300 km Bike Ride around Lake Okeechobee

It's been a while since I did a really long ride. I had some plans for tailwind-assisted rides, but somehow the weather and my schedule never seemed to align quite right. So I started planning what kind of long ride I could do without tailwind. Ideally I could start from home and return back, thus never needing to drive anywhere by car.

One of the routes suitable for days without wind is the circumnavigation of Lake Okeechobee. I had done this 200 km ride several times before, back in 1997 as part of an organized ride, then again in October 2005 right after Hurricane Wilma, and also with Jill on the tandem in March 2008. This time, however, I wanted to start and finish at home in Juno Beach, bringing the total distance to right around 300 km.

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Google Maps indicates it is a 15 hr ride. The last time I rode this far in a single day was almost exactly 10 years ago, in April 2007, when I rode a nice tailwind for 325 km from Orlando back down to Palm Beach Gardens. Other than that my longest ride in recent years without wind (after the Panamerican Peaks project) was the 260 km day ride to Sebastian Inlet and back some 4 years ago in February 2013. So I didn't know how well I would be able to cope with an all-day ride like this - only one way to find out!

Saturday, 18-Mar-2017

With about 12 hours of daylight near equinox this time of the year I figured I would need to start about 2 hours prior to sunrise. Since we had the switch to daylight savings time last weekend already, this meant a start time of around 5:30am. Given the cool weather I was on the fence about clothing, but decided to just ride in shorts with a long-sleeved jacket.

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I also brought along both my Suunto Ambit as well as the new Suunto Spartan, two successive generations of heart-rate monitors and sports watches. This should be a good way to compare the two instruments.

The roads are quiet as I take PGA Blvd all the way West to connect with the Beeline Highway which goes diagonally up all the way to the Northern end of Lake Okeechobee.

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Very little traffic, I am listening to bike and body, trying to find the right tempo, so important for very long rides to get into a good rhythm. On the Beeline Highway, there is more traffic, but at least there is a good bike lane and I hope that no drunk drivers from yesterday's St. Patrick's Day celebrations are around this time of the morning.

As I move inland and away from the coast, the air is getting noticeably cooler. I generate just enough body heat so as to not get too cold, but I wouldn't want to have a flat tire now and have to fiddle with the repair kit in the cold and dark. As on previous rides, waiting for the sun to come up is one of the first mental challenges to overcome. The first interesting waypoint is the bridge across the Okeechobee canal just before Indiantown. Up here I notice the dawn and take another photo with not enough light.

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I stop at a grocery store in Indiantown where I can get some hot coffee and pastry. Somehow lingering inside over a hot drink is more appealing when it's a bit chilly outside. Soon I press on; after all, it should warm up quickly once the sun comes up. And sure enough, both light and temperature are so much more pleasant as soon as the sun rises.

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Before long I reach the point where there is a connector to the ring road round the lake which is just behind the levee. Here the homes look quite a bit different from those in Palm Beach county near the coast, with mosses hanging off the trees more like in Central Florida.

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Shortly thereafter I can access the levee which has the L.O.S.T. on it (Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail). Nothing quite like feeling the warming sun after a few hours in the cold and dark:

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And the view is always better from the trail up on the levee. All clear and many miles ahead:

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One of the unexpected experiences on this ride is the fact that there are multiple areas where the levee is being repaired. This Herbert Hoover dike is showing its age and there are concerns that it may not be structurally sound in the event of a major hurricane with high flood waters. As a result, there are restoration and improvement works going on all around the lake. At the first such major construction site there is a temporary dirt road allowing the traffic to be routed around the construction.

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Not ideal with my road bike and its narrow tires, but the dirt is packed solid and so I can ride slowly past this little detour. Once back on the levee this is probably the most picturesque part of the entire stretch when a few colorful homes come into view.

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A few km later I get to the next obstacle, this time a closed gate and fence. I am surprised as there was no indication that this would be a dead-end, in fact I had seen a sign warning of two-way traffic. This is probably due to the construction pausing for the weekend and somehow only one side was left open, the other gate still locked. As I do not want to backtrack many miles including the previous dirt road, I figure out another way to pass this gate:

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The lake shore bends around in a roughly circular shape. Before long I notice the heading is more West than North and just after 9 am and almost 100 km the first major rest stop comes into view at the Northern tip of the lake. There is a pier with a parking lot and facilities for people to enjoy the lake shore.

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One can watch wildlife, in particular large birds like heron, vultures and osprey. There are probably some alligators around, although I don't notice any in the vicinity. I take a few photos and just enjoy the warmth of the morning sun. 1/3 of the trip is now behind me.

