On a beautiful day in September, Bill McDermott jogged along the Rockaway Beach boardwalk. He gazed out at a cloudless sky and a tranquil sea; heard the soothing squawks of the seagulls, the gentle slapping of the waves. Stopping briefly to admire the scene, he then glimpsed back with a shudder at what he'd left behind. In the distance, a plume of smoke was still rising into the western sky.
The date was Sept. 11, 2001. For McDermott, the contrast of that moment, between peace and war, between tranquillity and insanity, might as well have been the dividing line in his own life. Since then, he has dedicated much of his time and effort toward helping make the world a better place than it seemed that morning - and many mornings since then.
"I just got a little misty-eyed," McDermott, now 51, recalls of that moment on Rockaway Beach six years ago. "I'm looking at the ocean, everything is so calm. But behind me is the worst thing that's happened on the face of the Earth in many years. It was just such a contrast."
Like so many others that morning, McDermott had experienced the confusion and anxiety that swept through Manhattan after the Twin Towers were attacked. He was then working at the offices of TIAA-CREF, a teachers' annuity fund, on 47th Street and Third Avenue. When the planes struck the towers, he had one thought: "'How are we going to get home?'" he says. "That's what everyone was asking each other. We'd heard the bridges and tunnels were closed, Penn Station was going to be a madhouse. Hotel rooms were already filling up."
Running all the way home
McDermott had his own idea about how to get back to his wife and two daughters in Long Beach. He walked across the street to a Sports Authority on Third Avenue. There, he purchased a pair of black running shorts, a sleeveless shirt and two PowerBars. He went back to his office, changed into his new outfit and slipped on the pair of Nike cross-trainers he kept by his desk. Holding his PowerBars and cell phone, and with $5 and his corporate ID stuffed into his shorts pocket, he headed out the door about 11 a.m.
He was making a run for home. It was about 25 miles - a challenging distance even for a veteran runner like McDermott. He jogged across the crowded Queensboro Bridge, made his way to the Long Island Expressway and headed east along the empty service road of the closed LIE. Eventually, he veered down Woodhaven Boulevard to Cross Bay Boulevard and into the Rockaways. He stopped to buy water at a couple of points along the way.
While he ran, he wondered about the fate of three people he knew who worked in the World Trade Center, including a former TIAA-CREF colleague and friend, Nina Bell, also a runner, who had just started a new job at the insurance company Marsh & McLennan that week. (Though his other two friends made it out, Bell didn't.) Late that afternoon, about 5 1/2 hours after he'd jogged out the door of his office in midtown Manhattan, McDermott finally arrived home on Curley Street in Long Beach. "I had said I was going to get home, and I'm pretty determined when I want to do things."
A healthy idea
Since that awful day, McDermott's determination and energy have become focused on something he believes can help make what often appears to be a very sick world a little healthier. Two years earlier, in 1999, while fooling around with T-shirt designs on his computer, McDermott had come up with a name, World Run Day. Interesting, he thought, and he soon began to imagine what a World Run Day might really be like. "The idea was an international day of charity, built around running," he says. "I thought if we could just focus on one day, wouldn't that be great for all of us?"
The concept was deliberately open-ended. On a specified date, anyone could run any distance for any charity. His first year, he had exactly eight participants registered. After 2001, he ramped up his efforts, making World Run Day the main focus of his life. For this year's event, on Nov. 11, he has 800 runners in 50 states and many cities around the world. Some are solo runners; others are race organizers who will attract hundreds of participants to their World Run Day events. If past registration patterns hold true, McDermott expects the numbers to grow substantially in the weeks leading up to the event, approaching or surpassing the total of 3,000 participants in 600 cities he had in 2006.
One of those involved last year was Stuart Taylor, a runner and race director in Great Britain, who read about World Run Day on the Internet. Last Nov. 5, World Run Day 2006, Taylor organized a race in the city of Winchester, on the south coast of England, to benefit childhood poverty. About 300 people participated in the event, and several thousand British pounds were raised. When told that World Run Day was the brainchild and product of the effort of one fellow in suburban New York, he was impressed. "Well done," Taylor said. "Fantastic effort in a crowded field."
One of many charity runs
Indeed, running for charity, as opposed to losing weight or achieving personal goals, has become a dominant theme in the past decade, and McDermott's event is just one in a very large pack. Charities or fundraising programs, such as the Leukemia Society's Team in Training or the Race for the Cure, have helped fuel what many call a Second Running Boom in the country. "These charities and programs have introduced the sport to thousands and thousands of new runners," says Ryan Lamppa, spokesman for Running USA, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based organization that monitors trends in the sport. So far, he adds, this meeting of fitness and fundraising shows no signs of abating. "Races across the country are reporting record fundraising totals this year," Lamppa says.
World Run Day is a little different than some of the larger programs. The open-ended approach of McDermott's event allows people to participate in organized events, like the one in Great Britain, or to just go out for a jog by themselves, which is what children's author and special education teacher Carol Goodrow of Sturbridge, Mass., did the two years she participated in World Run Day. "They were each solo runs, but very meaningful," says Goodrow, author of "Happy Feet, Healthy Food: Your Child's First Journal of Exercise and Healthy Eating" (Breakaway Books). "One was in honor of the children with learning disabilities with whom I work day in and day out. On the run, I let my mind flow, and the journey became an analogy for the struggle these children experience."
As he has continued to expand his event, McDermott has had his own struggles to contend with, including a divorce and several job changes (he's now a project manager with a consulting firm in Manhattan). His response to these challenges is the same as it was on Sept. 11, 2001. "The running got me through it."
For information on World Run Day 2007, go to runday.com .