Cruising along a hard-packed sand trail on a warm October afternoon, the shade of the pine trees at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg offers welcome relief from the sun on a 3-mile run. I'm used to sharing the road with cars and bicycles, but this is a welcome change of pace. - Out above the lake, an osprey cries. Somewhere along the shoreline, a gator bellows. Over in the palmettos, something's shuffling along. Maybe a gopher tortoise, armadillo, or perhaps even a rattlesnake. Better get going. - That is the beauty of off-road running; you never know what adventure may lay around the bend.
Trail running has its obvious benefits. Solitude can do wonders for the mind. There is no better way to blow off steam, work through problems or simply de-stress than to spend a little time in nature.
But you will also find that trail running is physically challenging. If you are used to long runs on pavement, don't be surprised when a short run on uneven terrain leaves you sore and tired. You will work muscles you may not know even existed.
Before you hit the trail, make sure you have the right equipment. Trail running shoes are much more durable than your standard road running variety. They typically have more cushioning, support and sturdier soles to help protect your feet from rocks and roots.
Many long-distance trail runners wear hip packs to carry water, energy bars and standard safety equipment such as a signal mirror and/or whistle, as well as basic medical supplies, such as a blister kit.
Do your homework
Before you set out, do a little research. Some trails are better than others for beginning runners. Pick a spot where the trails are short, well marked and frequently traveled. If possible, stop at the park headquarters and get a trail map or go online and print one out.
Short trails, a mile or less in length, are ideal for those just starting out. If you find it easier than you expected, just run another loop. Don't be surprised if it takes you longer to run a mile in the woods than it does on the street.
Don't worry about distance. Go for time. Run a half-hour in one direction, then turn around and head back. Increase your time (and distance) as you become more comfortable.
Play it safe
It's easy to zone out in the woods. But keep your eyes open. Slow down. All it takes is one little rock or root to send you head over heels. Scan the trail ahead as you run. Listen for the sound of others approaching on foot or bicycle, as most off-road trails are also used by mountain bikers.
Don't worry about wildlife, unless you are traveling out of state where bears and mountain lions can be a problem. Locally, you might run into a spiderweb or two early in the morning.
The biggest problem for most runners is dehydration or getting lost. If you take the proper precautions, hydration should not be an issue.
Consider running with a buddy. It is safer and more fun. And if there is a problem, everybody knows that two heads are better than one.
The Tampa Bay area has dozens of great trail runs. Many state and county parks have hiking and/or nature trails that are also suited for running. Most are well marked and ideal for beginners. You can go out and find your own trail runs or try some of our favorites:
- Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve: The largest regional park in Hillsborough County, this area includes Dead River Park, Flatwoods Park, John B. Sargeant Park, Morris Bridge Park, Off-Road Loop Trail and Trout Creek Park. For information, go to www.swfwmd.state.fl.us.
- Adjoining the preserve is the 3,000-acre Hillsborough River State Park with its own network of great running trails. For information, go to www.floridastateparks.org.
- Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, St. Petersburg: Located on the shores of Lake Maggiore, this 245-acre city park has more than 3 miles of running trails and boardwalks. For information, go to www.stpete.org/boyd.
- Weedon Island Preserve:Just a 15-minute drive from downtown St. Petersburg, this county preserve has more than 3 miles of running trails and boardwalks. For information, go to www.weedonislandcenter.org.
- Honeymoon Island State Park: A few miles northwest of downtown Dunedin, the 21/2-mile Osprey Trail snakes through one of the few remaining stands of Florida slash pines. For information, go to www.floridastateparks.org.
- J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park: Located in western Pasco County, east of New Port Richey, this county park has more than 27 miles of trails that go through a variety of habitat. For information, go to www.swfwmd.state.fl.us.
- Croom Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest:One of the prime adventure racing/trail running areas in Florida, Croom was named one of the "10 Coolest Places in North America" by the World Wildlife Fund. Try the 14.8-mile A/B/C Trail or one of several adjoining trails. For information, go to www.dep.state.fl.us.
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Upcoming Trail Runs
Nov. 22: X-Country Marathon, 30K, half marathon and 5K at Alafia River State Park.
Jan. 31, 2010: Half marathon and 5K Trail Run at Alafia River State Park.
Feb. 14, 2010: Flatwoods Four Trail Run, 4-mile run at Flatwoods Park.
March 14, 2010: Trout Creek Trail Runs, 5K and 15K.
April 3, 2010: Croom 50M/50K/15M Fools Trail Run, Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest. For information, go to www.TampaRaces.com.
All products courtesy of Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park (www.billjacksons.com).