Tragedy on the Skyway

On March 1st, I had the distinct honor of being able to cheer on fellow runners during the Skyway 10K. It was my consolation prize after not getting chosen as one of the 8,000 people to run it as selected through the lottery process.

The task was relatively simple. My position as a bus captain required me to arrive by 3:45 a.m., pick up my bus identification sign, script, and directions. My assignment was to provide runners with encouragement, safety instructions, and water. Cheerful, nervous, and excited faces stepped onto the bus. Fortunately, I could relate, running the bridge two years in a row prior.

The morning went incredibly smoothly. I was partnered with my stylishly dressed bus driver, Eugenia (addressed as Mrs. Gina by her students). Her driving ability and my witty personality (debatable) was a great duo.

We loaded the bus with runners who were layered to beat the 43-degree temps that would welcome them at the starting line of their adventure. On the way, we were gifted by sights of the bridge adorned with the glow of red, white, and blue to commemorate the day. We dropped them off exchanging high-fives and wishing them good luck before heading to the finish line.

The runners started coming. First, the elite hand cyclists; then, the men’s first-place finisher; finally, the women’s first-place finisher. After about 10 minutes, the drip of runners became a deluge.

Leandro Castro, Skyway 10K 2020 Men’s Winner

We collected them like marbles congratulating them for successfully traversing the bridge. We gave them water and drove them back to their original starting point of Tropicana Field where their finisher medal, bananas, granola bars, salted potato chips, and adult beverages would be waiting. Mrs. Gina and I were requested to do it all again. It was a great feeling, not as great as the runner’s high experienced after a race, but fulfilling nonetheless. Our duties concluded, I said farewell to my driver and joined the accomplished runners at the afterparty in the parking lot of Tropicana Field. The day had seemingly gone off without a hitch. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Just past mile 5, there was a different story.

Mile 6 is Never Promised

Justin Doyle was a 48-year old airplane engineer who grew up in the United Kingdom. He had just moved to Pinellas County in 2012 to join his brother, a local pub owner. Shortly after, he married the love of his life and settled down. When his wife and stepdaughter were diagnosed with breast cancer, Justin started the Hope, Health, and Sunshine Foundation to help local cancer patients pay medical bills (Tampa Bay Times, March 15th, 2020). Sadly, his stepdaughter succumbed to the disease last year, but Justin’s mission continued. According to his brother, Lea Doyle, “he wanted to make everything as easy as he could for everyone in his life.” 

Lea Doyle, left, with his brother Justin Doyle, right

Justin and Lea decided to sign up for the Skyway 10K Lottery with the hopes of being one of 8,000 people selected to run over the iconic Tampa Bay Bridge. Both he and his brother were chosen and would be running.

Justin probably went through the same pre-race routines as other runners: carb-loading the night before, laying out running clothes in layers, planning a light breakfast, setting alarm clocks, and making sure race bibs and safety pins are easily found. The day would also begin the same way as other runners; parking challenges, long lines leading to security checkpoints, port-o-let stops, and finally, the bus ride to the starting line. Justin probably experienced the same euphoria when seeing the majestic Skyway Bridge lit to honor the runners.

According to his brother, he was excited to be running the bridge. It was something he had wanted to do. So, Justin crossed the start line with the other runners. He ran. Justin reached mile 1, then mile 2, then 3 and 4. When he reached mile 5, he took a quick photo to remember the moment. Justin started again and shortly after, he collapsed.

Justin Doyle’s last photo

This story resonated with me. Justin was only two years my senior. He was in good shape, and life appeared to be treating him well. Then, in a matter of 5 miles, Justin’s race came to an end caused by an unknown heart episode.

Justin’s journey is much like anyone’s. We all begin life at the same start line. When the gun goes off, some of us walk, some jog, some sprint, and some enjoy the scenery along the way. No matter how we run, walk, or jog the race, we don’t know how many miles we’ll pass. Life is a journey of an unknown distance and only one finish line.

Whenever I become discouraged, frustrated, or angry with where I believe life is taking me, I think about Justin and fight to make it a better day. Mile 6 is a promise that may never happen. Our starting gun has already gone off so enjoy the scenery, make each mile memorable and make each one count.

If you would like to make a donation to the Hope, Health and Sunshine Foundation, you can follow this link.

I’ll be at the Skyway 10K…as a volunteer!

One of my favorite races in Tampa is the Skyway 10K. It is 6.2 miles of bridge running that traverses the mouth of Tampa Bay from Manatee County, through Hillsborough County and ending in Pinellas County. The views from the peak height of are breathtaking and something that very few people get to experience due to restricted access to the bridge.

In 2018, a group came together to pitch a 10K run over one of the tallest cable-stay bridges in Florida; something that hadn’t been done since the collapse of the original bridge on May 9th, 1980. The new bridge, called the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, is an engineering marvel, spanning 180 feet into the air and 21,859 feet across the water to connect Manatee and Pinellas Counties. It is also part of a heavily traveled federal highway system, making it a logistical challenge for race organizers. However, they made it work.

The race was an instant success and the race spots were quickly sold out during the inaugural race during 2018. My wife and I got a spot. In 2019, the same outcome. However, the popularity continued to rise and anticipation grew. At 1:00 p.m. on September 13, 2018, registrations began. After errors with the registration system and duplicate entries, entries for the race were all taken in a little more than 20 minutes. We were again lucky to get a spot, as was my parents.

In 2020, the registration became a lottery based system. Once again, we submitted our names, this time as a team, and hoped for a spot in our 3rd Skyway 10K event. Waiting with anticipation, the moment never arrived. We were upset but realized that we had been lucky to have gotten a spot running in the first two races.

I’ve always heard that if you’re a ‘real runner’, you not only encourage other runners no matter their abilities but you also occasionally volunteer to help during a race. Well, this is my race. I will be at the Skyway 10K, as a bus captain. For that, I”m willing to get up at 2:30 a.m., drive 30 minutes to St. Petersburg, arrive at 3:45 a.m. and give safety information to lucky runners. This is my way of giving back to all of those volunteers in the many races in which I participated. They made my races memorable and wanting more. I plan to provide the same to the runners of the Skyway 10K.

See you at the finish line!