Caroline Agid has always loved mermaids. And the for the past five years she has also loved running road races.
So how perfect was it when she discovered the inaugural Weeki Wachee Springs Mermaid Race on Facebook? The race date was set for Sept. 23. Runners could choose from a half-marathon, 5K or 1-mile race. The 5K was only $40 and included a free entry into Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, a place Agid, who lives in Titusville, had always wanted to check out.
"My mom (Maria Agid) and I got really excited and decided to make a weekend out of it," Agid said. "We would drive over, stay the night, run the race and check out the park and the mermaids. It seemed just about perfect for what we were looking for."
It was far from that.
Trouble started the moment, Agid, 23, and her mom, 61, arrived at the packet pick-up area. Then the list of problems grew and festered all the way through the finish line, which was confusing for Agid to find.
In the end, Agid and dozens upon dozens of participants (among the approximately 800 entered) were pretty much fuming, a fact emphasized in a long list of angry Facebook posts.
The complaints included: Waiting up to 90 minutes to pick up race packets (though the lines were relatively short), incorrect race T-shirt sizes, inaccurate race distances (Agid and others said the 5K, or 3.1 miles, was closer to 4 miles), limited cones marking the course, limited water supplies, late starting times for the races, limited to no volunteers on the course directing runners, a misguided notion that the course would include stretches through the park (it did not), and inaccurate times posted to the website following the race. Agid said her 5K time was posted at 23 hours, 50 minutes. "I didn't think I was running that slow," joked Agid, who averages about 25 minutes for a 5K.
The most pressing concerns involved safety, namely the crossing of busy intersections running and near U.S. 19 and state road 50, facts that also concerned the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
"(Mermaid race director Marc Heon) called us expressing his desire to put on a race," Hernando County Sheriff's Office community and public relations manager Denise Moloney said. "Our lieutenant called (Heon) back to discourage the race being held near any busy roads. But the lieutenant's calls were never returned."
Heon and Arizona-based Landmark Races (the race company hosting the event) did not return multiple calls from the Tampa Bay Times, but Heon did leave a lengthy Facebook post apologizing for the race-day issues.
Heon wrote in the opening of his post: "The inaugural race event at Weeki Wachee Springs did not go as planned. For some of you, that is an understatement. … As a race director with goals to bring running events to unique venues, I am embarrassed by the way the event played out."
Heon added that part of the problem stemmed from the recent hurricanes, weather events that drew away volunteers for various reasons. "We had originally started with 40 volunteers and Irma took away 37 of them," Heon wrote.
As for collecting a permit for the race, Florida Department of Transportation spokesperson Kris Carson said that Heon never notified her office about the event nor obtained a permit.
Ultimately, none of the participants were seriously endangered or physically hurt, but many are still angry.
"What about a refund?" Billie Martin Ellenwood wrote in a Facebook post directed at Heon and Landmark Races. "You don't mention anything about giving us our money back. I tried to make the most of it but you should be ashamed of yourself. For some people this was their first half experience and you have ruined it."
As for Weeki Wachee Springs, participants were far more complimentary.
"The Weeki Wachee Springs park was great," Agid said. "The Weeki Wachee staff was very kind and accommodating. I hope people who hear about this don't take the race as a reflection on Weeki Wachee Springs, because that would not be fair. We really enjoyed the park."