Just across the street is a gas-station where I refuel with two gatorade bottles and some bananas. I also snack on the first of four cereal bars. While I sit and send a few messages to my wife I notice two groups of a dozen cyclists. Had they passed by some 10 minutes later I would probably have tried to jump on. That said, it's unlikely they would have gone far in one direction, as few riders / groups take on the entire round of the lake. And it's best not to ride too hard during a long ride anyway...

The next stretch down towards the SW is easy going. There is a light tailwind from the NE, the sun is warm but the air is still cool, there isn't much traffic, time to enjoy the scenery and various animals one can see along the road. At one canal used by fisherman I see in passing some fairly large alligators, but maybe 100m to the side of the road (too far to get a good picture of). Some 1/2 hour later I see a mid-size alligator, maybe 2 m (6 ft) just about 10 m to the side of the road.

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The other kind of animals one can see - and smell - are dead ones, road kill. Several vultures, raccoons, and at one point a wild boar. Later in the afternoon in the sugar cane fields East of Belle Glade I even notice the pungent stench of a dead alligator by the side of the road. You don't want to see a photo of those critters...

This part of the road is in Glades county. Lots of wide open farmland - ranches with large bill-boards "Beef - it's what's for dinner" - and little fishing towns, with often abandoned shops and gas-stations. A different set of opportunity (or lack thereof) for people living out here.

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The 150 km mark rolls by and I am closing in on Moore Haven, just a bit past the halfway point on the far side of the lake.It's rare to get that far from home and still ride back the same day. In Moore Haven I stock up on gatorade and various snacks, both sweet and salty. As before, I'm not too hungry during the ride, mostly thirsty. For the actual lunch stop, I cross over the big bridge over the Caloosahatchee River, the Western connection for the Okeechobee waterway which allows boats up to a certain size to sail from the Atlantic to the Gulf Coast.

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At the bottom of this bridge one can turn around and get access to the levee again. There is a large parking lot for trucks with boat trailers. Lots of people use this as access to the lake, mostly for fishing. Not much traffic here today, I can chose between half a dozen picnic benches and gazebos. For lunch I sit in the shade, take off my shoes and spread everything out to dry in the sun.

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It requires discipline to pack everything away after about 20 mins and keep going. Going forward I'm afraid there will be some headwind, but overall the winds are quite modest and certainly no more than 5-10 mph. My next stop is Clewiston, some 25 km up ahead. Again, there is an open gate, which makes me wonder if the trail is going to be passable up ahead. And sure enough, some 8 km later there is another closed gate and I have to use the same technique to clear it as earlier in the morning. This time however, there are pointed mesh wires on the top to discourage the kind of climbing I'm doing now, so I have to be extra careful not to cut myself while clearing this obstacle. Some 15 min later there is another section closed off, this time with a narrow dirt path along side. Not good to ride with my bike, but better than riding all the way back.

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After all these obstacles I chose to stay on the main road for the next stretch from Clewiston to South Bay. While there is obviously more traffic, the road is also sheltered from the wind and passing trucks and RVs create a local tailwind which is greatly appreciated.

The 200 km mark passes by just before South Bay. It's a bit past 2 pm, so I have another 5+ hours for the last 100 km, which should be enough. I decide to keep going a few more miles to Belle Glade as I know a place there which offers just what I'm craving now:

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A vanilla shake with whip creme, two apple pies, a cereal bar and more gatorade - have to keep taking on more calories. Speaking of calories. The two Suunto instruments are fairly close with each other regarding GPS distance, heart rate temperature etc.  However, they must have different formulae to calculate the estimated calories. One (Ambit) shows 6500 kcal at the end of the day, the other one (Spartan) shows 8000 kcal! Surprising that they can be so far off each other, despite registering the same heart-beat (I was wearing two heart-rate belts) and the same personal data (weight, age, etc.). The real amount is likely somewhere in between. In any event, I'm mostly just listening to the cravings to regulate food intake during the ride.

The next section is unpleasant as there are these long straight stretches of road, nothing much to look at, I'm getting really tired, the goal is still several hours ahead and the headwind slows me down. It is a big mental challenge to keep going in such circumstances. I frequently get up from the saddle to provide relief for my aching butt, to stretch the legs and to just roll for a few moments without having to turn the pedals. At one point I feel the need to stop and rest for a few minutes. Just lay in the grass and relax. This reminds me very much of the group ride back in August 2003 from Fargo to Winnipeg where we frequently stopped, dropped the bikes and laid down in the grass next to the road.

