Imagine that instant when something or someone truly takes your breath away. Everything freezes for a split second, and a flood of emotion saturates you. It may be awe or love, shock or sorrow, compassion or sympathy. Your lungs fill up, your eyes widen, your heart swells, and you’re stuck, nearly drowning in the power of the moment, hearing only your own heart beat.
I can’t tell you how many times I was overcome like that on Sunday, when I competed in the inaugural Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Tower Climb. I knew going in that it would an emotional morning, but I just wasn’t prepared.
The race was up the stairs to the top of One World Trade Center in New York City, an angular, soaring structure.
At 94 stories tall, the World Trade Center is visible from all over town. I got photos of it from across the Hudson River…
…and pricked my finger on the spire while on a rooftop in Chelsea.
Seeing it from far away, though, is one thing. As you get closer and closer, it seems to grow taller and taller. The alternating vertical and angled facades make it seem fluid, like it’s shape-shifting before your eyes.
When you look up from the sidewalk in front of it, the angles give the impression that the building goes on forever, endlessly rising, the roof nowhere to be found.
That’s an intimidating facade for a stair racer! I’ve done more than 20 of these races, but looking up at One World Trade Center still gave me chills. It’s tall – the tallest in the Western Hemisphere. But it also grew out of tragedy, one of the worst in American history, and I can’t look at One World Trade Center without thinking about why it was built, what came before it, and all those that lost their lives and can never stand on the sidewalk next to me.
The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation put together a touching opening ceremony, which started the event at 7:15am. There were musical performances and speakers, including the brother of Captain Billy Burke, a firefighter who died on 9/11 while trying to save people on the 27th floor. Burke was being honored at the event, and we heard the story of how he stayed with a wheelchair-bound man, determined to get him to safety, while ordering his fellow firefighters to leave the building, telling them, as they entered the stairwell, “Keep going, I’m right behind you.” Those were his last known words.
First responders like Captain Burke and Stephen Siller (another firefighter who died on 9/11, after running over three miles to Ground Zero) redefine what it means to be brave, strong, loyal, devoted. And what a privilege it was to celebrate these men, and so many others who put their lives on the line, again and again, to keep us safe.
The race itself was an excellently run, highly organized affair. It was also the most secure race I’ve ever been to (and understandably so). All the sidewalks and streets surrounding the building were closed off. There was security personnel everywhere, including on every other floor in the stairwell. There was one path to the building, lined with temporary barricades, that first went to a tent that had three metal detectors. No electronics whatsoever were allowed in the stairwell. I usually race with a heart rate monitor and watch, an iPod clipped to my arm, and my phone in my pocket (to take pictures at the top), but all were forbidden.
After passing through the metal detector, I waited a few more minutes for my turn to enter the building. I was in the Elite wave, and we were the first big wave of participants to enter, after a small wave consisting of a group of firefighters. I wore bib #830.
At 8:23.10am, I entered the stairwell at One World Trade Center. It’s bright and wide, and the stairs aren’t steep – all great conditions for a stair race.
I’m not used to racing without music, and it probably took a little longer to find my groove without a beat to assist me. And the handrail design on the landings made quick pivots a challenge. But I did what I could, and found myself rising through the building at a good clip.
Fatigue really set in by the 35th or 40th floor, and I pushed through it as best I could. I had to take two short pauses – no more than 5 seconds – one somewhere in the 60s, the other in the 70s. I got passed a bunch of times, and I pushed myself to keep up with the faster climbers.
The floor numbers included a couple surprises to keep us on our toes. The lobby is quite tall, so there were eight or ten flights of stairs before reaching floor 2. The next four floors were twice as tall as normal, so by the time I hit the 6th floor, it seemed like I should’ve been three times as high. And I probably was, because the next floor was marked 20. Floors 7-19 were nowhere to be found. From there it switched to a more regular 2-flights-per-floor pattern, until floor 89, which was twice as tall as the floors below it.
