I was supposed to run the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers 5K in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday morning. It would’ve been my third time running this race that honors the sacrifice made by first responders on September 11, 2001. I picked up my T-shirt and number on Friday morning, carefully laid out my running clothes on Friday night, and went to bed early in anticipation of the event.
I woke up at 5:08am to thunder, lightning, and pouring rain. The radar on my Weather Channel app painted a grim picture of what the race would be like. Because of the logistics of getting to the site and parking the car (and going to the bathroom a dozen or more times), I would’ve had to arrive at least an hour before the race started, which meant I would’ve been wet, cold, and miserable before I ever crossed the start line. I woke Mike up to help me decide, and he thought I should stay home. But how could I skip the race to avoid getting wet when all of those brave men and women ran straight into the towers despite the flames? I felt guilty (my specialty), but in the end, I didn’t go. Frustrated and upset, I eventually fell back asleep.
The Tunnel to Towers 5K is a special race for a lot of reasons. It’s an important reminder of the terror that occurred on that sunny September morning. When I emerge from the parking lot downtown and catch my first glimpse of the fire trucks, American flags, and first responders prepping to run the race, I’m engulfed by sadness, but it always feels good – it feels right – because if I feel sad, then I’m not forgetting.
I was at the Wall Street subway stop when the first plane struck. When the doors opened, people rushed onto the train crying, praying, and yelling about a bomb and people falling from the sky. I almost got off, but my gut (or fear or confusion or all of the above) kept me from moving. At 14th Street, my regular stop, I climbed the stairs to a crystal clear view of the North Tower on fire directly to the south. I hold on to so many memories and snapshots from that horrific day, but I’ll never forget the eerie stillness of that moment. I lost myself for an instant in the image of the gaping hole, uncontrollable flames, and plumes of smoke before the rest of the day and all of its awfulness unraveled.
The race is also a remarkable celebration of courage, unity, and resolve. Most, if not all, of the first responders who run the race, including fire fighters, EMTs, military personnel, and police officers, do it in full gear. It’s hard not to be inspired running alongside a firefighter with 75 pounds of gear strapped to his or her body. It’s a flawless physical expression of never forgetting, and it’s empowering to be in their proximity.
Then, there’s the tunnel. The 5K route takes runners through the New River Tunnel in downtown Fort Lauderdale. All runners know the satisfaction and relief of climbing to the top of a monster hill and then experiencing a glorious, effortless downhill slope. It’s the reprieve our bodies need after working so hard to reach the top. The thing about the New River Tunnel, though, is that the downhill part comes first and the uphill part comes second, which means there’s no rest at the top. There’s just more running and, eventually, more climbing. The tunnel is a beast, but running through it feels like a fitting tribute to all of the heroic men and women who climbed the stairs in the towers to save lives and perished.
I often think about the people for whom duty called. About the people who ran up instead of down the stairs. About all of the loved ones lost and all those left behind to climb a hill of grief for the rest of their lives. About the service men and women who’ve shouldered the endless climb and burden of war. About all of us who, after thirteen years and two wars and with a third conflict looming, seem to be climbing a hill with little chance of ever experiencing the relief of coming back down.
I woke up at 7:34am, right around the time the race was starting. It wasn’t raining anymore. In fact, it was perfect running weather because the sky was overcast and the rain had cooled the air. I was devastated. I should’ve gone. I should’ve gotten wet. I should’ve been there. I got up, drank a cup of coffee, and ate half of a banana. I put on the running clothes I so carefully prepared the night before and went for the run I was supposed to do. The streets in and around my neighborhood were flat, so I couldn’t replicate the grueling climb for my feet, but I sure as hell felt it in my heart.
Until next year…