Milkshakes and Memories

There is something about farmer’s markets and roadside farm stands that remind me of my grandpa.  Cherry colored tomatoes conjure images of my Grandpa Huke shuffling down the rows of his perfectly manicured garden in our backyard.  Piles of green beans remind me of the time he thought it would be a good idea to sprinkle dog hair around the plants to keep away the rabbits.  I’m not quite sure if the rabbits actually kept their distance, but I know my family kept its distance from hairy green beans that summer.  Rows of sweet corn rouse my memories as I search for that ear of corn that will taste like the fresh picked sweetness of my youth.  So when I walked into Robert is Here, I was transported back in time.

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After a hot bike ride through Shark Valley, the frequent fresh milkshake signs on the highway piqued my interest.  With tropical and traditional fruits, each sign vouched to be the best one around.  If you know me, I’m a planner, so before we journeyed into the Everglades I had already researched one particular farm stand that promised to be well worth a milkshake stop.

When we approached, the parked cars that lined both sides of the street confirmed that this place must be great.  I entered the store and instantly pictured my grandpa selling his crops at the flea market each weekend.

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While our main purpose was milkshakes, this place has a little bit of everything, from fresh veggies and fruits to seashells and a splash pad.  Jars of jams, jellies, dressings, honey, and marinades line the walls.  Below them are bags of jerky–gator or beef.  Behind the store stood an eclectic mix of tortoises, donkeys, ducks, goats, and emus.  Not to mention a pig and a pair of parrots.  It was quite the motley crew, but they provided some entertainment as I waited for our milkshakes to be made.

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35 minutes later it was taste-test time.  Strawberry-key lime for me and strawberry-passion fruit for Geoff.  Both were given an enthusiastic thumbs up.  In fact, they were so delicious that we made a stop on our return home for round two:  mango and strawberry banana this time.

Robert’s story is an endearing one, starting his business selling cucumbers as a six-year-old and buying his first ten acres of land at age fourteen.  You can read the rest of his story here, as he tells it better than I can.  Yes, the milkshakes were delectable, but the long forgotten memories Robert’s store inspired were something that I appreciated even more.   And yes, I did take a few ears of corn to sample.  While tasty, my search continues.

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See Ya Later Alley of Gators

When I booked our camping and kayaking trip to the Everglades a few months ago, the only images in my mind were sitting by a campfire eating smores, floating in my kayak viewing manatees and dolphins, and taking a technology break.  However, in the days before the trip, my romantic camping ideas were replaced by images of giant Burmese pythons–capable of eating small deer–slithering into my tent and asphyxiating me.

These images dominated my brain thanks to recent reports on the news the few days before we left.  And as we explored several regions of the park, the word python was on everyone’s lips.  From the kids biking with us in Shark Valley, to the guide leading our boat ride, everyone had a fun fact about pythons that they clearly thought I wanted to hear.  It’s probably important to mention that my greatest fear in life is seeing snakes in the wild which is ironic since a small ball python lives in the room next to my bedroom.  I would be remiss if I too did not share a fun fact about pythons that I learned on this trip:  It is estimated that nearly 100,000 pythons reside in the River of Grass, but due to their perfectly camouflaged coloring, they are nearly impossible to spot, and on a recent python hunting season only 68 were caught over the course of the nearly month long season.  This ranger-provided information did absolutely nothing to assuage my fears.  So I did my best to ignore the ever-constant snake threat and enjoy my trip.

First stop, Shark Valley.

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Once the ride is over, we are all smiles! Publix subs await.

Located in the northern boundaries of the park, Shark Valley is the place to spot alligators.  Beginning before we even entered the park boundaries, we began spotting our Florida state reptile in the canal that ran parallel to the highway.   The parking lot is small at the Shark Valley Visitor Center, and since we did not arrive until nearly 11 on a Saturday, we were forced to park on US 41 and ride our bikes a little extra.  After ten dollars, a visit to the restroom, and freshly filled water bottles we were on our way for a hellish adventurous  fifteen mile bike ride.

