[Editor’s Note: It’s with great sadness that we note that Earl Blewett lost his battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, in June of 2022. His presence in American trail running and ultrarunning as an athlete and race director are missed.]
Around 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 18, a 57-year-old runner disappeared during a 100-mile race in Titusville, Florida. Today at 8 a.m., local police announced they’d found the man — not seriously injured, but “disoriented.”
Earl Blewett of Tulsa, Oklahoma, traveled to Titusville to compete in the Ancient Oaks 100 Mile. Each December, the race takes place at Enchanted Forest Sanctuary, a nature preserve operated by Brevard County. This year’s edition began at 7 a.m. Saturday morning. “It’s a low-key, old-school-style ultramarathon,” described race director Mike Melton.
Blewett, a veteran of over 80 ultramarathons, triggered a search starting at around 11 p.m. on Saturday night after vanishing around mile 55.
At first, the race staff and runners searched themselves, explained Melton, “We sent runners in the same direction on the loop course. We sent runners backward. We sent a runner on other trails in the park that we don’t use. We sent volunteers to check for his rental car. We sent runners to check the ditch along the highway to see if he got off course.”
Considering his experience, it seemed alarming that Blewett had gone missing from a course that appeared relatively safe. Even if extremely exhausted, he would likely have sought help at one of the two aid stations on the course or arrived at one of the four timing mats. And regardless of his physical condition, the Ancient Oaks 100 Mile course is short and repetitive — doing 100 miles on it requires 29 laps on the 3.46-mile course.
However, said Melton, the course travels through dense vegetation, which might have made navigation difficult once Blewett was off course. “The park protects old-growth forest, including oak trees that have to be at least 100 years old, hence the race’s name. In places, there is dense undergrowth, too, below the forest canopy.”
One possibility was that Blewett had withdrawn from the race without telling anyone. But race organizers soon doubted that possibility after finding his rental car in the parking lot, with his phone and identification still inside. On further investigation, said Melton, they learned he hadn’t made contact with his wife, either. Apparently, he was still in the area, potentially in harm’s way.
Melton also said that Blewett preemptively disclosed to him a tendency to lose the course while running ultras at night. “I ran on the course with Earl for a few minutes on Saturday night, and he explained to me that he has a tendency to get disoriented and lost. I cautioned him to follow the course markings and said there were pacers available.”
Local ultrarunner Matt Mahoney had stopped by the race to run a few laps with friends. Though he didn’t register in the event, he was at the event when Blewett disappeared.
“He must have walked outside the park and gotten lost,” Mahoney said. “I have no idea how it happened. But on the trail, there are places where you can turn where you would normally go straight. And they’re probably not marked — I can see how you could get lost at night.”
As Sunday morning dawned, he was still missing. At that point, race directors called local officials for help. The Titusville police pulled out all the stops. Search and rescue brought three canine units including a bloodhound, six all-terrain vehicles, a drone, a helicopter, five people on horseback, a line of people to walk back and forth through the forest, and heat-sensing technology for the nighttime.
At 8 a.m. on Monday morning, about 34.5 hours after Blewett’s disappearance, their kitchen-sink search tactics paid off. Searchers found Blewett behind Knight’s Armament Company, a firearms manufacturing facility half a mile away from the park. To get there, he had crossed the highway.
Blewett is receiving treatment for minor injuries, at Titusville’s Parrish Medical Center. It’s believed Blewett may have had an ankle injury, that he may have taken a fall at some point during his disappearance, and that he was disoriented upon being collected by the police.
The successful result, and relative non-injury to Blewett, amount to one of the scenario’s best possible outcomes. He’s well-known and respected in the sport, with prolific experience in competition and administration.
Reflected Melton, “When I heard the news this morning that he was found, it was the best possible Christmas present we could have received.”