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I run five days a week on Bayshore Boulevard. It's a treasure and a deadly danger.

Writer Laura Reiley runs near the memorial for Jessica Raubenolt and her 21-month-old daughter Lillia on Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa on Tuesday. (JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times)
Writer Laura Reiley runs near the memorial for Jessica Raubenolt and her 21-month-old daughter Lillia on Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa on Tuesday. (JAMES BORCHUCK | Times)
Published May 31, 2018

TAMPA -- I stood at the corner of South Howard Avenue and Bayshore Boulevard and contemplated the "don't walk" symbol. I didn't want my heart rate to dip too much, my music was pumping and I was loath to lose momentum. Did I cross against the light to the wide sidewalk of Bayshore, or wait?

I guessed the runners of Bayshore were all thinking the same thing. For many of us it's a decades-long compulsion. For others it's a fleeting assay at self-improvement and fitness. I started in earnest 18 months ago as a terrifyingly large birthday loomed, and now run on Bayshore five mornings a week.

But we're out there, creatures of habit, despite grisly headlines. Pretty Windbreaker Girl was already running, as was Grimace Face Guy who must be training for something because he was doing wind sprints.

I crossed against the light. But I felt weird about it. Less than 24 hours prior, police say Jessica Raubenolt was legally crossing an intersection using the pedestrian ramp when she was fatally struck by a black Mustang going 102 miles per hour, her 21-month-old daughter Lillia dying a day later at Tampa General Hospital.

RELATED: Mustang was going 102 mph before hitting mother, daughter crossing Bayshore, report says

Bayshore Boulevard is a treasure, one I feel privileged to run. No, Tampa doesn't really have beaches, but Bayshore, a linear park (erroneously) touted as the longest continuous sidewalk in the world, offers views of the working waterfront, the still-in-progress downtown skyline, the historic mansions of railroad barons and RV tycoons. I've seen dolphins too many times to count, sharks swimming in tight circles, hundreds of pelicans inelegantly fishing and a baby otter that I'm still not sure wasn't a hunk of driftwood.

I wave at Guitar Man every time I see him, a man who perambulates Bayshore several mornings each week holding a guitar. His pearly electric axe is slung rakishly across his belly, maybe a silent chord strummed from time to time.

He's a celebrity among us, and we all have our personal theories. Emily Ghosh (that's Pretty Windbreaker Girl) thinks the guitar is just his passion, a pleasure to combine with being outdoors in a beautiful setting. Brian Bradway (funny gait, but he gets the job done) guesses Guitar Man is in a church choir and uses his morning walks for practice.

RELATED: Deaths on Bayshore Boulevard spur drive to redo the road with pedestrians in mind

Truth is, the runners and walkers of Bayshore are a loose tribe. We recognize each other, wave and nod. Even plugged into soundtracks of our own (mine is on Spotify called Laura's Slightly Ridiculous Running Jams, you can look it up),we all share the same experiences, from the joyous to the terrifying.

There are party fouls and annoyances on the 4.5-mile sidewalk: the dog owner who brought one poop-bag too few; the cyclists who zoom past at more than 15 miles per hour (guys, there's a bike lane for that). When the lithe gazelles of the Plant High School cross country team are out, I try not to lament my aging knees.

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But the biggest problem is speeding traffic. Speeding has been a problem for years — more than 450 speeding tickets have been issued already this year — and accidents are frequent. Police say three young men in two cars were street racing on May 23, causing the crash, but loads of accidents (60 since 2012) are the result of garden-variety lead-footing it on a major thoroughfare. Then add in runners and pedestrians, many wearing earbuds and not crossing at designated crosswalks. That's because there aren't enough crosswalks, none in a reasonable distance of where Raubenolt attempted to cross.

There have been fatalities. In 2004, a motorcyclist struck a jogger at about 80 mph, double the speed limit, which prompted then-Mayor Pam Iorio to create a safety task force. The city added bike lanes, a sidewalk to the boulevard's southbound side and a traffic signal at Howard.

RELATED: Tampa neighborhood hires off-duty police to crack down on Bayshore Blvd speeders

A day after Raubenolt's death, the city lowered the speed limit from 40 to 35 miles per hour. A few days later, waiting to cross at Howard, I watched four drivers get ticketed at 7:15 a.m., police out in force. Did I feel safer? Not really.

Bayshore will never be a lure like New York's Central Park until enough crosswalks allow pedestrians to reach it safely. And crosswalks mean traffic slowdowns. The city is currently planning narrowed lanes and flashing pedestrian crossings in at least three locations.

Activists have started a petition to lower the speed limit to 25, turning it into a scenic drive. Some are also advocating for shutting down lanes nearest the water and making it a two-lane road. A group called Walk Bike Tampa is angling to get Bayshore closed entirely to traffic on Sundays to accommodate runners and cyclists, but I'm not hopeful.

On the day after the fatality, I reached 2.5 miles at an easy 9:35 pace, ritually pausing to look out over Hillsborough Bay before heading for home. Stopping my GPS watch, I noticed the two television camera crews. This must have been where she died, where her stroller came to a halt in Tampa's most famous street for way too long, now a piece of evidence.

This was before it became a shrine bedecked with pink carnations, candles and teddy bears, a shrine that all the runners of Bayshore dealt with in their own ways — some crossed themselves, others snapped a quick pic and some put on a burst of speed.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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