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On Gasparilla morning, this couple began a journey at the finish line

Erik Esinhart proposed to Rebecca White after both finished the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic half-marathon. She said yes.
Rebecca White embraces Erik Esinhart after he proposed before they crossed the finish line together at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic in Tampa on Saturday.
Rebecca White embraces Erik Esinhart after he proposed before they crossed the finish line together at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic in Tampa on Saturday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 8
Updated May 8

TAMPA — Their first date occurred three years ago at Buddy Brew Coffee in Hyde Park Village. Erik Esinhart had met the petite nurse with blond hair on Instagram.

“I thought she was cute and sent her a message,” Esinhart said.

Exactly 1.4 miles from their initial face-to-face encounter, their relationship reached another milestone beneath a cloudless sky Saturday morning. His knees buckling from nerves and the fatigue accompanied by just finishing a 13.1-mile run, Esinhart got down on his left one and proposed to Rebecca White.

Upon White’s affirmative nod, the 2008 Chamberlain High graduate slipped a rose-gold ring with an oval diamond on her finger.

And a relatively sparse race day at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic got a little sunnier.

“Super overwhelmed,” White, a 29-year-old registered nurse at Tampa General Hospital, said moments later. “This is my first half-marathon, so I was kind of focused on finishing, and then I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’

“I had a feeling, but I wasn’t sure.”

In a conventional year, Esinhart’s orchestrated proposal plan — roughly 25 relatives and friends watched it come to fruition from the finish area — likely would not have been feasible. This 43-year-old event staged along Bayshore Boulevard annually is held in late winter, drawing a five-figure turnout of hardcore runners, health-conscious joggers, walkers and wheelchair competitors vying in races of various lengths.

Rebecca White embraces Rachel Mentkow, a friend from college, after becoming engaged Saturday.
Rebecca White embraces Rachel Mentkow, a friend from college, after becoming engaged Saturday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

But due to the coronavirus’ lingering effects, this year’s race weekend was pushed back to early May, with registration limited (to the upper four figures) and most of the trademark bells and whistles bypassed.

In lieu of official starting race times, the Bayshore course was open to registered participants Saturday from 5 a.m. to nearly noon, with suggested course routes for each race (five-kilometer, 8K, 15K, half-marathon) outlined. Though a designated start/finish area was erected in the shadow of Tampa General, no official timekeeper was present.

Bottled water was available to runners a couple hundred yards north of the finish line, but no on-course aid stations were set up, and the normal post-race buffet of fruits, snacks and beverages was supplanted by virtual goody bags. Participants were encouraged to furnish their own hydration and had the option of keeping their own times and downloading them to a web site.

Erik Esinhart proposes to Rebecca White before crossing the finish line Saturday.
Erik Esinhart proposes to Rebecca White before crossing the finish line Saturday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

But this casual setting, and the emergence of COVID-19 vaccines, were conducive to Esinhart’s scheme.

A 31-year-old industrial engineer for a Clearwater-based tech firm, he and White, 29, agreed to try the half-marathon — his third, her first — starting at 6 a.m. Saturday, with Esinhart’s sister, Andrea, joining them.

“We’ve been training for this for two or three months now,” said Esinhart, who swam at Chamberlain. “We’re not like, huge runners in general, but ... one thing I guess about us and our relationship was always being active, trying to do things together.”

He then furtively arranged for White’s parents, Drue and Karen, to come in from Jacksonville with White’s sister, Rachel, who arrived from Nashville, to be waiting at the finish area. They were joined by his own folks, Jim and Debbie Esinhart.

“I’m close to my parents and sister, and they all live in here in Tampa. So I wanted an idea that kind of incorporated family into it and close friends into it,” Esinhart said. “A trip was out of the question, because that would be just the two of us.

Drue White (left) and Karen White (right), along with daughter Rachel White (center) arrived Saturday morning at the finish area of the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic to see the couple's other daughter, Rebecca, get engaged.
Drue White (left) and Karen White (right), along with daughter Rachel White (center) arrived Saturday morning at the finish area of the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic to see the couple's other daughter, Rebecca, get engaged. [ JOEY KNIGHT | Times ]

“And then it just kind of dawned on me that we were running this race and it would be kind of cool to do it at the end. Since we’re both accomplishing something together, like finishing a race together, I thought it would kind of be something cool.”

So the couple ran off into the sunrise Saturday, as the early-morning temperatures mercifully remained in the low 60s. Roughly 2½ hours later, Esinhart’s plan went off without a hitch or humidity.

His hands shook mildly as he slipped on the ring he said harnesses the qualities of his fiancee: Simple. Elegant. Beautiful. Timeless.

“They’re really best friends,” Debbie Esinhart said. “And they’re very considerate with each other and bring the best qualities out in each other.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.