TAMPA — In a sense, Jeff Harmeling completed his personal marathon before race day even dawned Saturday.
In the process, the 43-year-old married dad of one defied logic. Or in runner’s vernacular, he lapped it.
“It’s just really emotional,” his mother said as her voice cracked.
Jeff, the son of long-time Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic executive director Susan Harmeling, made his first appearance at the race since a freak collision on a Tallahassee softball field nearly killed him two years ago. The ensuing ordeal included brain hemorrhages and breathing tubes, extensive rehab and exhausting physical therapy.
Hence the significance of Saturday morning: Riding the 15K course in a lead car, Jeff enjoyed the consummate victory lap as the sun rose over Hillsborough Bay and cast light on the thousands of runners along Bayshore Boulevard.
“It’s great,” he said minutes prior to the race’s start. “I forgot how crazy it all is.”
For years, Jeff — a personal trainer and former University of Tampa baseball player — had driven the media truck for his mom, transporting reporters along the course, just ahead of the lead runners. When the pandemic forced the 2021 race to be postponed and held virtually in May of that year, he didn’t attend.
But he phoned his mom on May 10, a day after the event’s conclusion (and the day after Mother’s Day) to check on her. A couple hours later, he was clinging to life at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital after charging for a shallow fly ball and colliding with another player.
The injury rendered him comatose, resulting in seven brain bleeds. He required a breathing tube for parts of his two-week hospitalization, and later spent seven weeks in a Jacksonville rehabilitation facility. With wife Colleen at his side preparing meals to meet his specific nutritional needs (he has an autoimmune condition), Jeff re-learned virtually every rudimentary function.
Today, he is training clients again, driving (he traveled to Tampa alone from Tallahassee on Friday in his white 2020 Nissan Altima) and doing physical therapy on his own. In terms of limitations, his speech remains noticeably slower, he still lacks strength and balance on his right side, and his long-term memory is sketchy.
Jeff has assorted memories from his pubescence and high school, but can’t recall throwing a single pitch for the Spartans, for whom he played a quarter-century ago.
“For working out, my training, I no longer have to use my phone to remember the workouts,” said Jeff, who has a 5-year-old son. “I still have trouble pulling up certain facts.”
While confident he could have driven the media truck this year, he declined primarily just to keep race organizers — including his mom — from worrying about him. The goal is to get behind the pickup’s wheel again in 2024.
On Saturday, the passenger’s view was poignant enough for mother and son.
“I get to see so many people when I go to Tampa,” Jeff said. “I think they need to see me and know I’m OK.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.