The first half-mile, everything seems just fine. The first sweat is just beginning to break out on your forehead, but you’re still dry. Your legs are questioning your decision to suddenly move faster, but they’re excitedly decompressing from a night of sleep, that long day in the classroom, or their bent crunch under your office swivel chair. But as you round the corner of one mile, and coax your feet into mile two, three, four, you start to need some real motivation. It’s the Sunshine State, and presently you are wiping the sweat from your eyes and wondering how you came to be so thoroughly wet. You know why you are running—it nourishes your body and mind—but you need some serious encouragement (or really just a distraction from the pain.)
Luckily, there is hope. For those runners, joggers, and walkers who are tired of monotonous neighborhood cul-de-sacs, irritated with reckless drivers, and sick of traffic lights: Jacksonville has the running scene that you need—if you know where to look. Jacksonville is a great city to run, and as a seasoned expert, I’ll highlight three spots that will give you engaging, safe, and connected spots to run.
JULINGTON-DURBIN CREEK PRESERVE
Nestled in the middle of growing housing developments on Bartram Park Boulevard is the Julington-Durbin Creek Preserve. From the minute you ease your car across the uneven dirt into the parking lot, it feels like you’ve entered an oasis of nature. The tall pine trees envelop you and provide a refreshing scale for runners who embark on the trails. When you start your watch and hit the trails, your calves will thank you—no hills here! The trails are a neatly kept combination of packed sand, pine needles, and dirt, so you don’t have to be overly cautious of ankle twisters. Furthermore, with a variety of loops, you can choose the distance that is perfect for your time and strength level.
This is also a fantastic place to unplug. Take those headphones out, and you will be rewarded with the playful chirps of birds. But if you finish that trail and are just craving some civilization, head out the entrance, where you will find sidewalks that are absolutely made for runners. Yes, runners get excited over sidewalks. Around three times wider than your typical sidewalk, the sidewalks along Bartram Park Boulevard are perfect for running with friends, or simply avoiding that awkward interaction of shifting back and forth to avoid fellow pedestrians or bikers.
UNIVERSITY OF NORTH FLORIDA NATURE TRAILS
The Town Center and Gate Parkway can be a nightmare of retail and traffic. But just around the corner is a beautiful and quiet place to run. At the UNF Nature Trails, you’ll be removed from the noise and danger of running on the road. Make sure you read the maps carefully before diving into the longer trails (to be perfectly honest, I did get disoriented on my first run here), but you will be guaranteed an
exciting run. The trails do an excellent job of varying ground—runners and walkers get to cross a variety of surfaces, from wooden bridges to pine-needle covered trails. Furthermore, if you take the time to look at your surroundings, it is quite common to see furry, slimy, or shelled creatures. Armadillo and turtle sightings provide that rush of interest that can keep your legs soldiering on for
Near the pond, make sure to watch for roots. They’ve brought down a running buddy or two, but if you aren’t going for speed, it’s actually quite therapeutic to plan each footfall.
The trails are also truly beautiful in early morning or dusk, so they’re flexibly perfect for early birds or night owls. As the sunlight begins to twinkle in between the tree cover, there is an almost magical aura that can make any exercise seem relaxing.
THE DOWNTON BRIDGES AND JACKSONVILLE RIVERWALK
To be fair, running up the Acosta Bridge is no small task. Ok, your legs will tell you it’s pretty rough. But for native Jacksonville flatlanders, the urban scape of downtown is one of the rare locations to get some elevation. And there are also more than just physical perks—the scenery is unbeatable. From the top of the bridges, you get to absorb the Jacksonville seen only in pictures. The skyline dribbling into the faithful blue Main Street Bridge, with the St. John’s rippling and swirling. If you keep your eyes peeled, you might be lucky enough to see a dolphin.
If you aren’t one for steep inclines, you can always choose to run the Main Street Bridge, or simply stick to the Riverwalk, which provides a colorful path directly on the river. You’ll be taken past Jacksonville’s most iconic museums and buildings, and also eye-catching mosaics and art. Between the bridges and the Riverwalk, you have an unparalleled loop system, which will give you as much or little mileage as you want. And the cherry on top: the river breezes are miraculous medicine for the squashing humidity of summer days.
One of the best things about exercising downtown is the access to unique starting and endpoints. You might want to consider ending your run in the growing and flourishing Riverside area, where you can grab a delicious Hippo Popsicle, or in San Marco, where you will have access to scenic neighborhoods to cool down in, local restaurants and coffee shops, and the 1st Place Sports store, which holds countless community races for people of all running and walking levels in the area.
Getting outside to run or walk can be hard—we don’t like the Florida sweat, the discomfort. However, outdoor exercise can be such a valuable way to decompress, explore, and engage with your community. If you look in the right places, Jacksonville is home to many areas that will keep you smiling through every mile. So lace up those shoes!
About the Author: Katherine Harland is the recipient of the 2nd Annual Ponte Vedra Focus Scholarship. Her school choice for next year is still undecided, but she has a wide variety of choices, including Clemson, University of Florida, Georgia Tech and Carnegie Mellon.