Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Tuesday, Jan. 29: Adding Florida, or
thank God for Merry Weather Avenue

The Embassy Suites hotel and conference center that we called home in Orlando, Fla.

On the final morning of a four-day printing conference in Orlando, I fell out of bed at 4:45 a.m. and logged 7.3 miles on the roads and byways west of the Embassy Suites, where we're staying. It was enough to add Florida to the "Running in All 50 States" list as No. 10, pushing me into digits. I'm one fifth of the way there!

I suppose if you're going to add Florida, then January is the time to do it. New Hampshire had been in the grip of a prolonged spell of sub-zero Arctic weather when we left last Friday. Meanwhile, Orlando has enjoyed daytime highs about 80 and overnight lows in the (gasp) upper 50s!

So on Tuesday, Jan. 29, I ventured into the predawn darkness, but only after two "practice" runs earlier in the conference. The area we're staying is a commercial zone near the airport -- a land of hotels, chain restaurants, warehouses, rental car storage lots, and the occasional gated community. The bad news is that it embodies the worst in disconnected sprawl development. But the good news is that it's all so bright shiny new and filled with coconut and palm trees!

Seriously, while it's nothing like an authentic place ("This is not the retail district," said the clerk at the hotel when I asked about renting a bicycle), it does boast sidewalks (unbroken by frost heaves!) and some really elaborate landscaping. Alas, the sidewalks often wind their way through the elaborate landscaping, zig-zagging back and forth instead of in a straight line, which can be kind of a pain when you're on an extended run.

Still, that's no reason to complain. However, what is a reason to complain is that the sidewalks sometimes just give out altogether, forcing a runner (or walker) onto the road. Apparently it's up to developers to include sidewalks and landscaping, and some properties didn't get them or haven't yet been developed.

Here's the route I scratched out on a piece of hotel stationery, with the help of Google Maps.

Anyway, it was cool and calm when I set out into the pre-dawn void, first circling an Orwellian office development next to our hotel, then heading east on Hazeltine National Drive, which is all office parks, and then north on TCP Drive, which is all warehouses. Up ahead loomed my first big road, Lee Vista Boulevard, and even from a distance I could see I was in for trouble. The road was a wide, four-lane divided highway with a 45 mph speed limit, and busy, even at 5:20 a.m.

Really! I reached it during a lull in traffic and so crossed over to a sidewalk, but after that cars were pretty much constant, as Lee Vista is apparently a major east-west route. This wasn't a problem until the sidewalk ran out. With uneven turf lining the road and it still being dark, I really had no choice to run in a narrow bike lane, with cars and trucks whizzing by at top speed mere inches from my side.

This was not fun.

I began passing gated communities with names like "Crescent Vista Estates," with Semona Boulevard, a big north-south road, with its chain hotels and lit-up restaurant signs looming in the distance. The sidewalk resumed, but now included occasional sprinklers with nozzles pointing over the sidewalk. A ground fog had formed, giving the whole scene a certain Steven King ambiance, with pairs of car headlights tracing beams through the gray gloom.

I lucked out at Semona, crossing the busy street when no vehicles were approaching. But then the run got really interesting, as the road narrowed to a curvy two-lane highway with no sidewalks and no bike lanes, either.

For awhile, I thought I was screwed. It didn't feel safe, and with Lee Vista Road heading into undeveloped country, I didn't expect things to get any better. I was just beginning to formulate 'Plan B' for my run when I noticed that yes, across the road was an actual sidewalk.

The first break in the traffic, I scooted over, got on that, and kept going. Yes, the sidewalk soon disappeared, but there was enough of a shoulder for me to feel comfortable, and I was facing the eastbound traffic, which wasn't nearly so heavy. So my moment of crisis has passed.

Lee Vista Boulevard soon turned into Judge Road, and I stayed with it through open country -- westward, ever westward. To the south, jets were taking off from Orlando Airport, swooping overhead and sounding like a leaf blower and whistling tea kettle at the same time.

Conway Road was my next landmark, and the sidewalks started up again a few hundred yards before I reach it. Traffic on this north-south thoroughfare wasn't nearly so heavy, so I got across and continued west on Judge. For the next quarter-mile, the sidewalk ran alongside a brick wall, which I later found was a gated community, one of several that I would trudge by in this area.

After about a mile of this, I was getting kind of tired of brick walls and big iron gates. Good think I hadn't planned to run on any of the streets inside! I began yearning to see just one driveway or front door or chainlink fence. And then, just in time, I turned onto Merry Weather Drive.

Holy cripe! A perfectly ordinary street -- one lined with modest single-story homes! Through shrouded in pre-dawn darkness, the outlines were plain enough: the garbage cans along the sidewalk, the 'Beware of Dog' signs, the lawn ornaments. It felt like a real place! Even the slightly down market name (Merry Weather instead of the more uppity 'Meriwether' or something like that) felt right, like I was among real people who lived real Florida lives, even though most of them were sleeping just now.

About a half-mile of this was all I needed to feel refreshed. Turning onto Conway Drive to begin the trek back, I reentered the anonymous suburban sprawl. Well, at least Conway had generous sidewalks. In fact, for a short stretch, the sidewalks themselves had sidewalks! Seems like a recent rebuild of the road had included sidewalks, but a section of existing parallel sidewalk had been left in place. This created "express" and "local" sidewalks, something I'd never seen before.

(Sorry, no photos of all this. The hotel was miles away, and with no car and no time later, it wasn't possible to return to the scene of the crime. So here's a photo of coconut trees near the hotel instead.)

So I trudged back along Judge Road, returning to the more familiar sprawl near our hotel. Along the way, I passed the Renaissance Hotel on Semona Boulevard, which I visited the other night because it's the only place around that had a piano on which I could practice. (I was thrilled that any place would have a piano in this area.)

Approaching our hotel, I began to see other folks out for morning runs at more reasonable hours. One looked just like my business partner, so I greeted him a little more heartily (and insultingly!) than he was perhaps expecting. Of course he wasn't my business partner, but why let a little thing like that get in the way of reaching out to a fellow runner on the road?

Upon my return to the lobby, the clock read 6:45 a.m. So 1 hour and 37 minutes to do 7.3 miles. That's 13:12 per mile, which isn't too bad, considering that I haven't been running or doing any kind of exercise recently. And it was enough to add Florida to my list, which puts me at 10 -- double digits, and one-fifth of the way there.

Not sure when and where the next one will be, but stay tuned!

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