Thursday, October 8, 2009

Eve of the debut of the Apalachee Regional Park cross-country course

The first races ever held on the Apalachee Regional Park cross-country course are scheduled for this Saturday, 10 October 2009, at the Florida State University Cross-Country Invitational. You can still see folks from the Leon County Division of Parks and Recreation scrambling around trying to get everything just right, but the course is already about what it will be at 7:50am Saturday morning when the gun goes off for the start of the first race. If you had come out to the Apalachee Regional Park back in the spring, you would have seen woods, swamps, and old cow pastures adjoining what was once the county landfill. What will the runners see on Saturday?

Getting to the course

First, the athletes will have to actually get to the course. It's on the north side of Apalachee Regional Park, which is at 7550 Apalachee Parkway (US 27). This is east of Tallahassee, about four-and-a-half miles east of the intersection of Capital Circle (US 319) and Apalachee Parkway (US 27). The map below shows the driving route from that intersection:

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You'll see this sign on the right as you approach the left turn for the main entrance into the park:

From the left turn lane, the entrance to the park will look like this:

Now you're in the park. There's a gate straight ahead. Don't go through that gate unless you've got business at the landfill. Instead, make the left turn just before the gate.

Having made the left turn, you're on an unpaved road between athletic fields. Keep going west on this road.

After a short drive, the road comes to a "T". Turn right here (you'll be going north and downhill).

After the right turn, you'll come to gate. If the gate is closed, you'll have to park and walk in. If the gate is open, you may want to park and walk in anyway; it's a nice walk. On the morning of the Invitational, the gate will be open.

North of the gate, the road runs under spreading live oaks. Wouldn't you rather be walking?

On the other side of the trees is a meadow. On the right side of the road is Seminole Remote Control Airfield. Stay away from Seminole Remote Control Airfield! Parking for the Invitational will be on the left side of the road. The course is straight ahead, along the treeline at the north end of the road.

A tour of the course

Florida State University coach Karen Harvey has produced an excellent map of the 5K course.

On this map, north (Lake Lafayette) is to the left, so you can see that Field #1 and the start are to the west of Field #2 and the parking area. The 5K is two loops around the course (with modifications). After strolling over to the starting line, you'll be able to see the quarter-mile-long wide, grassy straightaway that the runners will cover first. This is how it looked on Tuesday, 6 October 2009.

Mowed and rolled, the surface of this field is ultra-fast. Aim for the oaks at the far east end, and watch your footing at the shallow gully midway across the field.

At the end of Field #1, the runners will pass through an oak hammock into Field #2. It's a wide passage surfaced with crushed oyster shell--no roots or mud here.

Clearing the oak hammock, the course enters Field #2 and follows the tree line.

The tree line isn't straight, so the course winds gently along the north edge of Field #2.

Almost 700m from the start, the runners will pass what will be their two-mile mark on the second time around the loop. The top entrance of the Corbin Trail is on the left. Blazed by course designer Brian Corbin, the Corbin Trail is a 220-meter-long shortcut between the one-mile mark and the two-mile mark.

The Corbin Trail is just for coaches, trainers, photographers, spectators, and anyone else who isn't running. The runners will be looking ahead and seeing this as they pass the Corbin Trail:

After the course makes a bend to the left, the runners will see more crushed oyster shells and another bend to the left. The course is approaching the dike.

This is a cross-country course, but the cinder track where Roger Bannister ran the first sub-4:00 mile wasn't as good as this stretch of crushed oyster-shell trail. Smooth and well drained, the surface here is consistently fast. The half-mile mark is around the next bend.

At the half-mile mark the runners are headed north along the top of the dike. On the right is "the moat," a ditch full of unsavory-looking seepage from the landfill. The dike keeps this from flowing directly downhill into Lake Lafayette. Looking ahead, the runners will see the course making a 90-degree right turn to the east.

After the turn past the half mile, the runners will still be on the dike, but they'll be looking ahead at the left turn off the dike and away from "the moat."

Leaving the dike, the runners will be in Field #3. Twenty years ago Field #3 was a cow pasture like Field #1 and Field #2, but the trees have made a good start at reclaiming Field #3. The south end of the field is already a piney woods. The course forks immediately after leaving the dike. The first time around the loop, the runners will take the right fork, making for a gentle turn into the field. But the second time around the loop the runners will take the left fork, making almost a hairpin turn while coming downhill off of the dike. Cross country is fun!

The first time around the loop, the runners will pass this way across Field #3.

Reaching the east edge of Field #3 the runners will see the course bending left to go north into the piney woods.

The course through the piney woods is hard-packed dirt, but not as well-drained as other parts of the course. The standing water in the photo below is from a rain shower a few hours earlier in the day.

The course makes many bends in the piney woods, mostly to the left. The clear spot ahead on the right is a side trail, an old fishing road to Lake Lafayette (which the runners won't be taking).

The bends to the left cause the course to follow a U-shaped loop around the edges of Field #3, turning first west and then back south.

The course bends north and starts to head out of the piney woods. In the photo below, you can see some folks from the Leon County Division of Parks and Recreation who were working on the course.

Continuing north, the course comes out of the piney woods and into an unwooded portion of Field #3. Looking ahead, the course makes a turn to the right, under some trees and through The Dip.

