Location: Freedom Tower, New York City
Weather: 70 Degrees and Sunny
Distance: 5K (3.1 Miles)
I’ve heard about this run for a few years, but never had the opportunity to participate due to conflicting engagements. With the Chicago Marathon a week away, this year was no exception, but I thought the cause was worth the risk. Risk, as in the potential to injure an ankle or knee, as I planned on wearing my military uniform and boots to complete the run in a show of solidarity and support.
For those of you who do not know the story, this run was created in memory and honor of the first responders, who lost their lives on September 11th, as well as the military personnel who lost their lives or were severely injured fighting to protect America since that fateful day. It was inspired by firefighter Stephen Siller, who had just finished his shift that morning and was about to meet his brothers for a round of golf, when he heard over the radio that one of the towers was struck by a plane. He quickly changed his plans and drove to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which was subsequently closed due to security concerns. Instead of giving up, he strapped on 60 pounds of gear and ran to the Twin Towers through the tunnel. He is just one of countless heroes that day, who lost their lives and this run was created to preserve the memory forever.
In the months prior to the run, my base was coordinating a group to participate and we had a very strong showing. Many of us live in the NYC region, but some people came from far away like Long Island and Southern New Jersey. The 514th AMW Wing Commander and Command Chief even made the trip up from our base. Some people chose to wear their PT (Physical Training) Uniforms, while others wore ABU (Airman Battle Uniform). We weren’t the only military personnel in attendance, as each branch was well represented, including over 2,000 cadets from West Point.
I didn’t realize the scale and magnitude of this event until seeing it in person. There were over 30,000 people running or walking. It seemed like most people came in groups because there were pockets of people all wearing the same shirts. Many of them young kids (sports teams, religious organizations, youth organizations, etc.), as well as firefighters, law enforcement, military and first responders from all over the country. It was really amazing to witness so many large groups of people coming together for a common purpose.
It was a lot of hurry up and wait, even after the race started. I guess that’s what happens when you try to cram 30,000 people through a small tunnel. The course started in Red Hook, Brooklyn, before making a sharp turn into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. My wing ran in a four column formation and we sang jodies the entire race.
Here’s an example:
Everywhere we go,
People wanna know,
Who we are,
So we tell them,
We are the Air Force.
Mighty, mighty Air Force,
Rough tough Air Force,
Lean and mean Air Force.
Mighty, mighty Air Force,
United States Air Force.
The purpose of Jodies is to keep “cadence,” or to keep our formation moving in step as one synchronized unit, while maintaining the correct beat.
It was very uncomfortable and hot running in my military uniform, especially when we entered the tunnel. However, the atmosphere was so incredible and the purpose so noble, that none of it bothered me or my fellow wing men. At one point, there was an FDNY firefighter standing in the middle of the tunnel with an American flag – a memory I will never forget.
It seemed like the tunnel went on forever, but finally light began to appear and before we knew it, we were running down West Street towards the Freedom Tower. It was an amazing site with all of the American Flags.
After the race, there was a lot of free food and drinks, along with a music concert, closing ceremony and speeches from people like the FDNY Commissioner, Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, sponsors and the Stephen Siller Foundation Chairman. Jo Piscopo, a local NJ native, was the moderator and he did a great job. At one point, they brought wounded military service members on stage – at least 30 of them, with severe injuries, who were recognized and applauded. There were also at least 15 Gold Star spouses (someone who has lost a loved one in military service). It was very sad seeing both of these groups. The Tunnel to Towers Foundation provides money to the families of fallen first responders and builds smart homes for catastrophically injured service members.
The entire event was incredibly humbling. It was emotional and sad, yet powerful and inspirational. It reminded me that running is not about chasing medals or personal records. It reminded me that each run, no matter how short or long, no matter location or magnitude, is a gift. It reminded me that running events are about bringing people together, each with a unique story and often for a shared purpose, but no matter the reason, it shows that when we come together, we learn just how strong we really are physically, mentally and emotionally.