A Lesson in Bravery: Countdown to the New York City Marathon

38 days until the New York City Marathon.

A few Sundays ago, I sat on my couch after a good, long cry.

I was awake surprisingly early that morning, still recovering from a 14-mile training run the day before (and a late night filled with a lot of wine). I checked the time and realized that the events of 9/11 hadn't even happened yet, ten years ago that day.

Like many around the country, I tried and tried, but just couldn't tear myself away from the television coverage of the tenth anniversary of September 11, listening and reflecting as the victims' families read each name aloud.

I was, of course, one of the lucky ones back on that terrible day and my days as a Hoboken resident/pretend New Yorker were still so far away. Just a sophomore in high school down in central Jersey, our school actually told us very little about the events of the day. Sure, I had seen the Twin Towers before, I kinda knew what the World Trade Center was, but on that Tuesday, I was mostly concerned with whether or not my older brother and I were still going to host the first-ever co-ed pasta party with our respective varsity soccer teams that night. When we got home from school, we realized the magnitude of the day and the pasta party was obviously postponed. Even though I knew very few people personally affected by the tragedy, I couldn't help but feel like I wanted, needed to do something more to mark this tenth anniversary.

In between sniffles, while James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes" played during the ceremony, I reached for the October issue of -- you guessed it -- Runner's World, sitting on my coffee table. I opened to a story called "Tunnel Vision" by Liz Robbins. It was there that I first learned all about the Stephen Siller Tunnel To Towers Run/Walk.

Back on that clear September day in 2001, FDNY firefighter Stephen Siller was just coming off a night shift with his squad in Park Slope and was getting ready to join his brother for a golf outing, when he heard the news that a plane had struck the Twin Towers. The 34-year-old father of five quickly put his gear right back on, hopped in his truck and headed toward the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Though the tunnel was closed to incoming traffic, Siller didn't stop. He started running. And ran all the way through the 1.7 mile tunnel (with more than 60 pounds of weight on his back), straight to the South Tower. Siller was still inside when the building collapsed at 9:58am.

Created by the Siller family, the Tunnel To Towers 5K race retraces his heroic footsteps and featured more than 25,000 runners and walkers last year. I knew right then and there that this was what I wanted to do. Not only did it fit into my training for the New York City Marathon, it felt like the perfect way to honor the memory of those who lost their lives in the attacks and the victims' families still living with that pain.

Later that evening, I went for a run with my brother's girlfriend Kara. We headed down to Hoboken's Pier A Park -- a place where many watched the towers fall 10 years ago, and where today, you get a stunning view of the Tribute in Light on the 9/11 anniversary.

While we ran, Kara and I talked about what everyone talked about -- where you were when you heard the news, if you knew anyone directly affected and how you feel about it all today. Truth is, since upping my running in preparation for the marathon, I've been thinking about 9/11 a lot. The smell of the crisp late summer/early fall air in the early mornings always reminds me of the start of soccer season and takes me right back to that fall of my sophomore year -- weather that we now think of as "September 11 mornings." And I do most of my runs -- long and short -- along the waterfront, either in New York or New Jersey, where I just can't help but marvel at how incredible, how awesome, the everyday sight of those Twin Towers must have been in our skyline for so many people.

Kara and I decided that it was almost incomprehensible to imagine how the same event, were it to happen again (and please let it never), would change both of our current lives. As soon as I told her about the Tunnels To Towers race, she was on board. Despite a $50 entry fee (which I believe is way too high for a 5K -- unless it's this significant, I guess), we signed up, recognizing that the money does, among other things, provide scholarships for children of military members and contributes to the Army Wounded Warrior Program.

So this past Sunday, we sported our "I <3 NY" t-shirts and headed to Brooklyn. I knew the race would be big, I knew it would be popular, but I didn't expect the sight of more than 30,000 participants. That said, it was still one of the most well-organized races I've ever been to. It's just not necessarily a race where you're going to get a personal record. Part of me really wanted to race this race, wondering if all this training I've been doing would improve my 5K time. (I think my 5K PR is something like 26:30 -- don't ask me why I'm not better at tracking these things, I only just realized I'm a real runner last week.)

We got to the start in Red Hook with plenty of time to spare (and wait in an awful line for the Porta Potties). So we pinned on our bibs and got our iPods ready to go. Kara went for an all-patriotic mix (which unfortunately was missing "Party in the USA" -- what were you thinking, Kara!?), while I settled on an all Bruce Springsteen playlist, because The Boss loves him some America. We joined the rest of the corral, trying to surround ourselves with more runners than walkers... and waited... and waited some more. It was one of those crowded races, where it "starts" at 9:30 am, but you don't actually start moving until around 10 am, due to the sheer volume of participants (and a lack of a staggered start -- a suggestion for next year, perhaps?)

But then, we were off, waving to the television cameras we passed and high-fiving all the firefighters we saw before heading down into the super hot tunnel. We ran, weaving in and out of slower runners and walkers, trying to surge ahead whenever we could, but staying together as one (sweaty) unit. While it felt like a fun maze or obstacle course to me, there were many others passing through the tunnel who literally put themselves in Siller's shoes. Every now and then, the pace of the whole race seemed to pause, followed by a "USA, USA, USA" chant that echoed throughout the tunnel. What caused the delay? A pretty amazing sight, actually -- firefighters from all over the country (even some from the London Fire Brigade) running in their full gear, including boots and oxygen tanks; or troops of marines in fatigues, lugging their massive packs on their backs while waving American flags. Fellow runners patted them on their backs for encouragement, as we all powered through the heat of the tunnel together.

Just as I heard the first chords of "The Rising" (how fitting) come through my headphones, we were out of the tunnel and I was immediately overwhelmed by the site of New York City's Bravest lining the streets, with banners to honor all 343 of the firefighters who never made it home to their families 10 years ago. And they were all cheering for us. As we ran past them, Kara and I gave out some more high-fives but all I really wanted to do was stop and say "thank you," to each and every one of them.

This is bravery, I realized. What Stephen Siller embodied was courage. What they all did on September 11 was the epitome of fearlessness. And what they've done every day since, well, that just takes guts.

People keep asking me if I'm scared to run the New York City Marathon in less than six weeks.

"I'm not scared," I usually say of my first marathon. "I'm terrified."

And it's true. But that sort of fear is nothing like what these 9/11 first-responders must have faced. And whatever I've sacrificed to accomplish my running goals (late nights at the bars with friends? Fall shopping sprees?) -- is nothing like what Siller and so many others sacrificed. So I finished the race, humbled and honored to run alongside of them and to follow in their footsteps (if only for an embarrassingly slow 30-something minutes). After all, it's heroes like Siller and the military members overseas that keep us all safe and allow some 45,000 crazy people to run 26.2 miles through the streets of New York in a few weeks.

It kinda puts that whole bravery, dedication and strength thing into perspective.

Click here to read more "Countdown to the New York City Marathon" blogs.
Click here to donate to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.