Fun and fit in Florida

Posted on 19 Feb 2009 at 9:31am
By David Taffet

Tired of being a couch potato when traveling? Consider a fitness vacation


One of the bridges can be treacherous, but a cycling trip along the Florida Keys can be an excellent way to stay fit while on vacation.

Key West vacations usually include spending lazy days at a guesthouse pool and too much money at Fast Buck Freddie’s. Evenings begin with sunset at Mallory Pier, before walking to a restaurant in Old Town and the bars on Duval Street.

But after too many sedentary months sitting at a desk in Dallas, I decided this trip would be different. I would use my island weekend for some exercise.

It’s not as unusual as it sounds — and we don’t mean a quick half-hour in the hotel fitness center or long walks on the beach counting as cardio. A true fitness vacation can be fun and healthy.

I’ve driven down the Keys from Miami at least a dozen times. Each time, I’ve passed the sign pointing down a road cut through mangrove thickets that says "Key Deer Refuge." This trip, although I flew directly into Key West and had no car, I decided to pay a visit.

Since my first Houston-to-Dallas AIDS ride, bicycling has been my favorite outdoor activity. When I began training six months before my first ride, I was winded after a mile and returned home. Riding daily for a few weeks, I gradually built up my endurance. Within a few weeks, I was circling White Rock Lake. My average speed increased and by my second AIDS ride, I completed a 100-mile day.

Bicycles and motor scooters are available to rent from a number of places in Key West. I picked up a bicycle from A&M Electric Cars at 526 Truman Ave. because they were open earlier than anyone else. By 8:30, I was on the road.

A bike lane runs most of the stretch from Key West to Big Pine Key, making the ride along a busy highway fairly safe. Over the past 25 years, many of the original hundred-year-old bridges connecting the Lower Keys were replaced. Those spans that were in good enough condition to remain are now open for bikes and pedestrians only.

If you’re new to riding, a trip along the Keys is a good way to begin. Highway 1, the road that connects the chain of islands to the mainland, is completely flat and easy to ride. At the highest point, no Key is more than a few feet above sea level. The only inclines are the bridges.

Still, outdoor cycling is not the same as spinning class — the skills and exercise you get are very different. A relatively long and tall bridge that connects Summerland and Ramrod Keys was the only portion of the ride that was treacherous. The shoulder, just a half-lane wide, kept me out of 60-mile-an-hour traffic. A short guardrail prevented me from toppling into the water. I held my handlebars tight fighting the strong, morning ocean breeze and the 18-wheelers that passed.

A nice mental trick that makes a long ride easier is to think of the entire ride as a number of short trips. Stop to rest, eat and drink every 10 to 15 miles (about equal to a spin around White Rock). Although I planned to ride a total of about 70 miles, my goal for that morning was just 30 miles.

I average 12 to 13 miles an hour on a bicycle (much faster than when I first trained, though several miles an hour slower than I rode in my last Lone Star Ride). I stopped often to take photographs, and two gas stations along the 30-mile route served as additional rest stops for bathroom breaks, drink refills and snacks to maintain energy. I arrived on Big Pine Key in about three and a half hours.

For the next two hours, I pedaled slowly and stopped often, riding only about 10 miles. At the Blue Hole, I left my bike for a short hike around the island’s only fresh water pond where an alligator peered at me from beneath the water.

On the Gulf side of the island, I saw my first of the diminutive Key deer that stand only three feet tall at the shoulder. The mother and fawn allowed me to approach within a few feet as they browsed the underbrush. I rode across Watson Boulevard to No Name Key, a small, remote island off Big Pine. A deer dashed across the road; when I caught up with him, he was grazing in the thicket.

Although already a little tired, I began my ride back to Key West, thinking of it as just three 10-mile rides from Big Pine. With less wind and light traffic, the Ramrod-to-Summerland span felt less dangerous. I took two rest stops, on Cudjoe Key at Mileage Marker 20 and Big Coppitt Key at marker 10, my afternoon ride back to Key West took less than three hours.

Including my exploration of Big Pine and No Name Keys, I rode about 75 miles before returning the bike that evening, and then faced the hardest part of the day as my leg muscles tightened: the walk back to my guesthouse.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 20, 2009.

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