Swamp Stompin

David Yon, January 8, 2017

“Why” often seems beyond understanding, let alone explaining. The heart sometimes whispers an explanation while on the run; But the words never seem to translate correctly when retold.

2017 is here and it is off to a fast start. I hope to make it my 34th straight year of running, even if I personally have not gotten off to a fast start. And it is hard to imagine a better place to do it, then in Tallahassee, Florida. Saturday was a showcase day, specially delivered to prove the point. Kristin and Jim Halley are relatively new to the Tallahassee running scene, moving to Tallahassee in October of 2014 and joining Gulf Winds Track Club in November. They are making up for lost time quickly.

When I awoke Saturday morning to the sound of rain, I knew Jim and Kristin were anxiously working on a strategy to provide participants the best running experience possible in the Swamp Forest Trail Marathon, Half Marathon and 6.5 mile races, despite the temperature dive to a windy 33 degrees. It was their first year as “official” race directors of this event. Sane people would call off the race and roll over in bed. I had signed up for this race, intending to be a participant in the 6.5-mile event, then changed the plan to become a volunteer due to a hamstring injury. But when I stepped out the door later that morning and felt the wet and windy cold bite right through my jacket, I decided I was a genius for accepting the scheduler’s offer to arrange an MRI of my hamstring at 8:00 a.m. Unfortunately, I missed version four of what has become another great event on the GWTC racing calendar.

The Swamp Forest Trail races, started in 2014 by Bobby York, showcase the single-track trails in Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park. A portion of the proceeds from the event goes to Tallahassee Friends of Our Parks Foundation, Inc. Each of the races cover a loop of “approximately” 6.5 miles, with the shortest race being only one loop, the half marathon being two loops and the marathon requiring four trips around the 6.5-mile loop. I promise despite what the math might suggest, the course is not short. The trails run through a 670-acre tract of land on the eastern shore of Lake Jackson that is managed by the City of Tallahassee and the Northwest Florida Water Management District (NWFWMD) and it can be spectacularly beautiful, especially on a cold rainy morning. The footing on the “Coon Bottom Loop” trail or the “Oak Hammock Loop” trail can be bad on a dry day, but it can really be challenging on a wet cold morning.

The “Swamp Forest Loop” trail runs, according to the park description, next to a “seepage basin swamp and a profusion of ferns, passes ephemeral ponds, and a Beech-Magnolia forest.” “In wet times, water can be seen seeping out of the bank at the top end of the ‘horseshoe.’ The trail passes the turnoff to Creek Forest Trail at G, climbs steeply to a drier upland area, and finally around the edge of a large drainage basin.” The diversity of plants along these loops is remarkable, but so is the footing, or lack thereof. Roots, mud, rocks, holes, creeks and more create challenging footing and mean a very high percentage of runners hit the ground at least once.

The NWFWMD manages the use of the property in an effort to protect and restore Lake Jackson, which is a designated Aquatic Preserve, outstanding Florida waterbody, and a priority watershed for the state. Much of the water flowing through the creeks or seeping from the swamps finds its way into Lake Jackson. The more natural processes are allowed to clean that water as it works its way to the lake, the better chance the lake has to recover and be strong.

Back on the racing front, the new race directors asked the rain to stop and it did. (They are really going to be great race directors.) With 162 runners registered, 126 people finished one or more of the races. I betting that none of the missing in action had a more colorful excuse for their absence than I did, but I do think we all missed something good that day. Gary Gellin sped around all four laps in a course record time of 3:28:44. Two-time Swamp Marathon winner, Doug Bell, ran his fastest time ever to grab second place in 3:32:12. In one of the strangest twist in a long time, there were no women finishers.

A total of 15 finished the marathon, 56 finished the 6.5 mile event (Eric Sager and Sonya Dudley won in times of 53:34 and 1:13:24) and 56 finished the half marathon (won by Charlie Johnson in 1:34:17 and Sandy Johnson (yes, they are) in 2:08:19.). It is a tremendous amount of work to make this event happen and it takes a lot of will power to get out there and run it on a day like Saturday; a day only could fully appreciate. But there will be a bigger crowd next year I bet, regardless of the weather.

GWTC will have at least two more races in this wonderful park; Pot Luck Bash in June and Miller Landing Madness in August. I hope to make both, hamstring fully repaired.