It's been more than a year since Debbie Voiles has run alone on parts of the Upper Tampa Bay Trail.
The running coach was enjoying a daytime dash just north of Ehrlich Road when a teenager sitting on the trail startled her. The boy held what looked like a gun. Voiles ran away, not wanting to find out if it was a toy.
"I would never encourage anyone to run out there by themselves," said Voiles, founder of the Run Tampa club.
That sort of encounter and the recent robbery of a local runner has some in Tampa's running community worried about safety along the popular recreational path. One local running coach is preparing a self-defense class.
"I think there is danger there. There are too many little things happening," said Lynn Gray, owner of Tampa's Take the First Step, Walk to Run program.
In the past year, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office reported 1,600 calls on or within 500 feet of the 7.2-mile-long public park, said Master Sgt. Rick Eldridge. Two incidents, in April and December, were robberies. Both remained unsolved.
The December robbery has made the rounds among local runners. Sheriff's reports say a 54-year-old woman was running in one of the busier portions of the trail near Gunn Highway at 5:21 p.m. Four teen boys approached from behind and snatched her necklace. The group scattered when a male cyclist stopped to help. The teens took his bike and left it abandoned nearby.
"We take these crimes very seriously," Eldridge said. "They are robberies. They are felonies."
The Upper Tampa Bay Trail is a blend of tree-lined areas and crossovers at major roads, said Tina Russo, the trail's senior park manager. It is officially open from dawn to dusk, and most visitors enter at four key parking lots between Montague Street and Peterson Road.
But this public park is unique: It operates in an urban setting, and there is no fence keeping people from entering at will, day or night. Homes, businesses and large ranches back up to the route, and the foliage can make most runners and cyclists feel cut off from city life.
"Once you're out there, you're in the woods," Eldridge said.
That setting makes the trail an oasis to some, a safety concern to others, Russo said.
"It's a park, but it's also very similar to a roadway," she said. "We want access so people can get on the trail."
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Loitering teens seem to be the main problems runners encounter. They share stories about teens using the trail as a place to get drunk or harass cyclists and runners during the day. Water stations and buildings near the trail have been vandalized.
"It's getting harder and harder to use the trail as a viable training space," said Voiles, who leads large group runs on the trail every weekend.
Gray, a veteran long-distance runner, tried training on the trail at dusk last month, and passed some teens smoking marijuana.
"I was disgusted," said Gray, who usually runs with at least one other person. "I felt like I can't even do anything during the day."
Russo said she's in regular contact with the sheriff's office, and if needed, deputies will patrol the trail on bikes or off-road vehicles. They can issue a trespassing citation to those on the trail when it's closed, or arrest those caught drinking alcohol or doing drugs.
However, most teens visiting the public trail during daylight hours are not committing crimes.
"They're allowed to be there if they're not smoking pot or anything like that," she said.
A few years ago, the county installed emergency locator stickers along the trail to address safety concerns, Russo said. The bright yellow stickers along the path pinpoint a location so callers with a safety or medical concern can tell 911 operators where they are.
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The shaded beauty of the Upper Tampa Bay Trail is why it shouldn't be used after dark, when "nefarious activities" can take place, Eldridge said. If you run anywhere after dark, have a buddy with you, he said.
"Somebody could jump you and you could yell and scream and no one will hear you," said Eldridge, who also is a runner. "You need to pick a lit area."
Runners and cyclists, however, use the path before the sun is up. Russo said rangers start shifts at 6 a.m., and regularly see runners before dawn. People are trying to squeeze in a workout, she said, adding that they need to be careful.
"It's frustrating this time of year, especially, because your daylight hours aren't as long," said Russo, who also is a cyclist and coach. "And more people are trying to get out there."
Voiles wishes there were more lighted park areas for runners who can only exercise before or after work. The Upper Tampa Bay Trail does not have lighting, and popular running spots such as Al Lopez Park are closing after dark, she said.
Russo said lighting has never been part of the plans for the Upper Tampa Bay Trail. The cost is prohibitive and unlikely to be included in Hillsborough County's already strained budget.
Voiles said she's determined to look for ways to create safer running spaces at dusk and dawn. Trail rangers could work different hours, or fundraising road races could help purchase lights, she said.
"The running community is growing by leaps and bounds," Voiles said. "And neither the city nor the county provides lighting for a safe place to run at night."
RULES OF THE ROAD
Exercising before or after daylight hours carries certain risks. Law enforcement and running coaches offer the following safety tips:
Always exercise with a buddy or a group.
Wear light-colored clothing.
Do not wear jewelry or other valuables.
Carry personal identification.
Be aware of surroundings at all times.
Make regular mental notes of locations, such as mile markers.
Carry a cellphone. Call 911 if necessary.