cycling · holiday fitness · holidays · motivation · traveling · winter

Finishing my #31DaysOfWinterBiking (in Florida)

It feels like it’s cheating. But I did count Zwifting inside as winter biking. Anyway, for me, the main point of these social media challenges is to just increase the number of days I ride. I’m a pretty decent tough weather cyclist–I’ve got the gear and it still makes me smile–but even I can find January with its ice and cold and very dark days just a bit much. Enter the #31DaysOfWinterBiking. But also, for me, enter a week long vacation at the end of January riding my bike in Florida.

The plan: We loaded up the Prius and Jeff, Sarah, and I drove Saturday and Sunday from Guelph to Central Florida. It was about 20 hours, door to door. We stopped for the night on Saturday in a roadside motel in West Virginia. Sunday night we checked into our very cute cottage. Five days of Florida bike riding and then Saturday, tomorrow, we check out and do the same drive in reverse.

It’s a repeat of last year in some ways. Last year we went riding in Clermont though then Jeff was already on his boat in Florida and Sarah and I flew down. I liked where we stayed in Clermont but it wasn’t free for these dates this year. Instead, we’re in nearby Mount Dora, home of the Mount Dora Bike Festival.

The bike festival is in its 45th year and it brings hundreds of riders to this old cute Florida town. Their route maps are here. Our plan was to hang out and ride bikes in a leisurely, vacation style way, making use of the Mount Dora route maps and also driving back to Clermont to ride some of our favorites again.

Our tropical Mount Dora cabin

Day 1: Tangerine Ride

When we arrived in Florida Sarah was sick–cough, cold, sneezing, sore throat. On holidays! So not fair. So for our first day we noodled down to downtown Mount Dora, an old central Florida town full of coffee shops and gift stores, sat outside and drank lattes. Properly fortified we did the Mount Dora Bike Festival’s family friendly Tangerine Ride. I recommend it!

“With 10.8 miles and + 394 feet of climbing this is a nice, mostly flat, casual and un-guided ride out to one of our beautiful lakefront parks, Trimble Park.  Enjoy the park and then ride back through the historic town of Tangerine.”

Trimble Park

We’ve been amused, as Canadians, with all the bear warning signs. Do they come south for winter? Turns out, upon googling, that Florida black bears are a sub species of the North American black bear. You can read up here.

“The park is in a known bear habitat and you may also see alligators, squirrels, raccoons, gopher tortoises, slider turtles, snakes, lizards and many bird species including eagles, osprey, pelicans and hawks.” From a guide to Trimble Park.

Total distance ridden: 28 km

Day 2: Shortened version of the Three Bob’s Ride, including thrill hill

“With 41.6 miles and +1112 feet of Climbing this route was named after three cycling friends all named Bob.  This route was created from their friendly challenge to see which Bob could create the ride where you could spot the most lakes in Lake County in 40 miles.  This was the winning ride and the route brags about having a water feature for every mile it is long! Rolling hills and great forested land are also highlights of this ride.”

Highlights: So many lakes! Also “thrill hill.” It wasn’t really that big of a hill but this is flat Florida. Still, it was a fun descent. Lowlight: lunch stop ended up being MacDonald’s since the local diners closed at 2 pm, after lunch.

Total distance ridden: 55 km

Day 3: Shortened version of the Metric Swamp Century

“Very scenic ride through northern Lake County, it is named for the Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area that this ride will wind through.”

Highlights: Praline pecans with sweet Georgia heat spice for snacks, also an alpaca farm with alpaca boarding, you know in case you own an alpaca and need to take a vacation. Lowlight: Keep America Great signs. Sigh.

Total distance ridden: 70 km

Day 4: West Orange Trail

The West Orange Trail is 21 miles long and so out and back makes a pretty good ride. It’s a multiuse pathway, yes, but nicely paved and plenty wide. You can actually ride at speed through sections of it. We loved it last time and so we were determined to do it again.

