TAMPA — Runners in the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic know The Voice. Year after year, it comes back to them like home. They hear her before they see her as they head up or back on Bayshore Boulevard. The Voice makes them feel part of something. The Voice helps take them to the finish line.
"You got it!"
"Keep breathing from your belly!"
"You can do this!"
Meet Jane Friend, Gasparilla's beloved cheerleader. Friend, a former Tampa disc jockey, has become an icon at Gasparilla, though she has never entered a single race. This weekend marked the 17th year Friend, 59, has taken up her post near the intersection of Bayshore and Swann Avenue.
It takes a village to hold Gasparilla. And it takes Friend.
"I only know I love this race," Friend said.
Her sound system on the side of the road plays the hits, classic oldies. It can't compete with Jane, who wields a microphone, as if she really needs one, and orange pom-poms, the same ones she tapes together every year.
Friend showed up for the Saturday races ready to go. She returned to her native Chicago several years ago to help care for her ailing mother, who is also named Jane. But she comes back for Gasparilla. And she brings it. She's hoarse by the end.
"Jane's energy is amazing and it's contagious" Gasparilla executive director Susan Harmeling said. "The runners pick it up and they look forward to it. People who have been to this race for years and years and years, they know her. They know where she's going to be, they know what she's going to be doing. She's going to have pom-poms, she's going to have a microphone in her hand. From the time she sees the first runner until the time she sees the last runner, she does not stop."
"I got nothing left at the end," Friend said.
Her command post is a quarter mile from the finish line. She saves her best for runners struggling to finish. When her microphone batteries died, Friend's batteries persisted.
Yes, the Gasparilla organization picks up the cost of Friend's plane ticket to come down from Chicago. And, yes, Friend is paid for her work on the course. But it isn't about that. Gasparilla fills Friend's heart as well as her seemingly nuclear-powered lungs.
"It's the humanity," Friend said. "All of it. It's so awesome there are hardly words. Every year there are more. I see everyone in every size, shape, form, color, age. I just try to help them along."
Gasparilla runners appreciate it. They high-five Jane as they run past her. They call out to her. They come back to shake her hand after the finish. A few of them shouted a question at her Saturday as they ran the 15K.
"Wasn't last year your last year?"
Last year was supposed to be Friend's final Gasparilla. She had decided to hang up the pom-poms. But six weeks before this year's races, Harmeling and Friend exchanged emails. It went something like this:
"I miss you already!"
"I miss you, too!"
And there was Friend, back on Bayshore.
"She's part of the family," Harmeling said. "Certain people are woven into the fabric of the event. And Jane is one of those people."
Maybe it was one event in Friend's life told her she needed to be involved.
In 1994, Friend and her silken vocal cords were working at a Tampa radio station. She had a successful side business as a mobile DJ. But one rainy day, her car hydroplaned on Bayshore and struck a concrete pole. Friend suffered a traumatic brain injury. She nearly died.
"I probably lived at Tampa General for eight weeks," Friend said. "It humbled me. It made me realize what's important in life. It taught me peace of mind. It made me appreciate everything we do. I know I appreciate what everyone in Gasparilla does."
"You've got to use the music!"
"You can do it. You're near the finish!"
"I love you, Tampa Bay!"
The Voice sometimes stands on a foot ladder in the median. More often, she steps into the road with her pom-poms and microphone, especially as runners hit the home stretch. There is no script, no anything, just The Voice. Eat your hearts out, North Korean Olympics cheering section. Friend has watched the Olympics and caught the North Koreans. Not impressed.
"Too rigid," Friend said. "Should cheering be rigid? And they don't cheer for anyone else — that's the killer for me."
"Jane is for everyone," said longtime runner Kip Eldridge of Tampa, an icon himself. Eldridge, 68, has run in Gasparilla 15 times and is part of a select club, having run at least one marathon in all 50 states. He has run all over the world. Jane is the best, he said. "There's no one like her. You're at the end and you have nothing left. And then you hear that voice."
The big question from runners this weekend:
"Are you coming back next year?"
Friend might finally step away from the microphone next year. She'd like to walk the Gasparilla 5K just once. She has been married four years. Her husband is Vinny. Friend has never had children. She disagreed with that last statement. She looked up Bayshore, at a sea of 5K runners.
"I have a family," she said.
And it has Friend.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029.