22 March 2014

Qualified Paradise

Amidst the anguish of the ankle and the blather on Boston, Dearest Spouse and I took a few days earlier this month to do the second honeymoon thing. Having hit twenty years of bliss nearly a year ago, we were well overdue for this escape, despite
not having universal buy-in on the idea from all parties familial. It was time to cash in the “I got bumped” airline voucher I’d been sitting on, as well as about ten years of Marriott points, and head for a warm place at a cold time.

On that count, we scored completely. The Florida Keys served up five days of almost constant eighty degrees,
plus or minus only two or three (even at night!), at least until the “cold front” came through on our final day. While that front did pack a mighty thunderstorm, we found great mirth that even at the depth of the storm, cold meant sixty-seven (fear not, reader, it
quickly rose back into the seventies), while back home our spawn wallowed in single-digit nights. Smirk.

The trip? Fantabulous. (Believe it or not, that word passes spell-check.) Kayaking through the mangroves. Wandering the Everglades among the gators, crocs, and more cool birds than one can imagine. And even though tourist towns aren’t really our
thing, even the trek out to Key West delivered charms of its own, like the eighteen-inch iguanas. Mostly, time to savor the company of my beloved. But this column isn’t a travelogue. It’s about running. And that’s where
the paradise of the Keys requires a little…qualification.

Living up to my reputation for doing somewhat foolish things, on the day before Dearest Spouse and I flew south, I ventured out for a twenty-one miler with my training bud Issam (he of vague nomenclature that only weeks ago defined for himself a new blog name, which was subsequently vetoed by his local familial authority, and now has elected to be called “The Real Deal” in these pages). Considering how poorly my training has been going, I felt the need to stab at a twenty and assess the State of the Union. Real Deal felt the same need, so stab we did.
It wasn’t pretty. The only good news for me was that by ten miles in, I wasn’t thinking about the Achilles all that much, since most of my body was in open revolt. By the end, I’d logged my second slowest twenty-plus in history, not an encouraging result, and various body parts were seriously unhappy with me.

It occurred to me that inflicting such damage just before our grand expedition could have been a serious buzz kill. Fortunately, I got away with it, and our getaway went unmarred. Through the travel day, the kayak day, and the Key West day, I gave the body a rare three-day break from running, and the body rewarded me by not feeling even remotely sore from the long outing.

But Florida had yet to be checked off the list of States In Which I Have Run, so I couldn’t possibly leave without notching state number twenty three. On day four of our journey, I trundled out of the hotel for a morning jaunt, seeking the bliss of gliding through a sub-tropical paradise.

Ah, was I wrong, and not just wrong, but doubly wrong. Wrong number one? Everything hurt, and hurt a lot. Never mind bliss, there was no joy in Mudville, or Coral Keyville, or wherever. The ankle, which had behaved admirably over previous days, seemed ready to snap as I tried to loosen it up in
the first half-mile, and it didn’t get much better after that. Other parts joined in the parade of objections. And that pleasant air rapidly reminded me that while eighty felt so good to someone accustomed to ten, it was still eighty, and I wasn’t really ready for it.

Wrong number two was somewhat expected, based on prior map research, but surprising in its ferocity. For all the pleasures that they Keys dangle to lure visitors, the truth is that they are in large part a lousy place to run. First,
there’s the flatness. We’ve got bigger snow piles here than the highest rises on the Keys (save their landfill, and the snow mountains behind the supermarket down the street might even challenge that). Other than a small rise out of the hotel parking lot and an almost
imperceptible swell over a small boat channel, the tedium of zero change on the “Z Axis” quickly made even short distances stretch interminably. Second, there’s the simple fact that most of the Keys, including Key Largo where we were based, consist of US Route 1, for all intents and purposes a superhighway, and dozens of spur roads, most of which travel from Route One to the water and stop. To cover any amount of mileage, you pretty much have no choice but to
sidle along the high-speed traffic till you reach some of those spurs, then weave in and out of their tendril-like dead-ends, hoping for a glimpse of the sea at their termini. And finally, there’s the sad fact that the beauty of the Keys is not to be found on these routes. Not only can you not reach the sea in most places, all access points having been built over with palatial estates and closed off to mere mortals, but you see very distinctly the division lines in our society. Tucked
behind the backs of the Route-One-facing businesses, the places where everyone else lives show a stark difference from the archetypical seaside playgrounds of the one- or at least the five-percenters.

Translating this to reality, I slogged up the tiny slope from beach level at the back of the hotel to highway level and headed southwest, traffic roaring past. First chance available, I cut off the highway, but that street extended only a
tenth of a mile, if that, off the road. At least it allowed me to traverse the service lane behind the strip malls. But it ended quickly, forcing me back onto the noisy main drag. A ways down another side road again provided escape. Again, it served up a loading-dock view of the Keys, this time leading at its furthest extent to a sea-facing spur, perhaps half to three-quarters of a mile long. Lined with homes of increasing value as the sea drew nearer, there were no views, and at the end, only gates at the final, largest manses, preventing any access to peaceful or pleasant spots of contemplation. The only option? Turn around and go back the way you came. Loops don’t happen here.
And the next day? From where we were based, there was no other option, barring getting in the car and driving somewhere else for a different version of the same recipe. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. The fact is, there are very few places where you can cover any amount of distance that don’t include Route One. The walking and cycling trail that parallels the highway, largely complete (but not yet at our hotel, and in any event, it was being built on the far side of that wide swath of traffic, difficult to access) improves the experience
somewhat, but frankly, not much. It’s safer, but no more peaceful.

Places like this remind you of what you’ve got back home. New England might be cold and snowy, but we’ve got back roads, your choice of hills from killer to the occasional
nearly flat, and more options to build intriguing loops than I’ve used up in nine years. Were I to live on the Keys, life as a runner would be agonizing at best.

Go to the Keys to kayak the mangroves at Pennekamp. Go to the Keys to wander the beaches. Go to the Keys for the funkiness and history of Key West. Go to the Keys so you can sneak back to the mainland and check out the Everglades. Go to the
Keys with the one you love. Just don’t go to the Keys hoping for a good-weather location to boost your training. It’s not that kind of paradise.

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