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The never-ending trail of hot asphalt.

 Within a quarter of a mile we were spotting gators every few feet and calling out 8, 9, 10 as each of us saw them.  And of course we had to be those tourists that get as close as possible.  We even made Flat Stanley do the same.  (We took Flat Stanley on our adventure for my cousin that lives in Indiana.)

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Can I get a little closer?

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Flat Stanley loves gators too.

 After a few miles the gators became, dare I say, boring because there were so many of them.  So we began looking for other signs of life.  Turtles abounded, but our coolest spotting was the Purple Gallinule.  Sadly our little purple friend did not want to be photographed, and by the time I was ready to snap his picture, he was hidden in the brush.  We were, however, able to capture a Great Blue Heron hanging out on the banks of the marsh majestically searching for fish.  We also saw two Anhinga fledglings covered in fluffy white feathers, a stark contrast to their black adult counterparts.

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Great Blue Heron

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Baby Anhingas

As the sun climbed higher in the sky, we continued our shadeless ride towards the observation tower.  The concrete monstrosity provided both a rest from riding and some much appreciated shade.  I took comfort in the fact that it was so hot that the pythons has to be seeking shade today–right?

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Observation Tower: mile 7

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Back on our bikes we started the eight mile return trip through what I’d like to call a little taste of hell.  By this point the sun was blazing, my butt hurt from riding, I was starving, and running out of water  I’m pretty sure my whining was getting on Geoff’s nerves as well, but all I wanted was a tree with some shade to rest under.  At this point I was willing to sacrifice a python sighting for a sliver of shade.   Plus our alligator sighting and any wildlife for that matter had dropped to practically nil.

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Gator number 72

 After several rest stops to give my aching butt a minute of relief and finishing off my water bottle and Geoff’s, we pushed on. The promise of Publix subs and air conditioning gave me the energy to finish the last miles.

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I’m smiling, but I’m crying on the inside.

And so we left Shark Valley saying see ya later “Alley of Gators” as we had named it and drove on to the most southern part of the continental US.

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Elevation: 12 feet

Perhaps if I had taken that bike ride in, say…January or perhaps at 8 AM, it would not have been such a miserable experience.  I would not recommend starting at 11, and if you were to arrive to Shark Valley this late in the day, I’d say take the tram instead.  While I’m glad we we went on our bike rides– we did end up seeing 78 alligators–I do not think this is something I would venture to do again.  I am quite happy with the blessedly shaded West Orange Trail that is much closer to home and poses no threat of pythons.

Bridges and Blisters: Sarasota Half Marathon

Whether it was cruising around St. Armand’s Circle, patio dining downtown, squishing my toes in the silky Sarasota sand, or running over the John Ringling Causeway, my Sarasota race weekend did not disappoint.

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I signed up for this race last March after seeing its adorable dolphin medal on Pinterest.  And for the bargain price of $50, I anxiously awaited March 2015.  So, one year later my race buddy and I hit the road.  What should have been a two hour drive easily stretched to three due to numerous accidents on both I-4 and I-75.  We passed the time playing the license plate game (finding 34 states), catching up, and discussing our other upcoming races (Chicago, and Disneyland).

Arriving in Sarasota, our first stop was packet pick-up at Fit to Run downtown Sarasota.  The line looked rather long, so we ignored our growling stomachs in order to get bibs and t-shirts.  After a 30 minute wait we held our swag bags equipped with the most obnoxious neon green shirt.  The bright spot in the bag was an adorable light blue race jacket and First Watch coupons.

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Leaving Fit to Run, we headed past the growing line which had doubled in size since we had entered it and began our search for lunch.  We settled on Mattison’s City Grill with it’s charming outdoor patio.  While the location was quaint, the service was less than desirable.  Our burgers were tasty, but our server was overly busy and not as attentive as one would like.

