Trinity Smith knows about pushing the limits of what the body can physically endure. The last couple of years of the 9/11 Memorial Run that he started 17 years ago, he has literally collapsed at the finish line, his body spent from the day’s efforts. So when he says he intends to try harder this year than he ever has before, those aren’t just empty words.
“My goal is to push more this year than I ever have,” he said. “Will I cover more miles? Of course not. But I’m really gonna try to push through and feel the pain.”
Feel the pain. Those are words that mean something to Smith. He runs on 9/11 as a tribute to the men and women who gave their lives trying to rescue their fellow Americans from the burning towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The only way you can truly acknowledge their sacrifice, he says, is to put yourself — as literally as possible — in their shoes.
That’s why Smith isn’t content to just spent the anniversaries of those terrorist attacks running. He dons firefighter turnout gear as an additional salute to those FDNY firefighters who gave their all on that Tuesday morning in NYC.
“When they went in those towers, rescuing people, you’re talking hours and hours of people going above and beyond to try to help, and a lot of them died doing it,” he said. “I’ts extremely hard, carrying all that weight. And I think about how they suffered through that. I just decided that if I’m going to give a memorial for them, I ought to at least deal with what they dealt with.”
It’s not just on 9/11 that firefighters strap on their oxygen tanks and protective gear and head into burning buildings in a quest to rescue people. It happens every day, and their deeds are often unheralded.
“People deserve to see that they’re appreciated when they go above and beyond,” Smith said.
Those are the reasons Smith does what he does each September 11. On Friday, when Smith and those who join him spend the day carrying the American flag as they run along Alberta Street in Oneida, it’ll mark the 18th time that the Oneida runner has memorialized 9/11. From morning until night, the flag never stops moving along the street; it’ll be handed off from runner to runner, but someone will constantly be carrying it.
As has become custom, the day will be capped at dusk with a parade of fire trucks, ambulances and other emergency vehicles that escort Smith the final mile, from Northtown Plaza at the top of the Four Lane to Bethlehem Baptist Church at the bottom of it. And hundreds of people — maybe thousands — will turn out to watch that final mile. For the first time this year, the Scott County Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring Smith and the 9/11 Memorial Run.
But in the beginning, back in 2003, it was just Smith and the flag — a solo effort.
Smith remembers the day, back in 2003, when he was driving through Oneida and saw an American flag hanging off a building. Back then, less than two years removed from the horror of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the events were still fresh on the minds of many Americans. And seeing that flag struck a chord with Smith.
“I instantly thought, ‘I have to do something,’” he said. So, he went to the Dollar General Store near his home and paid $8 and change for an American flag — the same flag that will be carried by runners this year. Then he started running.
The next year, Smith ran again. And, by then, people were beginning to take notice of this young man running the streets on 9/11, the American flag waving proudly as he went.
“In 2004 there was somebody who said, ‘I believe people are going to join you someday,’” he said. “I was like, I don’t know about that. We’ll see.”
That someone was right. The next year, 2005, a Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area park ranger — Kevin Moses, who has since transferred to a national park in another part of the country — happened across a picture of Smith carrying the flag when he was at the Oneida Public Library. Moses started searching for Smith, intent on finding him and thanking him for his efforts.
“When we finally got in touch, me and him trained together,” Smith said.
The goal was for them to run together that year on September 11. Fate had different ideas. In early September, Smith contracted a staph infection from a sore on his toe that was caused by running. He nearly lost his foot, and he wound up in Scott County Hospital.
Through the day, Moses and others — including some other park rangers, and another local running enthusiast, Michael Maney, who has remained a regular on the run — carried the flag back and forth along Alberta Street, passing the hospital with each lap they made. Smith was inside, confined to his hospital bed, but he was with them in spirit. Then, as darkness neared, someone walked into his room and said they were there to bust him out.
“A guy walked in and said ‘I’m here to break out out,’” Smith said. “And I was like, ‘What?!’”
That guy was Paul D. Adkins, then an Oneida police officer (he’s currently a county sheriff’s deputy). He loaded Smith onto the back of his police motorcycle, so that the runner could participate in the final two miles of the run. That was the start of the tradition of the Final Mile.
A Renewed Effort
For the next 11 years, the 9/11 Memorial Run continued each year — often without much fanfare or recognition. Then came 2016. It was a bad year for Smith, from a health standpoint, and he thought that year’s run would be the last. He had developed type 1 diabetes, which was originally misdiagnosed as type 2 diabetes. He was not in a good place, mentally.
“I was extremely sick and I just didn’t know what the future held,” he said. “I thought I was done.”
That night, when the run was over and everyone was heading home, Smith bent over to pick up a cup that someone had left behind. He passed out. Later, he stumbled into his mom’s house and began having chest pains. He collapsed again. His blood glucose was in the low 30s.
Once Smith’s diabetes was correctly diagnosed, it could be better managed. He has learned to deal with the psychological toll that diabetes often has. “I still deal with it pretty bad, but I try. I’m still running,” he said.
The calender flipped. And 2017 was much better than 2016. People were asking Smith to continue the run. And, so, he did.
“Things started looking up for me,” he said. “I was getting to where I could run halfway decent, and people wanted to keep it going. That’s really what this is. It’s the people. When people stand behind that kind of stuff, I’m willing to see how far it goes.”
That year was a big year for the 9/11 Memorial Run. The turnout was far greater than normal.
“People showed amazing support that year,” Smith said. “They have the two years since then, also. It’s been crazy. It just keeps growing. And that inspires me to get back out there.”
The biggest yet?
Many of the usual runners who join Smith on 9/11 will be with him this Friday. Maney will be there, of course; he always is. Ryan Hoffman, Scott High’s band director and a marathon runner, will be there. Celena O’Neal, assistant soccer coach at Oneida High School, will be there. Ricky Slaven, another local running enthusiast, will be there. And, back this year will be one of those rangers who joined in the very first group run back in 2005: Jimmy Barna. The son of the late Jim Barna, Scott County’s log home magnate, recently moved back to the Knoxville area, and is excited to join this year’s 9/11 run. Anyone else from the community who wants to join the run is encouraged to do so; the group stages at Bethlehem Baptist Church. Those who can’t run are invited out for the Final Mile at 8:10 p.m.
The most miles Smith has ever completed during the 9/11 Memorial Run has been 55. That was in the early days of the run, and well before he started donning firefighter turnout gear. The weight of the gear prevents him from getting anywhere close that, of course.
But Smith has been training hard this year. He’s endured the summer heat and humidity by putting on the gear and running in places such as U.S. Hwy. 27 at New River and S.R. 297 through the Big South Fork gorge — places where there are hills that will physically challenge him. His goal is to run further in his turnout gear on 9/11 as a marathon runner. A marathon is 26.2 miles. Smith would like to top 30 miles this year.
“It’s obvious everybody knows I like to run,” he said, adding that he’s had a love for running since before he started kindergarten. “I’m not the best. I’m never going to claim that. But I like to get out and push myself.”
There will be times on Friday, of course, when Smith feels like he can’t go any further. When that happens, he’ll picture the heroes of 9/11.
“I get to the point that it hurts so bad that I’m crying, and somehow I over come it and just keep going,” he said. “There’s something inside me that says, ‘You cannot stop. You can do this.’ I picture people going up those stairs in the tower, trying to find people in that burning building. I imagine that in my mind. It’s like when I’m doing charity runs for kids who have cancer. When I feel like I can’t go on, I picture those kids that I’m running for in my head. That keeps me going.”