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.