* A Jeep drives on a road in Pine Island following the destruction of the town after Hurricane Ian
Photo Credit: Mickey Welsh/Advertiser/The News-Press
"In my area, the area itself looks so different. You've always run the same routes. You know them like the back of your hand. But now it looks so different. You don't recognize it. There is so much stuff everywhere. Debris. Furniture. People's personal belongings. It's hard to see."
By Cory Mull - MileSplit
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When Kylie Thomas and her family returned to Fort Myers, Florida this week following the most destructive hurricane in the city's history, she made a point to quickly get back to her routine.
For Thomas, who had been running since she was in the sixth grade, that made sense. She often found comfort in her daily rituals, including her weekly long run.
The Bishop Verot High School senior is in her last year as a Vikings runner and still feels as if her goals are within reach. She holds hopes of breaking the 20-minute barrier for 5K, reaching the state championships and placing among the state's top 20 runners.
But when the 18-year-old took that first step outside her home, which sat just miles away from the most devastated part of Sanibel Island, she saw a completely different place than what she had always known.
"In my area, the area itself looks so different," she told MileSplit this week. "You've always run the same routes. You know them like the back of your hand. But now it looks so different. You don't recognize it. There is so much stuff everywhere. Debris. Furniture. People's personal belongings. It's hard to see."
Thomas says she was lucky. She evacuated the city with her family and returned home to see minor flooding in the garage, roof damage and downed trees. A week after the storm -- which featured 150 mile per hour winds and significant storm surge -- leveled the city, she and her family were safe.
But across much of Southwest Florida, towns had existentially changed. Fort Myers Beach, a regional gem that featured restaurants, bars and various retail stores, was nearly gone, as was Sanibel and Pine Island. One bridge connecting the islands was broken in half. Downtown Fort Myers was littered with debris.
That destruction ultimately will have major ripple effects for the city, its residents and its businesses -- not to mention its tourism economy -- over the coming months. Millions of dollars worth of property damage will have to be rebuilt within the city and its region. President Joe Biden arrived in Fort Myers this week to survey the damage and speak to community leaders.
But as the priority order falls, so too will the effects impact the running community.
Thomas attends Bishop Verot, which is a private catholic school in Fort Myers. There is no immediate timeline for schools to return, which means no practice, competition or team-wide events until that changes.
"We have districts on the 21st of this month, so that's coming on two and a half weeks," said Jesse Littlefield, who is the second year coach of Estero High School. "When you're looking at it, we'll be almost two weeks from having a race, and so to try and get kids in the mindset of racing again, that's tough.''
Littlefield and fellow coaches in the Fort Myers area are worried.
"We're right on the cusp of making it to states," he added.
As of this week, schools were still closed. Right now, there remains uncertainty as to when Lee County Public Schools and its 19 member schools will return. The decision could ultimately impact top programs like Fort Myers, Bishop Verot, Estero and Lehigh.
In rural Alaska, Haines finds connection through cross country
* An overheard view of Fort Myers Beach, which was destroyed by Hurricane Ian
Photo Credit: Vander Weit/Palm Beach Post
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Littlefield's Estero team was scheduled to compete at the FSU Pre-State Invitational on Saturday, as was Thomas' Bishop Verot squad. Estero will also miss the Flrunners Invitational next week.
Beyond the practical side of racing and improving, Littlefield believes there are parallel sacrifices his team will experience due to this adversity.
"I have some seniors who really stepped up this season. And now they can't go to Flrunners and Pre-State," he said. "You think about it, that's team bonding, getting to spend nights in hotels. That's when cross country gets fun. Having to miss the two biggest meets of the season and then going straight to the state series, it gets challenging."
Thomas ultimately agreed with that notion, too.
In fact, she's never had a proper cross country season across her tenure in uniform.
"I've never actually had a normal year of high school," she said. "My freshman year, I missed half of my track season due to COVID, which had a big reason to do with my sophomore cross country season.
"I'm not going to lie," she added. "I missed a lot of training. Covid had a humongous effect on my sophomore year."
* President Joe Biden flew to Fort Myers this week to oversee the damage to the region
Saul Young/The News-Press
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Thomas, however, is one of the many high school runners who are finding their ways back to the roads. If they are to finish out their cross country seasons in the way they first envisioned, they will have to.
But beyond high school athletes, larger questions loom for the running community.
The Southwest Florida region is home to a local running group, The Speedsters, and the city has had a niche appeal for those searching to quench their thirst on the road. Even through Fort Myers' devastatingly humid summers and sticky falls, runners find themselves on McGregor Boulevard for speed workouts, darting on the community trails near Dunbar for interval workouts and on the Cape and beyond.
"You think about it, that's team bonding, getting to spend nights in hotels. That's when cross country gets fun. Having to miss the two biggest meets of the season and then going straight to the state series, it gets challenging."
The hurricane, however, has forced those same individuals to push running aside. John Rinkenbaugh owns the RunFlorida specialty running store in the city and says he's seen sparse business over that stretch.
"I think people have forgotten about running," he said.
The Kansas native, however, has seen his fair share of storms, having endured Hurricane Charley in 2004 and Hurricane Irma in 2017. The former television News Director knows to be patient.
"Running can wait," he said. "There's priorities. Business was terrible for three to four weeks (during Irma) and it took about seven to eight weeks for people to come back to the store. But my suppliers, they understood."
Perhaps one saving grace through all of this, as Rinkenbaugh touched on, has been the community's desire to help one another.
After the hurricane made its lasting imprint on the city, Littlefield found himself driving to Hertz Arena only days afterward to aid in the recovery efforts. In recent days, he said, he and a friend helped a local gymnastics gym clear out damage.
He's also seen his runners offer assistance.
"There's a local church that's coordinating a lot of this," he said. "The churches have been good finding out who needs help, what they need and then sending the right amount of people there."
Then there's Rinkenbaugh.
A woman called his store just days after the hurricane, worried that her husband, a first responder and firefighter from San Antonio who had flown in to help recovery efforts, wouldn't be able to train for his marathon during his off hours.
The Texas native had forgotten his running shoes.
The firefighter worked for San Carlos Park Fire Station 51. Just years earlier, that same station had showed up to the scene of a major car accident and rescued a young child. It was Rinkenbaugh's grand daughter.
The woman said, "I don't know what he wears."
Rinkenbaugh calmed her, "Don't worry, I'll take care of him."
Later that day, after he closed his store and drove south on US-41, Rinkenbaugh drove to the station that saved his grand daughter just four years earlier and handed the firefighter a pair of Saucony Endorphin Speeds.
"He says to me, 'That's my shoe. That's what I'm training in.'"
"The smile on his face," Rinkenbaugh said, "to me, it made me feel really good to do something like that ...plus, I gave him a discount."
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