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Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of running the Florida Challenge Half Marathon.

Let me just tell you upfront: this name is no joke.

This race, run on the mountain biking trails at Alafia River State Park in southeastern Hillsborough County, lives up to its moniker.

When most of us think of the Sunshine State, I’m sure we picture mostly flat terrain.  While you’ll find some of that on this course, you’ll also get to enjoy some scenery that’s, well, otherworldly when it comes to Florida.

Alafia River State Park is actually a former phosphate mine.  Through the mining process, the landscape was transformed to create topography like no other in the state, establishing steep grades and several small lakes – quite the playground for trail runners.

Depending on your distance preference, you have the option of running either the half marathon or 5k distance.  According to the race organizer, the Florida Challenge was named one of the top 32 trail runs in the country.  And if you ever decide to make the trip to Alafia, I think you’ll see why.

Florida Challenge Half Marathon and 5K Trail Race Map
Course map for both the half and 5k distances (directly from race website)

 My run-loving hubby was gracious enough to do the 5K with our two boys, ages 8 and 10, so I could have the privilege of running the half distance.  I’d run this race before, but it had been a few years.

Our family of 4 after the race – our boys loved the 5K and kept asking when we could go back with our bikes 😳

I thoroughly enjoyed what was my inaugural trail race back in 2017, so I was really looking forward to getting to see the course again.

The first portion of the half marathon is mostly flat, minus one small section of MTB hills.  

Ferns for days
Definitely not the Florida I’m used to!

You’ll run through open scrubby flatwood areas with plenty of low-lying palms and sandy trails, as well as through wooded mixed hardwood hammock, and a few sections full of ferns.  There are several wooden bridges, some clearly there for a reason, others for mountain biking purposes.

Little bridges popped up here and there, most likely to cover some of the soggier areas for the mountain bikers that use these trails regularly.
There were a few moderate hills in the first half of the race, but nothing like the middle portion!
Swampy looking water surrounds this low-lying wooden bridge

Somewhere around halfway through, things get a little more exciting.

Not too exciting yet…

After a brief stretch of double wide dirt path (horse trails, maybe?), you’ll make a U-turn and hop back into the woods for what I think is the most sensational (and challenging) portion of the whole race.

Wide trails behind us…getting ready for the fun stuff!
View of the trail from afar and above

Here, you’ll travel up and down several short, relatively steep (for Florida) hills and through multiple switchbacks for the better part of the race’s remaining miles.  I think “quad crushers” was how I overheard another runner refer to this section. Yep.

Enjoying the beauty and the challenge
Pretty sure this was one of those hills you needed your hands to help you climb up
This skinny section of trail sits above the swamp-like water below
This bridge was much scarier in person. The downhill is difficult to see here, thanks to my amateur photo-taking skills. 🤪

Despite its difficulty, this is one of the most beautifully unique sections of the race.  With more bridge crossings and single-track trail that, at times, feels like it’s on the edge of a cliff, you’ll get to enjoy the almost-neon green shade of the lake below.  The water itself isn’t actually green but appears that way from the layer of Duckweed that sits atop it. Apparently, the water below it is completely clear. Hard to believe at first glance!

One misstep, and you’ll be headed down the hill, into the water!
Up and down, over and over again
Oh look, another bridge! 🤣

After this grueling portion, you’ll be tricked into thinking you’ve somehow completed the race much sooner than you anticipated because you’ll find yourself running through the finish area to get to the final stretch.

We must be laughing and smiling because we think we’re almost finished 🤣

Not a funny joke after what you’ll have just gone through, I know.

Oh, and if you need the potty, now’s the time to take advantage, because you’ll be passing right by the restrooms at this point.

The last section of the race is the same path that the 5K runners take.  It starts out relatively flat, and you’ll be thinking, “Yippee!  This isn’t so bad!”  

Flat section heading into the last 5K of the race

Tricked again.

While these last miles are “tame” compared to the middle section of the race, the hills they include will most likely still feel challenging after all the strenuous climbing you did earlier on.  

But, take heart, you’re almost finished!

Happy because we’re almost finished!

After a couple more miles of hilly terrain, you’ll finally emerge from the trail into the park area, where you’ll be able to cross that finish line with a feeling of triumph.

Or you’ll feel like puking.

Either way, you’ll be finished!

Way to go!  Hoo-rah!  Congratulations!

That’s me, giving you a virtual high five. 🖐🏼😉

Seriously though, you will truly be thrilled to finish this race.

We were so happy to be done!
Our local friends that traveled to do the Florida Challenge

If you’ve run the 5K or the half marathon at Alafia, I’d love to hear about it!  Or, maybe I’ve been able to stir up some excitement for you to try it out.

Whatever the case, I’d love to know.  Tell me in the comments below! 👇🏼

And, if you just want to know more about Alafia River State Park in general, check out these informative sites:

Friends of Alafia

Alafiatrails.com (where you can find links to videos of each of the named trails within the entire trail system)

Disclaimer: You should understand that when participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in exercise or training I recommend, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself, and agree to release and discharge Running With Roots from any and all claims or causes of action, known or unknown, arising out of Running With Roots. Please speak with a medical professional before making any changes to your diet or exercise. I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. The views expressed are based on my own experiences, and should not be taken as medical, nutrition or training advice.

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