The Dip is a stride-breaking gully that the course could have gone around, but what would have been the fun of that? It's a lot tamer than it once was, having been smoothed out with a layer of pulverized oyster shells. Perhaps in the future a generous alumnus will donate a plank bridge to cross the Dip.

Negotiating the dip, the runners will turn right to head west under the trees on one of the most photogenic stretches of the course.

After the oaks, the course turns right to take the runners down into the Jungle. This turn is also where the second loop rejoins the first loop after the fork coming off the dike.

The course going into the Jungle has the potential to be absurdly fast. The runners will be going downhill here with hard-packed crushed oyster shell underfoot.

Still headed downslope, the runners will pass (on their first loop) the mile mark. To the left, notice the flags marking the north end of the Corbin Trail.

In the woods near the mile mark you might notice what looks like a large cage. This is a trap for feral pigs, which have made a nuisance of themselves by rooting up the course. Most of them have been caught, but there are still some at large. Deer also live in the area as do many other wild animals.

Beyond the mile mark the course levels out and approaches a causeway through a swampy area--labeled "shell bridge" on Coach Harvey's map.

The causeway is the lowest spot on the course. It's a layer of rocks underneath a layer of gravel, topped with a hard-packed layer of crushed oyster shell and sprinkled with leaves. It is flat and crazy-fast to run on.

The causeway is less than a tenth of a mile long. On the left you may see some sinister-looking swamp water. Off the trail on the right you may be able to make out Lake Lafayette.

The oyster shells end as the runners leave the causeway. It's not all uphill from here, but this was the lowest spot of the course, so the runners will do more climbing than descending. The flags on the left mark the lower end of the Braman Trail.

The 130-meter-long Braman Trail, blazed by course designer Bob Braman, is a shortcut from the east end of Field #1 to the west end of the causeway. Coaches can stroll down this trail, yell at their runners as they approach the two-and-a-half mile mark, then stroll back up the trail to arrive in time for the finish of the 5K.

Beyond the Braman Trail the course climbs, winds, and crosses several dips or moguls. In the photo below you can see the first mogul ahead, part of the drainage system for when this was agricultural land. Work on the course has slightly flattened it, but it's still a feature that will make the runners adjust their stride.

Other than the occasional mogul, the footing on this section of the course is almost flawless. The slope of the Lake Lafayette basin carries water off of the trail, and volunteers spent the summer of 2009 removing any roots that looked capable of tripping a runner.

The course winds a lot through the jungle. The leaders will be looking ahead to follow the tangents around the turns. (Back in the pack, you'll have to go where the runners on either side of you go.)


...and down. Here the runners follow the slope down to the second bridge, a drainage culvert under the course.

Ahead you can see the sand brought in by Leon County when they put in the second bridge. The footing isn't as good as that on the causeway, but it's not bad. And it's short. And this is cross country, remember?

Past the second bridge, the course begins an uninterrupted climb back up to Field #1. At first the runners may not even be able to tell they're going up a slope. Just wait.

Soon the slope upward becomes perceptible, if not visually then by the ache in the runners' legs.

The slope continues and grows steeper.

The course continues uphill ever more steeply. The worst is yet to come.

The worst will be "The Wall," the final short but steep climb back into Field #1. The runners aren't there quite yet, but it's around the corner.

The Wall. It's not a killer hill, and you can't see all it because of the trees in the jungle, but it's still enough to strike terror in the heart of any runner used to cross country in the parking lots of south Florida. An oyster-shell surface has been added to the course here.

After the runners negotiate the wall and emerge into Field #1, they'll still be climbing, just not as steeply. The second time by this point, the runners will make a hard left toward the finish. The first time around the loop, they'll go straight ahead toward the starting line.

At a mile and a half, the course is still going up a slight slope, headed for the area behind the starting line.

Just past 2,500 meters, the runners pass to the right of the starting line. The second loop has begun. The first difference between the two loops is that the second time around, the runners are going to start by heading for the south end of Field #1.

Reaching the southwest corner of Field #1, the course turns left to go east, approximately parallel to the starting straightaway.

The course follows the south edge of Field #1 to the oak hammock, where it rejoins the first loop.

The second difference between the two loops is at the fork coming off the dike. The second time by this point, the runners will take the left fork, omitting the run through the piney woods.

The final difference between the two loops is at the top of the wall, where the runners will make a hard left to follow the trees along the north edge of Field #1.

The tree line winds, taking the runners left, then right, then left again.

About halfway across the field, the runners breaks from the tree line and heads straight for the finish. The roll of the field almost conceals the finish, but it's up there under the oaks. Eyes straight ahead, but pay attention to that shallow gully, too.

The finish line is framed by the two live oaks in the center of the picture. Aim between them and run.

The finish line is at the base of the live oak on the right.

That's the 5K course which most of the races will follow. The Invitational also includes an 8K university men's race which will be three loops, each of which will include the piney woods. At the end of the first loop the 8K runners will head east along the south edge of Field #1, at then end of the second loop they'll cross Field #1 using the starting straightaway, and after the thrid loop they'll head along the north edge of field #1 to the finish line.

I expect that the course will change over the years, but in 2009, on the eve of the FSU Invitational, that's how it looked.


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