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It is 4pm in the afternoon, some 3.5 hours of daylight remain, and the remaining distance is around 60 km or so, definitely doable if nothing breaks or the wind unexpectedly intensifies. This is one of the moments where it becomes clear just how much of a mental challenge long-distance cycling is. Pushing the pedals at moderate to low intensity is almost like walking. You rarely get so tired that you can't take another step, right? But you get more and more uncomfortable with various body parts (butt, back, legs, neck, etc.) Today I'm having some trouble with my left calf, I can't remember that kind of exhaustion or cramping from previous rides. My physical stamina is somewhat smaller than 10-20 years ago, but the mental strength is still there.  In fact, preparing for the right frame of mind is half the battle. I can't imagine just starting a ride like this on a moment's notice. If you're not in the right frame of mind, forget it, you wouldn't tolerate that amount of discomfort. Not voluntarily anyway :-)

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The occasional rising smoke from of some burn in a field indicates the wind direction and speed. Also, the wind-caused ripples on the water of canals or lakes are patchy and at times almost absent, leading to a mirror-like surface.  All in all still a pretty good day, despite the light headwind. The temperature is comfortable, the humidity is low, the sun is warm but not as brutally intense as in mid-summer.

I am relieved when I can finally leave Southern Blvd = SR 80 which has a lot of traffic and only a rough bike lane. My route turn North following the Seminole Pratt & Whitney Road to connect with Northlake Blvd which will take me all the way East to the Coast again. Every 50 km I take a picture of the odometer, now the 250 km mark rolls by. This development is called The Acreage and has some nice homes, plenty of space, smaller dirt roads to the sides and colorful nurseries.

I stop at a gas station for one more refueling with 2 bottles of gatorade and some bananas. It feels good to be back within reach of all the amenities, not in the middle of some sugar cane field far away from civilization. I'm also happy that I'm not pressed for time too much and can take some time to rest. The calculation about the duration and the 2 hour before sunrise start is now paying off. shortly after resuming after this last break I can turn East on Northlake Blvd, which I will follow for the next 24 km all the way to the Intracoastal.

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Out West, this road is a small two-lane road with nurseries and some wildlife refuge along side (Grassy Waters Park). My shadow is getting longer in the late afternoon sun. Eventually this road is getting wider and wider until it becomes a 6-lane highway with lots of traffic. In most parts there is a decent bike lane, so I feel fairly safe. Also the light from behind helps drivers see me clearly.

Soon the road crosses the Beeline Highway, then passes over the Turnpike and then under the I-95 Interstate Highway. Now that I'm within 10 km or so I know for sure that I can make it. And as experienced before - for example during the June 2004 ride from Fargo to Minneapolis - in  all the discomfort and pain of the previous hours subsides in the background, the endorphines take over, and life is good. The mind is a powerful thing!

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Hours ago I asked myself: Why am I doing this to myself? Now it's just great to be in the final stretches and anticipating closure. The hard moments are forgotten quickly, the sweet moments will be remembered for a long time. So the corollary to the above statement is: The memory can be quite deceiving.

From the remaining distance I notice I'm going to be just a few km short of the 300 km mark. So I decide on a whim to extend by 2 km to the beach, which also makes for a nice connection from Ocean to Lake and back. In literally the last few minutes of sunlight I capture a self-timed photo just minutes from our home at the beach:

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Rolling back with the last sunlight I reach our home and the odometer ticks over to 300 km. Our dog Jackie comes running out of the house and greets me enthusiastically. The ride is over. It's done.

The next day I am just resting and eating to recover. I upload the various photos and the GPS and heart rate data from the Suunto devices. Here is a summary display of the route and some of the metrics:

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Actual ride time was about 11.5 hours, with avg speed right around 26 km/h. Measured time of 13.5 hours  means about 2 hours of short rests (without stopping the Suunto) and the total elapsed time of 14.5 hours due to another hour or so for the two main rest stops in Moore Haven (lunch) and Belle Glade (coffee) - see the two black columns in the middle. Also, color on the track represents outside temperature, which varied quite a bit (from 13 C to about 32 C). The white curve is heart rate, which rarely got above 140 bpm and shows periodic dips during short rest stops (such as between 11 - 12.5 hrs elapsed) and several frequent dips at the end due to red light stops on Northlake Blvd.

Technology I'm wearing (Suunto) and communicating with (iPhone 6 Plus) has changed dramatically since my last 300+ km ride some 10 years ago, but the bike is still the same, as is the immense range of impressions you get on a long day like this. Adventure is out there for the taking. Just go out and do it!