Clearwater, FL: May, 2019
Uncle Gabe lived with his greyhound rescue, Archie, in northern St. Petersburg, toward the back of a mid-century block pleasantly shaded by gargantuan oaks. It’s a testament to these trees that they survived the post-air conditioning sprawl that created this and other areas of its age. The neighborhood also held onto the sense of community that most semi-suburban locales lost with the advent of the interstate. It was populated almost entirely by empty nesters and never nesters and became a club for forty and fiftysomethings living the Florida life. Each house hosted a party for one holiday, however minor, and we found ourselves there for the Kentucky Derby edition.
Uncle Gabe and Archie greeted us with a beer and a tail windmill respectively. The house was an immaculately clean open concept with a bar on one side of the kitchen and a door to the pool on the other. We weren’t even halfway through the beer when it was time to walk down the block to watch the Derby.
“Can we bring these?” I asked my uncle, indicating the beer.
“Oh yeah, nobody cares.” He smiled beneath his fu manchu and handed me a coozie. “If this makes you feel better.”
At the party Lauren and I were surrounded by the neighbors, all interested in the new folks. The host looked like Christine Baranski in a cowboy hat. She shook her shoulders back and forth after everything she said like she was eating something sour, and also served up the strongest mint juleps ever. After the second one, the day of driving caught up to me and I began to doze while Uncle Gabe and Christine were debating on whether we should take a ferry from Naples to Key West or really drive the whole thing. It was already settled and we were driving but we let them give us the pros and cons of each as we nursed mint juleps and tried to keep up outgoing facades. We failed, and were soon walking back to my uncle’s through the steamy Florida evening. It was a short end to a long day and we idled in the living room for a bit and watch the Rays game. Archie (named for former Rays pitcher Chris Archer) looked like we felt, sleeping as only greyhounds do – legs up like a rotisserie chicken, eyes back in air-conditioned ecstasy.
“I can drive us!” Uncle Gabe said in the morning as he made us a full breakfast and we planned our day. We ate eggs and toast while a significant storm blew through, and decided we would go to Clearwater Beach after it clears and then check out a few of the breweries. I was happy to be released from the confinement of controlling the car but my tone changed as he opened his garage to reveal our ride. On the tailgate of his four door pickup were a dozen or more bumper stickers along the lines of:
-He won…Get over it.
-To anger a conservative, lie to him. To anger a liberal, tell him the truth.
-My dog must be a Democrat – I pay for all his food while he sleeps all day.
Uncle Gabe knows Lauren and I lean the other way politically. We know he knows. He knows we know he knows. But we don’t talk about it. Thank goodness for craft beer, baseball, and dogs. Lauren and I looked at each other and came to a non-verbal understanding that we would talk about anything but that. “Rays are off to a good start…”
This became an impossibility as we crossed the bridge from the mainland to Clearwater Beach. An old man in a white tanktop slowed his red truck to pace us on the passenger side. He rolled down his window, honked his horn and gave a thumbs up. I had forgotten about the bumper stickers for a moment and thought we were about to have a Florida Man situation on the bridge.
“There’s always a finger when I drive this truck” said Uncle Gabe. “Sometimes it’s the thumb, sometimes it a different one.”
We get along wonderfully with Uncle Gabe despite our differences of opinion and I am truly grateful for how kind of a host he is and for his willingness to drive us around all day. That said, when we parked at the crowded beach you can be sure I walked quickly around the front of the truck and pretended I was getting out of a different car.
Clearwater Beach was still becoming repopulated from the human siphon that took place during the midmorning storm. We had lunch at Frenchie’s Rockaway, where I had a shrimp burger and a couple of beers. Uncle Gabe knew the bartender from the bar he used to work at and he didn’t charge us for half of them. And by us I mean Uncle Gabe, as he refused to allow me or Lauren to pay for anything the entire weekend. Outside, the sky was wispy and the water was rough. We walked the beach for a bit, looking for seashells and listening to the hissing sound that waves make when they roll over already wet sand. The few beachgoers that remained were mostly sedentary, sitting in lawn chairs far enough back where the tide couldn’t threaten. One group of two old men and two old women sat in the shade of Pier 60, the men asleep with books sprawled open on their sunburned torsos, the women staring out to sea. We (Uncle Gabe) paid a few dollars to walk out onto Pier 60 where people attempted to fish or watched the six foot swells.
“This is unusual for May” Uncle Gabe said as we walked around the end of the pier trying to avoid a child’s hooked backswing. “This looks like it does just before a hurricane.”
A pelican with intense eyes and a vase-shaped beak that sunk down to his belly landed on the railing just a few feet from us. He began posing for pictures, turning to the side and pointing his head outward when people would come by, phones up. Lauren walked over to the bird and it looked directly at her condescendingly and then went back to his business. A crane got in on the action and began ambling down the center of the pier like someone in heeled shoes on a brick street, her three pronged talons spread like a peace sign, the only thing balancing her motion. It wasn’t a long beach day, conditions impossible for swimming and the wind began to pick up the loose sand as the subtropical sun dried off its morning bath.
