Jacksonville Beaches- Runs To Remember


Gordon Cherr,


We used to make a pilgrimage here once a year, it was many years ago. They had a race, it was only four miles long, but it was nasty. That’s why we came over here, leaving early in the AM from Tallahassee and driving 3-4 hours, to run the hard, level beach. Gulf of Mexico beaches are oh so fine, but really not for running. The sand is too soft, the swash zone is too steep, running on the gulf beaches is a good way to pull every muscle from the waist down. Not so, the Atlantic beaches. Remember, this is where modern stock car racing really began, just south, on Daytona Beach. Hard packed, mostly level right down to the waves washing in.

The old Jacksonville Beaches Run was tough but so much fun. Up and down the beach, they didn’t care what the tide was, high or low. Nothing fancy. Out two miles, back two miles, just run it as fast as you can. Sometimes you got wet, most times you stayed dry, it was up to you, but you always brought your worst shoes from the pile of the old, crappy, beat up and worn out keepers that you couldn’t bear to part with, because whatever you wore was going to get ruined from the sand and the sea.

Do you really want to know where barefoot running started in Florida? This race was it. I remember one year there was a beach restoration project going on. They didn’t stop the huge dredge hose from sucking in sand and water from offshore and disgorging it onto the beach while the race was going on. The race directors never even had a thought of moving the race to another location, either. To us it seemed perfectly normal anyway. So at one point we ran through (and later back through) about 200 yards of stinking dark brown shoe sucking sandy muck and rivers of dirty-looking water running back into the ocean. You sank in about calf or knee deep and there was no shortage of runners at the finish walking around with one or even no shoes to show for their effort. And laughing about it the whole time. At least that’s the way I choose to remember it.

I was on that beach about a month ago, running north and then an equal distance back south. Beach running is simplicity at its best. No route to plan, no traffic, just go as far as you please and go back the same way. Avoid the dogs, the leisurely bicycle riders and the aimlessly wandering walkers and sea-shellers, and hopefully your car is still there when you return, intact.

And it is never the same twice. Never. The last time there was a 30-40 knot wind sweeping the beach from north to south. I was thinking about the blowing sands of the Sahara, but then it struck me, the beach while warm, reminded me more of nature films of the Antarctic, with snow being blown across your field of vision for as far as you could see. It stung pretty good too, and running into that gusty wind through a squinty field of vision, keeping your mouth shut and breathing through your nose was the only way to go. The out leg, into the wind, was slow going indeed, but coming back was like running on one of those moving sidewalks you see at the airport. Out in 11’s, back in 8’s. Nice way to finish a run. Imagine if it always felt like that.

I was out there again yesterday, with the sun. Little breeze this time, but as the tide was incoming, I had to dance back and forth on the beach strand with each wave to keep my feet dry. The wind was blowing onshore now and there were wind surfers out and about, that really looks like fun.

Out for an hour, where did the time go? A little pit stop in the secluded high dunes and I was ready for the return trip. A few other runners on the beach, some folks on bicycles, a few more dogs wandering as aimlessly as their owners, shore birds skittering here and there, some loud seagulls, a silently gliding flotilla of pelicans, and the steady crashing of waves on the shore. It is hypnotic.

Looking out towards the eastern horizon, I can see shrimp boats with booms horizontally extended, working the shallow seas. I say a silent prayer for them, I have been to sea, I know the dangers. And maybe a prayer or two for their cousins in the Louisiana Gulf, still dealing with the oily misery of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, and suffering mightily as a result, regardless of what some others may try to tell you. People who make their living from the sea are tough and leathery but kind. And in tune with the nature that surrounds them, on the job training (“life”), if not in terms of book sense.

Sigh…this is turning into a long run and a tiring one at that. Dark thoughts begin to crowd my mind.

Then all negative thoughts vanish. I am running as aimlessly as those wandering dogs, just wanting to get done, and chance a look, out to my left. A fin breaks the surface and rolls back under. Then another, then two or three or more in perfect harmonious unison only a few yards away. Then even more. Sharks? No. A family of porpoises is working the shoreline, going south like me. They make me smile, these Bottle Nosed Dolphin. Now, I am trying to pace them but they are swimming faster than I can run, they slide gracefully along with the shore current while I struggle clumsily on the sand. I want to keep up and share their sojourn along the beach, the urge within me is so strong. I kick off my shoes and throw down my socks and start to barefoot it in the waves. The beach is better packed here and the running easier. Or I lose myself in the effort, maybe that is it. We share an invisible bond. Time ceases to exist for me.

Later, in the distance I can see the long boardwalk jutting out onto the beach, marking the end of my run this day. Another 500 yards and the magic is gone. I bid them a silent farewell. They move on without so much as a final goodbye. I turn around for the long slow jog back up the beach, hopefully to find my shoes and socks, if not already swept away by the rising tide.