Until Florida finally opens a cross-state trail, a few adventurers forge their own journeys
It was late, maybe 2 or 3 in the morning, and Gerry Kinnard could feel the pitch-black Florida swamp closing in, beckoning him, like a warm sleeping bag. Maybe he could just take a quick nap in the underbrush. But he knew he had to keep pedaling.
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Below him, the ground had turned to sugar sand, and his mountain bike’s meaty tires struggled for grip, like he was on ice. He was somewhere in the Ocala National Forest, perhaps down the wrong path, maybe just downright lost. Fatigue had sapped his ability to think.
Two years earlier, Kinnard would never have imagined himself lost in a Central Florida forest. A West Boca operations manager at a marketing company, Kinnard had been dangerously out of shape. When he hit 270 pounds, he vowed to change that. He got himself a trainer and set a goal he had always thought just sounded cool: biking across Florida.
He did training runs by riding the sidewalk along Palmetto Park Road, all the way to the ocean and back, or on top of the hundreds of miles of gravel levees that hold in the Everglades. He also became president of FORCE, Florida Off Road Cycling Enthusiasts, a group that raises money to maintain local bike trails, including West Delray Regional Park. After six-day-a-week workouts and a 90-pound weight loss, he’s now 52 and in better shape than many teenagers.
Kinnard set out in December 2017 on his first Central Florida Individual Time Trial, or CFITT. With 100 other serious cyclists, Kinnard dipped the back wheel of his bike in the ocean near New Smyrna Beach. If all went well, he’d ride his front tire into the Gulf three days later, having stopped for little more than a bathroom break along the way. CFITT isn’t a race against others as much as it is against yourself; the rules require timed riders to accept nothing from anyone else—not food, not even water.
Working with his trainer, Kinnard developed a system where he’d consume calories every 30 minutes to keep his energy up. But sometime late that night, with perhaps 100 miles behind him, he just forgot to eat a scheduled rice cake and banana. It was enough to cause his system to nearly crash.
“It got to the point where you’re on the bike and you fall asleep, and you luckily jerk yourself awake before you fall,” Kinnard said. “That’s when you start looking for bushes to fall asleep in. But somehow you keep pedaling.”
Part of his desire—maybe need—to finish was because he had told everyone he knew about his plans. He couldn’t come back to Boca having failed. “When I hopped on the bike that morning, I was going to finish, period.” And so, he powered through, the sun rising behind him the next morning between the Florida lake country slash pines.
Thirty-nine-and-a-half hours after he began, Kinnard rolled his front wheel into the Gulf near Yankeetown. “When I finished, the sense of accomplishment was incredible,” Kinnard says. “We go to work every day and just sit at a desk and send emails, but hey, here I am, I just rode across Florida.”
This idea of traversing Florida has lured adventure athletes for years. Like Kinnard, they bike, hike, run, kayak, paddleboard or a combination of all of that, on their way from coast to coast. For years, they’ve plotted routes through unwelcoming coastal traffic and even less hospitable forest trails, some that receive little maintenance, requiring adventurers to constantly cross downed trees.
But soon going across Florida will be far easier. The state is expected, perhaps in as little as two years, to open the first-ever cross-state path for cyclists and runners that would allow adventurous runners and cyclists to traverse Florida without ever sharing the road with a car.
In 2014, the Florida Legislature dedicated $50 million to fill in gaps in existing paved biking and walking trails to connect St. Petersburg to Titusville. State transportation planners and bike and pedestrian advocates sat down to sketch out what the route might look like. They call it the Florida Coast-to-Coast Trail.
“At the time, we were just drawing lines on a map to connect the existing trails,” recalls Samantha Browne, chief of the Office of Greenways and Trails within Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. “It was a fun little project to imagine what it could look like.”
The plan was ambitious and, they’d soon learn, far harder than they envisioned. The 250-mile route they sketched had 70 miles of missing pieces. Among them was a 22- mile stretch in Sumter County that would need an entirely new paved trail through who knows where. Then, on the far eastern side, the protected land within the Canaveral National Seashore would present a morass of paperwork and approvals.
Years later, it’s still unclear how to cross either of those spots. In Sumter County, lots of potential trails have been mapped out, but the plans have been hung up by locals who don’t want to pay for the minimal yearly maintenance after they’re built. And on the eastern end, the federal government has forced the state to consider joining the trail with the main road that heads into the Canaveral National Seashore, a road with few shoulders and far from ideal for cyclists. The plan is funded through 2023, and Browne remains hopeful they can find a way to finish the last sections.
