I was in California on September 11, 2001. I was there for work in a hotel room getting ready to go to a conference the company I worked for was putting on. I heard someone pass by my hotel room door talking on a cell phone saying someone had flown a plane into the World Trade Center. By the time I turned on the television, the South Tower had already collapsed and a plane had already crashed into the Pentagon. I knew right away that our country was under attack and I felt helpless and angry. I watched the North Tower collapse in my boxer shorts with shaving cream all over my face.
My story is not unique. I’m among the millions of New Yorkers who watched savages destroy thousands of innocent lives and remake our skyline. But hand-in-hand with the horror and anger is the unrivaled admiration for the first responders that gave their lives and showed that people could be at their best when things were at their worst.
One of those first responders was Stephen Siller, a firefighter who ran through the Brooklyn – Battery Tunnel to get to the Trade Center on the day of the attacks and perished in the South Tower collapse.
The event loses none of its effect if you’ve done it before and if you haven’t done it, you should.
The run begins with a lot of waiting around. For an event this large, it is well-organized but it still means large, slow-moving crowds. The run ceremony began at 9 and the run officially starts at 9:30 a.m. I was in Wave C, the third wave of runners, and I didn’t cross the START line until 10 a.m.
First responder groups, corporate groups, school groups, teams of family members paying tribute to their fallen loved ones, college students there for fun and adventure—almost every kind of city denizen is present at the 5k. Firefighters come from all over the world to run in homage to Siller, many of them doing it in their heavy firefighting gear. This is no easy task in the Indian summer heat.
Standing around waiting in the hot sun will get you tired before the race begins, and then the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is very hot and crowded. People who had every intention of running may find themselves on the sidelines walking, with others trying to get around them. It’s a bad jostle but a jovial one, with chants of U.S.A.! U.S.A.! breaking out spontaneously throughout the passage.
The Tunnel to Towers run and walk is perhaps the largest gathering in the city that can still generate massive amounts of goodwill and cooperation. Runners and first responders thanked one another. There were high fives and handshakes all around. Despite tens of thousands of people constantly bumping into one another and stepping on one another’s feet, I heard no harsh words uttered and saw no arguments; try finding that on your average subway commute.
The sacrifices of those who gave their lives on September 11, 2001 cannot be sullied by contemporary political strife or bent to serve a narrow purpose. These sacrifices are heroism in their truest and purest form, and the solemn honors we pay to those heroes help give our city a form of peace.
A friend who lost two cousins in the Trade Center attacks did the run today – and raised $10,000 for the Stephen Siller Foundation this year alone—had this to say afterward:
“Today I saw love and beauty, respect and pride, camaraderie and patriotism. I saw love. Everywhere. I didn’t see dissent. Hatred. Anger. I saw love. And for that, I’m truly grateful.”
New York City has a myriad of opportunities to go running. Every weekend somewhere in the five boroughs you can find a race or a fun run to suit your needs.
Being an out-of-shape middle-aged office worker with more aspiration than perspiration on my calendar, I like these organized events because it means I’m going to get out the door on time and get a nice bit of exercise as I am striving to get myself into better shape.
So it was fortuitous that I learned of the Guardians of Flushing Bay 5k this past weekend. It is close to home and for a good cause, raising money to help the organization work for a cleaner and more accessible Flushing Bay.
Flushing Bay is a piece of waterfront that needs the cleanup help and is underutilized. It’s got a paved running path, benches to sit on, and even a boat launch and a pier, but not that many people use it and it’s not easily accessible. There is a marina there where people have their boats, but there is not a thriving waterfront that could be there.
There are a lot of improvements that could be made for cleanliness and accessibility, so it’s great to see the Guardians of Flushing Bay group start to organize. They took photos of all the runners gathered there to show support to local politicians and the run raised money to support their efforts. There’s no reason Northeast Queens can’t have an excellent waterfront as well.
My wife is a member of the Flushing C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture), a local farm share chapter that lets members order food directly from local farms. She set up an information table and sat our 10-month-old daughter there with her. She had a good number of people coming over and joining the mailing list. “Babies and puppies can sell anything,” she explained.