From Wikipedia: “The West Orange Trail is a 22-mile (35 km) long multi-use rail trail owned by Orange County Parks and Recreation in Orange County, Florida, in the United States. The paved trail passes through downtown OaklandWinter Garden, and Apopka with most of its length built on old railroad alignments. To the west of the West Orange Trail is the South Lake-Lake Minneola Scenic Trail in Lake County which was connected to the trail in 2007.”

Highlights: Love the wide paved pathway and the town of Wintergarden. We stopped there for coffee and lunch and I bought an Orange Trail bike jersey. Lowlight: Trying to navigate four way stops when the path crosses roads with riders with different tolerances for looking and riding through. I’m the nervous nellie in this crowd. Also we encountered our first rain on the way back.

Total distance ridden: 45 km

Wintergarden

Day 5: Sugarloaf

It was supposed to be the “Assault on Sugarloaf” but by Friday I’d caught Sarah’s cold. With a sore throat and cough I agreed to ride up the local big hill but I wasn’t about to be mounting an assault on anything.

Here’s a description of Sugarloaf by Climbbybike.com:

“The sugarloaf mountain is situated in Florida (US). This climb belongs to the Florida hills. The sugarloaf mountain via clermont, fl is ranked number 1 of the Florida hills. The climb is ranked number 427 in United States and number 11779 in the world. Starting from clermont, fl, the sugarloaf mountain ascent is 1 km long. Over this distance, you climb 67 heightmeters. The average percentage thus is 6.7 %. The maximum slope is 16%.”

In the end it started to rain and got dark and once we got off the lovely bike paths the cars were passing too close for my comfort. Sarah made it up Sugarloaf but I called for Jeff’s rescue wagon. Here’s the lovely bike trail.

Somehow when I imagined bike riding in Florida I never imagined such lovely paved bike trails.

Total distance ridden, for me: 15 km
For Sarah: 38 km
For Jeff: 0 km (he was also getting sick and was driving the support vehicle)

I made it through January! Yay! It’s been a long month. And a very gloomy one.

From here on in it’s a quick countdown to spring. Right?

Guest Post

Into the Trails for the Run for the Toad (Guest Post)

“Sometimes you have to stop to see. Then, follow the trail to see some more…”

In 2004 after 15 years of running, and mainly road running, I was getting bored.  I tried to interchange running with biking and going to the gym but the problem was I always felt like I was cheating on running with other activities.  Only the distorted mind of a runner can relate to this way of thinking.  If I wasn’t running, I wasn’t really getting all that my body was craving, but the road running was really getting monotonous.  So what do you do when you get bored of running?  You sign up for a race in hopes that it will motivate you to run!

As I looked for a race I hadn’t done before and one that was over 10 km, but not a marathon, I found a 25km trail race that was nearby in Paris, Ontario.  The Run for the Toad was in its infancy at the time and it was only the third year this 25km or 50km trail race had been held.  With summer approaching, the training would be great for this early fall race, so I signed up.  The first year I ran this race, I fell in love with it. The organization of this race is superb, even with the growth in popularity from only 272 participants in the 25km race the first year I ran it to 1250 runners and 100 kids running in this year’s race. They added a 1 km run for the kids for free, with the added bonus of a medal this year for all 100 kids that participated making the event is truly a family friendly atmosphere.   It sounds cliché but if you do it once, you’ll be hooked and I guarantee you’ll be back.

Driving into the park, you are greeted by an exceedingly friendly volunteer at the gate house, which sets the tone for the rest of the day, no matter what Mother Nature has in store for you.  Volunteers direct you where to park and there are many that show you the way to ‘tent city’.  Event tents house the expo, registration, and a smaller one as a venue for the kids to watch some cartoons on the big screen they have set up.  The larger event tent is where you will get your catered lunch after the race…which I will highlight later as it deserves its own paragraph…that’s how good it is.