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Stomachs satisfied it was time to hit the beach.  We decided to hit Lido Beach which was closest to our hotel.  It also allowed us to drive the race course and see the dreaded bridges we would be running over the next morning.

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Lido Beach was pretty crowded considering it was already 5:30 when we arrived.  We walked away from the crowds on the silky sand looking for shells.  However, high tide isn’t conducive to shell collecting, and alas, we came home empty handed.

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Dinner was at a locally owned place called Joey D’s, a Chicago-style restaurant.  We both love our Chicago dogs and thought they would make the perfect pre-race dinner.  Not disappointed, we scarfed down our Vienna dogs and headed back to the hotel to turn in for the night.

Race morning started at 4:15 with a quick breakfast of a banana.  By 5:15 we were in the car heading to the start line.  The race didn’t start until 7, but parking was rumored to be difficult, so we arrived early as not to stress.  Getting there so early allowed us to move to the front of the corral, use the port-a-potties before long lines formed, and relax.

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The temperature hung around 66 degrees, but the humidity was 100%.  So while it wasn’t hot, it didn’t take long after starting for my face to turn bright red and the sweat to cling to every inch of my body.

My running buddy stayed with me for the first two miles so we could snap a picture on the causeway.  Then she took off and I kept to my 1:1 intervals.  I hadn’t run in three weeks due to a terrible case of bronchitis, so I was a little nervous about being able to breath.

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Miles one through six had me on pace to break my half marathon record by 15 minutes.  I took the bridges in stride running up them as much as I could and running down them without stopping.  However, around mile seven I hit both a physical and mental wall.  The physical wall being that I did not honor the cardinal rule of running:  thou shall not introduce anything new to your run.  I tested out a new pair of socks on this run which caused me to get four terrible blisters on both feet.  Three days later they are still very painful to walk on.

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Mentally, the humidity was making me miserable, and several times I wanted to stop at a water station and wait for race support to transport me back to the car.  I trudged along watching my pace slow from turtle to snail.  Any ground I had gained in the first half of the race was slipping away in the second.  By mile 11 my mantra switched from one more mile to one more step as my lower back tensed up, my knees ached, and feet burned.  Seeing mile 12 was the greatest relief as I knew I could walk the entire thing in no more than 15 minutes.  At this point my feet were in such pain I could no longer run.  Finally, I passed the mile 13 sign and turned to see the blessed finish line.  I did not want to walk across the finish line so I sucked up the pain and ran the last tenth finishing only five minutes longer than my personal record. If only I hadn’t worn those stupid socks.

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After crossing the finish line a volunteer put the comically large dolphin medal around my neck.  Grabbing a bottle of water I hobbled over to the grass to get off my feet for a little while.  My running buddy found me, and we watched the final runners come in.

First Watch was the sponsor of the race and provided a post-race breakfast of some of their menu items.  I scarfed down a Siesta Key Cocktail and a blueberry muffin.  We stopped for a few post-race photos, and I swapped out my jacket for a larger size.  Then it was back to the hotel for quick showers before driving back to Orlando.

Overall, I really enjoyed the Sarasota Half Marathon.  The 5000 runner cap made the course comfortable.  The race route was scenic and portions were shaded which was quite appreciated once the sun was blazing.  The bridges were difficult but not impossible and provided for a great view of the sunrise.  While mostly the race was positive, it would have been nice to have a few more water stops along the route.  I had brought my hydration belt, so it wasn’t an issue, but with the humidity I would have struggled more without it.  My other complaint is the starting time.  Although it would mean getting up earlier, I would have preferred a 6 A.M. race start in order to avoid the sun at the end of the race.

It’s nice to have another half under my belt.  And now that I’m healthy again, I can get back on the training band wagon to prepare for the Iron Girl in Clearwater next month.  As for Sarasota, I’m still contemplating whether or not I want to sign up for next year.  For $50 it’s hard to ask for a nicer race.

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