We stopped by Cigar City Brewery in Tampa after a quick stop to walk Archie. I was interested in visiting Ybor City but the people at the Derby Party made their feelings about the area known and I don’t think I would be able to convince Uncle Gabe to take us somewhere that they all deemed “boring in the morning and a mess by night.” It was the exact type of place that would interest me, Latin culture and unique architecture but I decided not to press the issue. Cigar City, though, was named for the area, when Tampa generally and Ybor specifically was the cigar rolling hub of the US. We ordered two flights of beer between the three of us and it was fantastic as expected. I went easy and had a water during round two however, as I had business to attend to the following day.
I had just brought my 5K time back down to where it was in the cross country era when fortune turned my way and a local Cinco de Mayo themed race happened to be going on two miles from Uncle Gabe’s house in Clearwater. In a state as long and stretchy as Florida I assumed checking it off would be a bit more daunting in terms of timing. I woke early and it was already 84 degrees and sticky as I drove to the starting line, in a parking lot next to the Phillies spring training stadium and some palm encircled chain restaurants. It was definitely a small race, a couple hundred people or so and the emcee announced that anyone who thinks they will run under 22 minutes should be ready to go ten minutes early. Not exactly convenient for those of us who like to cut it close and then must pin their bibs to their shirts while the National Anthem is playing. “It’s to get to the beer faster” said the girl in front of me. I later learned it was because a storm was on its way.
The race began and two people took off at a sprint. I looked at my watch and it read a 4:45 pace, well faster than I should be going, and they were still pulling away from me. One was wearing khaki shorts and a polo – He shouldn’t be a problem. The other looked to be a college aged cross country runner and I figured I would just let him go. I was in third for a few minutes as we rounded the fake Phillies stadium but then as expected, I passed the khaki guy who had slowed to barely a shuffle. I was more shocked when around the one mile mark I began matching pace and then catching up to the lead runner, all while slowing a bit myself. I passed him easily.
What was this? I don’t lead races – I haven’t finished first since the high school gym class mile when only I and the other track kid in class cared at all anyway. Modestly, I am faster than the majority of people who toe the line at local races, I’ve placed top three a couple of times when the number of entrants is reasonable, but this was fairly new. I was now behind only the pacer, a woman on a bicycle wearing a taco costume, weaving down the paved trail and looking back at me occasionally to make sure I hadn’t slowed too significantly.
The course entered a verdant park with knotted trees and wooden bridges. And shade. The morning wasn’t particularly sunny but running beneath the canopy acted as a welcome placebo after circling the parking lot in the soupy Florida haze. The relief was fleeting though and soon the humidity began to tax me a bit and my second mile was twenty seconds slower than my first. We wound past the perimeter of a golf course and a man was gingerly trying to reach into the edge of a pond near the trail. He nearly stumbled in when the taco-donning pacer announced our presence by ringing her bell. Had he gone the whole way in, he would’ve either become gator chum or pleasantly cooled, there would be no in between. Uncle Gabe told me later that spring is alligator mating season, so a wiser man would have just taken the stroke, but he was determined. Fortunately he was able to gather himself, pick up his mulligan and live to swing again.
The race turned around shortly after two miles and I would run the rest of the way against the grain of the other racers. I got to see how far I was ahead and there was a small chase group maybe thirty seconds behind me. Only one looked like they had any chance of catching me, judging by stride and a quick facial assessment. The others looked a lot like I felt. That third mile was one of those endless ones that usually wait until the back side of a longer race like a marathon. I tried to suck up some air but it had the texture of an indoor pool changing room and I slowed some more. Cheers from the runners still heading out to the turnaround helped, and I tried to smile or reciprocate every one, unfamiliar with the etiquette of the lead runner. It wasn’t until the last turn toward the finish that I knew nobody would catch me and I sped a bit under the banner for my first 5K win.
My time wasn’t quite what I wanted but winning a race blows any pace goals away, even a race as small and localized as this. I stayed and chatted with some of the other top finishers and the race organizers who were giving out the food and drinks afterward.
“Good job on that tough course with all those hills and bridges!” The woman at the beer stand said. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it was quite possibly the flattest race I had ever run so I took the compliment. “But at least you got a nice cool day to run!”
I laughed and said “I really can’t tell if you are being sarcastic or not.”
“Not at all, it’s usually worse than this.”
A cool, hilly run on the Gulf coast of Florida.
So, I wondered if Florida is a fairly noncompetitive state for running. Does the heat and humidity make it difficult to train year round? Even in the early morning hours I can’t imagine waking up in August and doing a set of Yassos. Small sample size for certain, but in a 5K at home with a similar amounts of entrants the time I ran would not have finished first overall. In Colorado it would have hardly cracked the top quarter, but here I won the race by nearly a minute. I know I would run less if I lived here.
These were the thoughts I had as I made it back to Uncle Gabe’s house and went to take a picture of my medal (looks like a taco) and top finisher plaque. I held the plaque in front of the camera and went to hang the medal on a palm tree. When I did, a branch bent and a snake jumped out of the tree and slithered into the garden. It startled me enough that the glass plaque almost became a glass pile on the sidewalk. I was wrong. Temperatures are not the issue- runners in Florida have to be fast, it’s just that during the race there was nothing to run away from.