For now, ride the entire stretch only if you’re quite confident jumping into traffic in the missing parts, says Lisa Portelli, a board member with the nonprofit Bike/Walk Central Florida. “There are still sections that are not pleasant for cyclists,” requiring them to jump into heavy traffic before hooking back up with the trail later, Portelli says.
Still, the existing parts of the trail have seen economic development because of what’s there already. Hotels, stores selling supplies, and others have begun catering to those brave enough to make the journey across the state. “Florida is a flat state, so there are lots of riders that can accomplish this, and it can be done year-round,” Portelli says. “Because of this, the trail is going to become a major tourism draw.” It’ll also be a draw for people of any age, Portelli says—she makes that argument based on the people who joined her in August for a 31-day, 3,568-mile trek across the country. The average age on that ride: 58.
Even though the route is incomplete, and at some points just less-than-scenic county highways, this hasn’t stopped people from attempting it. Last April, the Vero Beach adventure company Genesis Adventures held the first running race on the Florida Coast-to- Coast Trail. Owner Brian Duncanson says he was inspired by Oregon’s Hood to Coast race.
“People want an epic sort of journey to take them out of their everyday lives,” he says. “We thought we could do that here in Florida.”
The race Duncanson set up tackles a 200-mile stretch of the trail from Clermont to Brooksville. Teams of six to 12 people endure legs of about 5 or 6 miles, running nonstop through the night. The first year a hundred runners from as far away as Texas and Chicago participated, and he planned a second run across the state this past April.
That start is better than the first run of the CFITT race, which attracted just 10 people when it began nine years ago. That year, just two of the racers finished, and one of them was the race organizer, Karlos Rodriguez Bernart, owner of Singletrack Samurai Productions of De Leon Springs. Now, about 40 percent of the 100 people who tackle CFITT yearly end up finishing.
The idea of making the race one where participants cannot accept help from anyone else was a throwback to the races of yesteryear, Bernart says. “We wanted to go back to the way the Tour de France and other historic races were run. No support teams and chase vehicles, just a person on a bike trying to finish.”
There are no trophies at the end, no medals.
“Nothing but a thumbsup, that’s it,” Bernart says.
Heading into December’s CFITT, Fort Lauderdale graphic designer David Bohl was planning his third attempt. Last time, he managed to finish 300 miles in 36 hours. The toughest part of that ride, though, was the cold, dipping below freezing and causing one rider’s eyes to gloss over. In the middle of the night, somewhere in small-town Florida, he stopped in to a police station, where they diagnosed him with hypothermia.
Bohl got into endurance racing a decade ago, not long after he got into biking. He’s 48 now, and he says racing across Florida is like fighting getting older, like denying the idea of slowing down by literally speeding up. He’s even picked up sponsors now, including Bike-Tech shops and Salsa Bicycles. He figures he can continue until he’s 65, at least, and he has plans to someday bike from British Columbia to Mexico and to compete in a ride that unbelievably is even longer: the Florida-Alabama border to Key West.
“At some points, yeah, it’s physically difficult,” Bohl says. “But in some ways it’s easier than what life throws at you, you know? You can discover things about yourself out there that you didn’t think you could do.”
Kinnard managed his first CFITT with help from Filippo Barbieri, a Delray exercise physiologist with the SpeedLab National Training Center. Barbieri works with everyone from Olympic athletes to people battling depression to weekend warriors looking to tackle some life’s goal. It’ll cost about $250 a month for Barbieri to design you an exercise plan, which includes regular checkups using data and blood tests. In many ways, he likes working with the regular folks better, because there are far more possible successes, a better likelihood of hitting goals.
“I’m going to motivate you because I’m a big pain in the ass,” Barbieri says. “I’m a nice pain in the ass, but yeah, I am going to be a pain in the ass.”
The success Kinnard had, dropping nearly three digits in weight and turning into an ultra-race cyclist, is something Barbieri sees as among his best accomplishments.
IF YOU GO
COAST TO COAST BICYCLE COMPANY
At the east end of the trail, this Titusville bike shop rents everything from cruisers to quick-moving road bikes, with guided tours available.
THE WAYWARD TRAVELER’S INN
Occupying a manor house from 1869, the inn in Mims offers cruiser bikes for guests to explore the trail and can cater to more serious riders looking to set off from the trail’s eastern start.
OAKLAND MANOR HOUSE
The historic Orange County bed and breakfast in the town of Oakland markets itself as a comfortable respite for the trail’s cyclists.
EPIC CYCLES WORLD
The massive bike shop and café moved to downtown Clermont to be situated next to the Coast to Coast Trail, allowing for a convenient rental or, if needed, repair spot, in central Florida.