We met Jeff Warrick by the meat train — a chance encounter outside of Kevin’s Crab Shack in Palmetto, Florida, a local corner hangout servicing patrons on the road to St. Petersburg.
It was hot. Muggy. An adhesive heat that picks up pieces of the road and coats you in gray grit. We were sitting by the train and catching our breath before making our way to Rachel’s home. The ride that morning had been a rough-and-tumble affair — defined by heavy traffic and thin shoulders disappearing into rubble.
Conversation revolved around this big black train car. It was an absurd street-corner fixture, jammed between a daycare and a restaurant, planted in grass and gravel. When Jeff walked up we didn’t notice him. When he spoke it was startling.
“Whooo-ee! Where you all riding?” He was smiling. Big teeth, nice grin, white hair, weathered skin; a skinny man with thick veins and strong hands.
We told him about Keys to Freeze, our 9,000-mile ride from Florida to Alaska, and he liked what he heard. “Well, Alaska’s a long ways away,” he said, “but I’m glad you could come through here. My name’s Jeff Warrick. I’m one of the owners of Kevin’s Crab Shack.”
“Jeff, do you know anything about this train?” I asked.
The meat train is really just one car, a classic coal-eating caboose like those out of an old western. Inside, there’s a wood-fueled griller with no auxiliary electrical hookups. Heat runs through a tunnel underneath its carriage, which the cook-masters monitor with large, old dial thermometers. It is a primitive, eccentric cooking experience.
The owners of Kevin’s Crab Shack bought the meat train a few years back, registered it as a vendor at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers home games and made a small fortune slinging shrimp, crabs, chicken, ribs, hotdogs and burgers during the parking lot tailgate parties. After that first season, they decided to move the train back to Palmetto and set it up as a recognizable restaurant fixture. During the spring and summer months, when the people of Bradenton are rocked by the heat, the meat train chugs into action and customers line the corner waiting for a greasy hunk of meat.
Jeff took a lot of pride explaining his train — pulling out racks and opening oven lids, showing us which meat was cooked where. The train is huge, a grilling colossus.
Jeff looks like a man who has worked hard and been outdoors for most of his life. His muscles are long and lean, corded into his skinny frame.
He looks like a runner.
Our group split up shortly after the meat train tour ended. I left with Megan and Rachel for St. Petersburg while Brady, George and Tyler stuck around Kevin’s for a few more minutes.
The next time I saw Brady it was at Rachel’s home in St. Petersburg. He came up to me, grabbed my face in both his hands, and said “Jeff Warrick was one of the best high school runners in U.S. history!”
“He set the national record in the 1,500 meters for fastest time run by a sophomore. And — and! — he was coached by Rollie Geiger before Geiger took over as head coach at N.C. State.”
Geiger is a legend among North Carolina running youth. Having led N.C. State to thirty-five ACC Championships, guided twenty-one runners to National Top Ten finishes and won ACC Cross Country Coach of the Year twenty-eight times, Geiger is the coach every serious North Carolina cross country runner has hoped to run for. That Jeff ran for Coach Geiger before Geiger went collegiate is rather incredible.
Brady and I were both runners in North Carolina. Our first conversation as friends was about our high school state cross country meet, when we finished within a second of each other. We’ve each met Rollie Geiger on various occasions at Geiger’s summer running camp. We enjoy running and know the sport well, but neither of us had ever heard of Jeff Warrick.
So we did some research.
Jeff was a stud in high school, jumping into the national scene as a sophomore. His preferred sport was track — his best distance was the 1,500m, but he also excelled at the 800m, two-mile and cross-country. He set high school, county, state and national records in the 1,500m back in 1978.
Jeff decided to run at Southwest Michigan College and then became virtually invisible for twenty-five years. There is nothing anywhere on the Internet about what Jeff Warrick did between 1981 and 2006 — no race results, no newspaper clippings. Poof. He dissolved into the modern world.
Then in 2006 Jeff was arrested on a sexual molestation charge and registered as a sex offender in his hometown of Bradenton. When asked, Jeff did not go into detail but stated that the charges were true and he has been rebuilding his life since then.
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I had Jeff on my mind throughout the next hundred miles of road, mulling the rise and fall and eventual aging of a super talent. What stories were hiding behind his smiles? What happened to Jeff when he went to up to Michigan? How did he find himself back home, a sex offender and crab shack co-owner? Brady had given Jeff our phone number. We had to wait and see if he would call.
He did, two days later, leaving us a message as Keys to Freeze biked up into Odessa. Jeff just wanted to say “hey” and see how our trip was going. He didn’t want us to forget him as the rest of the world had.
When I called him back Jeff knew it was me.
“Reese! This is the running man, Jeff.”
* * *
Jeff Warrick kept coming home. Six months after leaving for college in Michigan he returned home to Bradenton after serving in a Michigan prison for opening fire on a van during an argument. No one was hurt in the shootout, and he served two months before being released. When asked why he moved back down to Florida, Jeff said that “a sexy lady changed my mind.” He did not comment on the circumstances surrounding his time in jail.
Jeff’s career moved from the track to local 5k road races around Tampa. He worked on tomato farms, making his way up to a managing position that required him to move to California. Jeff flew out west, took a week to look around, said “Nope!” and caught the next flight home to Florida. He saved up, bought into the family property that is now Kevin’s Crab Shack and ran races until his knees gave out. Then the molestation charge came one night in 2006, with the ensuing court conviction dragging out over two years as Jeff fought the case.
So now Jeff has a tracker on his ankle — not that he needs one. Bradenton is the only home he’s ever known. “I ran 500 miles a summer on these beaches,” he said. “I trained out there every morning. I worked for those state titles. I earned them.”
What Jeff achieved as an athlete is tremendous. He’s happy and whole, and able to tell his story to six bedraggled cyclists ogling his train. I find that humbling — a feeling I’ve had a few times already on this trip. I’m grateful for those who have supported our journey and thankful for the opportunities afforded us in our path north — and we’ve only just begun.
We are a long way from home, and moving ever further from it. But Jeff is right where he wants to be. When I think about him now, I picture him running down a Palmetto beach at sunset. He’s eighteen, barefoot, and sprinting with the force of his hometown pushing him past the finish line.
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George Eklund is from eastern Kentucky. He has worked for non-profit organizations around the state focusing on housing, environmental justice, and social justice issues.
Megan Healy is a nuclear decontaminator from New Hampshire. She spends her down time biking across countries with a camera, a paintbrush, a pen, or a corn tortilla in hand.
Reese Wells is a writer and adventure cyclist from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is a co-founder of Keys to Freeze and is excited to continue sharing stories from the road. reesewells.com