There were volunteers on the 90th floor, pointing the way to the finish line: “Out the door and to the left.” Once on 90, there was about 20 feet of hallway to navigate before finally crossing the timing mat that stopped the clock. I managed to sprint down that hallway, using energy I didn’t know I had, and after crossing the finish line, I got a bottle of water, wandered 20 or 30 feet, and fell to the floor, lying on my back until my heartbeat fell out of the dangerously high zone.
Floor 90 is unfinished, unleased office space: just huge glass windows looking out over the city and concrete walls and floors. Some of the walls were adorned with hundreds of signatures of the construction workers that had worked on the building for years prior, and markers were provided so that we could add ours to the collection.
It was a dreary day, but the view, looking uptown, was outstanding nonetheless. We didn’t have access to the entire floor, so we couldn’t look down and see the memorial pools from the original World Trade Center buildings, but there was still plenty of city to see.
There was also a table where you could check your time, so OF COURSE I went and did that. I hadn’t set a firm goal for myself, but I arrived that morning thinking that I could probably do this climb in about 25 minutes.
It took me exactly 25 minutes and 1 second to get from the sidewalk to the 90th floor. I nailed it with my prediction! I was elated with my time. Here’s the other stats about my finish:
I ended in the middle of the pack, which is where I usually end up. My rankings are a little lower than usual, actually, and I chalk that up to the fact that this race attracted a ton of competitors from across the country – it was reported that climbers came from 26 states (and 4 countries).
Next we headed down to the Sky Lobby on the 64th floor, where folks transfer elevators. There’s a large two-story finished event space, filled with artwork and seating areas, and the organizers had a great catered spread of food and beverages. A photographer was snapping photos (I’m in a couple, I’ll try to share them once they become available), and there was ample time to chit-chat with the few dozen friends I’ve made doing these races for the past few years.
We also received Finisher’s Medals, and they looked sharp. It was one of the first things I photographed once I got out of the building and was able to retrieve my phone.
I’m proud of the medal and thrilled with my time, but those things pale with the experience of just being there, and being part of such a powerful, important event. It never left my mind, not once, that I was climbing to pay tribute to those who died that day, including the men and women of the FDNY that rushed inside to save lives, and ended up sacrificing their own in the process.
Many times, after races, I feel invincible for a while. I bask in the knowledge that by climbing an ungodly amount of stairs as fast as I possibly can, I’ve done something incredible – and certainly something that wouldn’t have been possible had I not lost and kept off 160 pounds. I know there’s courage flowing through my veins.
It doesn’t compare, though, to the courage of Billy Burke, Stephen Siller, and the hundreds upon hundreds of emergency workers that responded, once that first plane struck, and immediately got to work saving lives. 414 of those first responders died that day, and I’m proud of wear my medal in their honor.
Thinking back on the event now, a few days later, elicits the same feelings that I felt throughout the morning of the race. My lungs fill up, my eyes widen, my heart swells, and I’m stuck, nearly drowning in the power of the moment, hearing only my own heart beat.
And now that sensation means even more, because it includes the memories of being in that stairwell, pushing through pain, exhaustion, and tears, moving upward through it as fast as I could. I harnessed my own strength, focus, and courage and built my own connection to one of the most important buildings in the United States, and all the lost lives that it represents. That, too, takes my breath away.
Keep it up, David.
I wish I could travel the country right now and hug all the folks that so generously contributed to my fundraising. My donors collectively contributed $1,211 to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, and I know the foundation will do something extraordinary with it (this video is an excellent example). My heart goes out to all my donors. Thank you Sandee, Suzanne, Mom & Dad, Ron & Chris, Lynn, Linnea & Robert, Felise, Callie, Heather & John, Debbie, Jim, Anne & Lillian, Diane & Joe, Joanne & Joe, Mark, Dana, Melissa, Lanette, Amy.