The setting at Pinehurst Conservation Area could not get any better.  The park is impeccably kept and the trails are pristine.  The race is run as a 12.5km loop, so for the 25 km, you do this loop twice.  Normally I am not a fan of the double loop, but because of the stunning scenery and the diverse terrain you cover over the 12.5 km, the loops don’t really feel like you are repeating it…well until you get to the gargantuan grassy hill at about the 11.5 km mark. Ok, maybe not gargantuan, but when you are on the second loop and it is placed at the 23 km mark, it is gargantuan.  My mind cannot even get around doing this course 4 times for the 50km.  Every year I am amazed to see the 50km runners amongst the pack, chugging along and unfazed by the fact that they have to do this challenging course 4 times. Respect.  The course changes beautifully from wooded single file trail to wide, cedar lined and pine needle carpeted trail.  The plains consist of wide open grassy knolls rolling you up and down like a roller coaster.  When the weather is good, it is a lovely part of the course; however, when the weather is bad, this is the part of the course that makes you start to question your sanity.  The term ‘rolling hills’ is an understatement for this race; which makes it interesting if the day is rainy and the course gets muddy.  All along the trail, there are plenty of marshals and volunteers always happy to cheer you on and give out high fives.  As it is in a conservation area, part of the course is a run through the camp grounds where weekend and seasonal campers line up their camp chairs and cheer you on as they have their morning coffees.

My running buddy and good friend, Rayanne, are on our fourth Toad (as you end up calling it over the years) together.  We train in the Dundas Conservation area trails where the trails very closely mimic those of the Toad.  This year the training was superb and the weather this summer could not have been more cooperative.  We were hopeful that this year’s race day would be sunny and warm.  We were hopeful that we each wear our favourite shorts and t shirts. We were hopeful that we would be able to eat our gourmet lunch outside in the sunshine, like we had a couple of times before.  Mother Nature didn’t get the memo.  This past Saturday, October 3rd, marked my sixth running of the 25km Run for the Toad.  I have run this race in beautiful sunshine, teaming rain, and this year, in extremely high wind gusts and not so seasonal temperatures.  Despite the blowing winds and colder temperatures, we were able to beat our time from the last year we had run the Toad.

Feeling good about our finish, we made our way to the event tent holding rows of tables and chairs to accommodate the runners for their lunch.  The lunch is served up to you by the Stone Crock restaurant in St. Jacob’s, Ontario.  When asked why we keep coming back to do this race, we often say it is because of the lunch.  Vegetables, noodles, pasta salads, couscous salad, chicken and pie are some of the offerings to feed your hunger after running 25 km.  All of the dishes are delicious and definitely worth running 25 km for.

As I looked around at the Run for the Toad, there is a certain atmosphere here that is not duplicated in any other race I have done.  The elite runners are plentiful here and you can’t help but marvel over their accomplishments, but there is a certain mellowness that radiates from the founders Peggy and George that spills over to everyone. They began hosting this race back in 2001 and even though it has grown substantially, the family vibe is still in tact.  The Run for the Toad is a total package run.  The scenery of the park is stellar.  The post-race meal is excellent.  The swag bag consists of a back pack (not another race shirt that is 2 sizes too big) and some goodies to bring home.

Of all of the great things I can say about this race, the best thing to come out of running the Run for the Toad all these years is being able to explore trail running.  The Toad got me off the road and into the technical world of trail running.  The Toad got me off the pavement and onto the dirt.  The Toad took me away from running among the cars and trucks and brought me to trees, brooks and nature; and for that, I say thanks Peggy and George.  I’ll see you next October.

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Nicole Jessome lives in Hamilton, Ontario where she can be found running in the trails or down at the waterfront. Nicole has completed many 5km and 10 km races along with 9 Around the Bay 30km road races. When she isn’t at work, she is teaching Hatha and Vinyasa Yoga, baking and writing for cravelife.org.