The run was well-attended but not a large gathering like you would find at one of the large Roadrunners events. It maintained a very helpful community spirit throughout. A large number of the participants were members of dragon boat racing teams that frequently practice in Flushing Bay.
My wife’s cousin, who runs 5k races frequently and has run the New York City Marathon and other marathons, joined us. She had a later start time than I did and fell and hurt her thumb, but still breezed past me.
I normally like to listen to music when I go running both to inspire me and drown out the sounds of my own wheezy breathing. I forgot to bring it this time. But the sights and sounds of Flushing Bay, of Queens waking up on a Saturday morning, were inspiration enough. There were also volunteers along the way offering encouraging words to fast runners and slow-pokes alike.
When I run a 5k, I make it a point to run the whole thing and not walk part of it. I may be slow but I want to be consistent and until I get in better shape I need to push myself to keep going.
It was a good day for the race as the weather was sunny but not too hot. During the run you could smell the briny essence of the Bay and see the pollution that washes up at high tide. You could also see the great promise of making better use of the esplanade and marina. The run took us from where Flushing Creek branches inland from the bay to within a few hundred yards of LaGuardia Airport’s Delta terminal and back.
When I approached the end of the run, a small crowd of volunteers and runners cheered me on. As tired as I was, the cheers and the sight of my two older girls standing just beyond the line encouraged me to pick up the pace a bit. I wheezed my way over the finish line and scooped up our three-year-olds and carried them back to my wife’s C.S.A. table.
As more runners finished and took advantage of the water, oranges, and bagels, some dragon boats appeared in the bay near the run and began racing one another. It was a pleasant end to a good event. We hope that the Guardians of Flushing Bay do this every year.
The story should be familiar to you. On September 11, 2001, Firefighter Stephen Siller was officially off duty when airplanes struck the Twin Towers. Unable to drive there himself because the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was closed, he ran through the tunnel in full firefighting gear. He reached the World Trade Center where he became one of 343 New York City Firefighters to die that day.
Every year in his honor, thousands gather to run the Tunnel to Towers 5K, a run that traces Siller’s steps and not only pays tribute to the first responders who gave their lives for our city, but also raises money for the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which runs several charitable programs, many aimed at helping wounded veterans.
I can tell you first hand that running the Tunnel to Towers 5K will be one of the best runs you ever do. Even if you’re a cynical New Yorker with no use for first-responder hero worship or nauseated by the way U.S. politicians ruthlessly exploited the attacks, the Tunnel to Towers run will remind you of the enormity of the sacrifice of the people who gave their lives in September 11.
Firefighters from all of the world come to run this 5k, with many of them doing the run in full firefighting gear the way Siller did. There are also people from all the armed forces, disabled veterans, some of whom are running with more than one artificial limb, West Point cadets, police and firefighters from all over the world, and thousands of regular New Yorkers. The Tunnel to Towers Foundation has expanded and there were commemorative runs in eight other cities this year.
The run through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is crowded to the point where it’s difficult to gather up a good speed. The space is already constricted and then the row of standing plastic road reflectors that divide the lanes make it even more difficult to pass people. When I was running it there were numerous people who climbed up on a pedestrian walk way to try to gather speed. They became smeared with black soot from the exhausts of thousands of cars and managed to run only a short distance before police made them get down.
When you emerge from the tunnel, you will see hundreds of firefighters holding portraits of those lost on September 11th next to another line of firefighters holding 343 American flags. It’s a beautiful sight to behold, and you can’t help but be humbled the enormity of their sacrifice. Along the way the crowds will cheer you on and you’ll see high school bands, rock bands, firefighters and many others.
The Tunnel to Towers Run in New York this year is on Sunday, September 28. Be there.
New York offers many other runs and walks that are for good causes as well. Here are some others:
The TEAL Walk is a 5k run and/or walk that raises money for ovarian cancer research. It’s held in Prospect Park every year. Take public transportation there if you can because trying to find parking near Prospect Park is a herculean task I wish on no one.
The Run for the Wild is held at the Bronx Zoo and raises money for conservation efforts. Your registration fee includes all-day admission to the zoo and discounts on buying things there. It’s a great way to run through the zoo early in the morning and then spend the day there. Good times.