Wye Island NRMA

Wye Island NRMA

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Rejuvenating Landscape: Myakka River State Park

I arrived on Florida's Gulf Coast on the night of Thursday, February 27. Like so many of my previous vacations, I began this one feeling deeply weary, both physically and mentally, and emotionally drained. My fatigue and anxiety were largely the result of the longest, harshest winter of training that I've experienced as a runner. Winter began early, in late November, and, as I write this entry in the last days of March, I am uncertain whether it has ended or temporarily subsided before delivering one last blast of deep chill to spite all who prematurely proclaimed and celebrated the start of spring.

Last fall, my 2013 campaign ended brilliantly. I was fortunate to attain personal records in the 5K, 10K, 5 mile, and half marathon, before completing my first marathon in a respectable 2:33:27. Imbued with confidence from these accomplishments, I began training for my spring season in earnest on January 1, striding comfortably in a t-shirt and shorts during a 30-minute tempo run. Spring held promise. I was determined to train, and live, to the fullest in an attempt to squeeze the utmost potential from body at the distance of 5000 meters before fully transitioning to longer distance events, for which, at my age and temperament, I am far better suited.

Describing Baltimore's winter as uncharacteristically bad would be a cruel understatement, denying due respect to both the season and those who endured it. Each week of January and February brought heavy winds, bitterly cold temperatures, and precipitation in all its wintery variations: cold rain, freezing rain, sleet, and snow. Compounding these conditions, I suffered from a cold that lingered for all of January and half of February. By the end of last month, I was physically spent from my efforts to maintain a regimen of speed and strength under these adverse conditions. I had allowed myself to succumb to the tyranny of statistics, an obsession with mileage and interval splits that left me in a state approaching physical burnout. I was already mentally burnt out from the stresses of life and work that exacerbated the pressure of my relentless pursuit of my competitive goals.

The day before my departure to Florida, I ran a paltry 4.5 miles at a gentle pace on tired legs and then resolved to liberate myself from the pressures inherent in targeting a specific and challenging numerical goal. Above all, I wanted to establish a mindset in which I would be more cognizant of the many pleasures that running affords - camaraderie with training partners, health and vigor, exploration, adventure. At Myakka River State Park, a short drive from my motel in Nokomis, Florida, I found the perfect venue to begin the process of self reflection and physical recovery. Furthermore, I discovered the site's history intersected with my personal history. This preserved landscape and I are both products of the same social policies and philosophies of conversation.

The State of Florida established Myakka River State Park in the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression. The park was one of thousands of conservation projects that the federal government undertook during the presidential administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Such projects served the dual purpose of employing young, jobless men in socially meaningful work and restoring and preserving the nation's degraded forests and agricultural lands for posterity. While many of Roosevelt's New Deal programs targeted conservation projects, his Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), established in 1933, was the largest and most significant, ultimately enlisting millions of working-class young men in Roosevelt's "Tree Army" in thousands of camps across the United States. Myakka River State Park was home to one such camp.

Roosevelt and the CCC's administrators embraced a Progressive Era environmental philosophy that argued exposure to parks and "wilderness" served to rejuvenate the mind, body, and souls of individuals who endured a life of industrial and urban drudgery. This philosophy - the wilderness as a place for renewal - dates at least to New England's nineteenth-century Transcendentalists. However, its most extensive and significant manifestation in social policy was Roosevelt's CCC. While work, life, and mission varied from camp to camp, as diverse as the lands they inhabited, each unit had the common goals of restoring landscapes and lives and building social goods and good citizens.

The accomplishments of the young men who converted a remote tract of Floridian forest and grassland into a 58-square-mile park were immediately apparent as I drove through the park's entrance, greeted by a sign that read "Welcome to the Real Florida." The structures the CCC built for the American people still facilitate recreation today: several cabins, hewn from the park's native palm, accommodate campers; a visitor center and pavilions are educational space that interpret the park's history and resources. While I was unable to lodge in the park during my visit - the cabins book up months in advance - I had the opportunity to traverse the fire roads and trails that lead away from the park's physical infrastructure into its seemingly remote interior. Once I was over a half-mile from the park's main road, I was alone on the soft trails. As I ran deeper into the park, the forest transitioned to grasslands, an environment that felt more foreign to me than any I had previously explored.  The landscape, which had been undergoing restoration since the inception of the CCC, promoted contemplation.  I was alone and in awe of the park's innumerable natural resources that wove together a unique ecological tapestry.

Dry prairie in the interior of Myakka State Park

At that moment, I was running for recreation with the principal goals of exploration and immersion, freed from the burdens that I had imposed upon myself.   Gone were the numbers that had haunted me for weeks. Similarly, the soft trails were a significant relief from the unforgiving urban pavement on which I had completed most of my runs after the winter rendered Maryland's parks inaccessible. Like the CCC enlistees of my grandfathers' generation, I was working with this landscape to strength both body and mind, and in this park I found relief from the stresses of life in urban America. Reflecting on the experience, it appears that I helped fulfill Roosevelt and the New Deal conversationists' mission for the CCC. Decades after the CCC camps disbanded, their work continues to benefit the American people, providing landscapes for recreation, education, and exploration along thousands of miles of trails across tens of millions of acres of land. As a runner, I find these landscapes especially inviting; there is, I believe, no better way to explore a park than on fleet feet, immersed in the sites and sounds and smells of its environs.

I returned to Baltimore rejuvenated and emboldened. I had largely recovered from the physical fatigue that had derailed workouts and sapped my motivation in the preceding weeks. I began consciously redirecting my focus to enjoying the social aspects of running. I now strive to be more cognizant of my fortunes as a runner, and I continually draw motivation from these fortunes whenever I encounter a disappointing workout or unpleasant running conditions. I've adapted my training to compliment this outlook; I no longer fret over missed or altered speed session. Unsurprisingly, for the past two weeks I've completed some of the best workouts of my life. On March 16, with a rested body and relaxed psyche, I ran a 12-second personal best at 5K, finishing in 15:05 at Kelly's Shamrock 5k (Baltimore, MD). Now, I am a mere six seconds from the goal I established at the season's onset, 14:59. As my target race approaches, the BAA 5K in Boston on April 19, I am equally excited for the race and to run and explore the parks in the Boston area with friends from that region.

I intend to use this blog to document the remainder of this racing season and future training cycles. In forthcoming entries, I hope to establish my voice as a writer and narrow the scope and purpose of my writing. This blog will serve as a medium for logging runs and expressing personal reflections on the spaces I inhabit as a runner. I will emphasize the landscapes that are products of the environmental thought and social policies that I discussed in this entry.  I also hope that this digital history will inspire others to explore these places and will instill in the reader a curiosity for the social investment and environmental policies of past generations that produced so many social goods from which we immeasurably benefit. Like training as a distance runner, honing my writing will take patience, thoughtful training, and ongoing reflection and revision. It's going to be great fun. Onward.