Melissa Kitcher explains how she became last during the Trail Hog 13.1-mile trail run at T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve in Venice. Photo by Carlos R. Munoz

INTERVIEW: Wrong turn leads to 12 hours alone in Sarasota reserve

A North Port woman who became lost during a half-marathon trail run held at the T. Mabry Carlton Reserve Sunday, was in good spirits a day after wandering for nearly 12 hours in the park.

Melissa Kitcher said she made a wrong turn about three miles into the Trail Hog 13.1-mile run, her first half marathon, and realized no one was looking for her at about 3 p.m. The race officially ended at 12:30 p.m., and race director Thierry Rouillard said the only people left in the park were racers having picnics.

Rouillard said that he had no idea Kitcher was still on the course, and he left.

“I honestly didn’t know there was anyone out there until her husband called me around 4 or 4:30 p.m.,” Rouillard said. “I felt terrible, trust me. My heart dropped.”

Rouillard said he returned to the course where the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office had begun searching the 24,565-acre park at about 5 p.m. He back-tracked the course on a bicycle and used a flashlight to navigate in the dark, he said.

Kitcher said she knew her family would come looking for her. She didn’t panic.

At around noon, she said she came out on a trail and saw power lines, as in the park’s “S. Power Line Trail.”

“I made a turn and back-tracked my steps,” she said.

Kitcher estimates that she ran nearly seven miles off course.

She had brought a cellphone to help her find her way through the course, but it froze two minutes before the race started. She tried to use the pins from her race BIB to activate it, but the phone eventually ran out of power.

She followed trails until it became dark. She was tired and thirsty, but had plenty of energy thanks to the energy chews her husband had given her for the race.

“I kept thinking to myself, ‘How do people run these trails?’ I can’t even walk them,” Kitcher said.

Rouillard said the race had been billed as a “trail run,” but Kitcher said she didn’t expect such narrow paths, with roots protruding from the earth, and low-lying vegetation over-running some of the course.

She stopped on a Jeep trail to rest.

‘Like the back of my hand’

Sarasota County Land Manager Debbie Blanco had been searching trails in the vicinity of the Trail Hog course and returned to the entrance to talk to deputies.

She spoke with Rouillard who said he rode the course on his bike, and decided to start a grid search.

“I’m the site manager out here for the Carlton Reserve,” Blanco said. “I pretty much know this place like the back of my hand.”

Wofchuck told Blanco, “If you’re going, I’m going with you.”

The first trail Blanco picked went far off course to an area of tall grass that had just been mowed. Ahead they could see a white and blue mound dimly lit with headlights motionless on the ground.

“My first reaction was dread,” Blanco said. “She’s not moving. All of a sudden she realized someone was there and leaped up off the ground. It was quite a sight. You have no idea.”

Kitcher said she was lying down to rest.

“I was sitting in the dark,” she said. “I was face down. I had my left arm out as a reminder to myself that, that was the direction I was going. The way I was lying, I didn’t want to lose my sense of direction. I left my arm out as my reminder that this is the way you were heading.”

She woke to the sight of headlights.

“I sprinted up and just waved my arms,” she said. “‘I’m here. I’m here.’

“I felt like a little kid again. I just hugged my mom and I said, ‘I just want to go home.'”

Kitcher never got a finisher’s medal for her first half marathon, but Rouillard said he would send her a gift package that includes the medal “she deserved.” He said he will revisit the course route, which he admitted can be confusing. He plans to include an award in the package — meant to be light-hearted — that proclaims Kitcher the “longest Trail Hog 13.1-mile participant” in the history of the three-year run.

Rouillard plans to have the race next year, but acknowledged the challenges when you host a trail run.

“We can’t rope certain areas … there’s twists and turns, trails crossing each other. She decided to turn where she should not have turned. Nobody else got lost.”

The race had only one water station midway through the event, and the course was marked with small white and red arrows, including at the spot where Kitcher said she made a wrong turn. No course map was available on the Trail Hog website.

“It’s the worst nightmare for a race director,” Rouillard said. “I love what I do and want everyone to be happy.”

Kitcher is planning to run the Sarasota Half Marathon in March, and finish. Based on information collected from her Fitbit, she took 49,000 steps and traveled 16.19 miles in less than 12 hours — the same time it would take an average runner to finish two marathons.

“I know my way around the streets and I know my way around Sarasota,” she said.

meet the writer


the latest

Derek occasionally gets homework assignments from daycare. It mostly consists of him learning how to trace his own name, and some very simple math problems – simple if you’re way above the age of 4, that it is. But it’s homework nonetheless. And we want Derek to know the importance of school, especially since he’ll … MORE>>
10. “Rides are always free,” drivers say. “Tips are always appreciated.” 9. Hours are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. 8. Call 941-444-2585 for an iRide. (Soon there will be a Gotcha app for smartphones.) There are no set routes; you can hail any of the colorful electric vehicles you see on the street. 7. The downtown service area extends … MORE>>
Derek has decided he wants to be a firefighter when he gets older. Keep in mind he’s 4 and he can’t decide what color pajamas he wants to wear to bed. So that may change. But the good thing is I have used this to our advantage. Derek wants to grow and big to become … MORE>>
OMG, OMG, OMG! Fans are finally getting to see the first teaser trailer for the latest Star Wars film. The trailer was officially released at “Star Wars Celebration” in Orlando today. “The Last Jedi” (Episode VIII) will be in theaters on December 15.   The offical poster has also been released.         … MORE>>
Apparently, today is National Beer Day. April 7th is the celebration of when beer became legal again in the United States after the Cullen-Harrison Act was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on March 23, 1933. Sounds like it may have caught on as National Beer Day in 2009, when Justin Smith of Richmond, … MORE>>
Thanks to the city of Sarasota, Lido Beach just got a bright new addition: a cerulean marker displaying how high sea levels are projected to rise in the next 100 years. Here’s the thing–the facts are scary. We said it. To name just a few: In less than 15 years, by 2030, sea levels are … MORE>>
I hate eggs. Hate them. You can scramble them, poach them, make them sunny side up, and then you can go ahead and stuff yourself because I want nothing to do with them. I have a hard time watching people eat eggs. I liked French toast until someone told me it was nothing more than … MORE>>
Ringling College of Art + Design will be showcasing the best work in each major, in the annual Best of Ringling. The outstanding student work was selected by a jury of visiting artists and faculty members. The majors include: Advertising Design 
Business of Art and Design Computer Animation Film Fine Arts 
Game Art Graphic Design … MORE>>
It’s rare to see eight female filmmakers lined up in a row discussing their short film and documentary work–mostly because it’s rare to see eight women filmmakers together in one room at all. But that’s exactly what we saw Saturday evening at the reception for the 18th annual Through Women’s Eyes Film Festival, highlighting women … MORE>>
Tomorrow is April Fools’ Day. I’m sure social media will be a minefield of shenanigans. There are some do’s and don’ts to follow. Do: Make your prank harmless. Don’t: Trust anyone. Good luck. MORE>>