO THE MOAT, WADES OVER AND GRABS IT BY THE TAIL AND DRAGS IT UP INTO THE SAND PIT.  This alligator snarling and bellowing and trying to bite him the whole time.  And then proceeds to do all kinds of tricks with it.

Are you kidding me?

Seriously, come do this.  And bring your camera.  There is some amazing stuff to see here.  I took all of the pictures included below except the one with the family – that one cost $18.99, but did come with a 1GB flash drive.

Enter at the famous Gator Mouth
Enter at the famous Gator Mouth
And be greeted immediately by a sight guaranteed to make you pause.
And be greeted immediately by a sight guaranteed to make you pause.
Obligatory
Obligatory “ride the fake alligator” shot
We didn't know about the little alligator when we said do it - there was a snake option, to which we said
We didn’t know about the little alligator when we said do it – there was a snake option, to which we said “no but hell no”
They have tropical birds. Happy with my lens on this.
They have tropical birds. Happy with my lens on this.
D'awwwww
D’awwwww
This guy was no shit certifiable. And this was his second go at the gator - he got away the first time. Just crazy.
This guy was no shit certifiable. And this was his second go at the gator – he got away the first time. Just crazy.
No seriously - just crazy.
No seriously – just crazy.
Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron
He was not the biggest gator we saw, but he was huge and right underneath us.
He was not the biggest gator we saw, but he was huge and right underneath us.
Tried to make this confrontational-looking, but it wasn't. The bird was in zero danger.
Tried to make this confrontational-looking, but it wasn’t. The bird was in zero danger.
Great Egret. Looks like another freaking country.
Great Egret. Looks like another freaking country.
So.Many.Alligators
So.Many.Alligators
And welcome to Florida, where the humidity is wretched and it rains every day.
And welcome to Florida, where the humidity is wretched and it rains every day.