For most of the more than 400 people gathering Saturday morning along the North Shore Riverfront Trail, it was a chance to enter the 9/11 Heroes Run 5k +1M fun run — an annual trot that raises money for the Travis Manion Foundation and Operation Troop Appreciation.
For a hearty few of Team Red, White and Blue, however, the 4.1-mile jog was a prelude to a night of pain.
A squad of 20 volunteers, mostly military veterans, capped off the race by embarking on a 93-mile relay slog that would take them and the American flag they carried 93 miles from Pittsburgh to the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel in Shanksville, Somerset County.
“Last year, I did 20 miles, so it should be about the same this year,” said Tony Howley, 43, an Army veteran from Saegertown, Crawford County. “The hardest miles are in the Laurel Highlands. We take turns, mile by mile.”
Other Red, White and Blue members, such as Kate Bielek, 37, of Natrona Heights, planned to dash a few miles to honor the 2,996 Americans killed during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. A former military police officer, she started off by pushing a stroller carrying her two sons – Chaz, 2, and Troy, 5 – in the fun run with her husband, Steve, 39, son Trent, 10, and daughter Joci, 7, huffing along.
“We had so many volunteers this year that I thought they should get the chance to take my place on the relay,” she said. “Since we founded the chapter about two years ago, more than 300 volunteers have joined, 200 of them veterans. My phone rings off the hook. Every week, four or five more join.”
Nationwide, Red, White and Blue boasts 19,000 members — mostly active or former military members — and the nonprofit gets by on a shoestring budget. The charity's 2012 federal filings showed that it had taken in $486,914, putting the money to use in programs designed to reconnect returning military veterans with their hometowns, often through physical fitness events like the fun run and the relay to Shanksville.
Bridget Van Buskirk, 31, of Mt. Lebanon, was happy to see them here. The director of Pittsburgh's 9/11 Heroes Run, she said that 52 similar races were scheduled for Saturday worldwide under the auspices of the Travis Manion Foundation.
Hours before the Pittsburgh race kicked off, the foundation's run in Okinawa, Japan, ended.
Half the proceeds raised from the events go to the nonprofit and the rest is parceled out to local charities.
The Doylestown-based foundation was formed to remember Marine Corps Lt. Travis L. Manion of Doylestown. Assigned to the Military Transition Team working alongside Iraqi soldiers, he was killed on April 29, 2007, by insurgent small arms fire while rushing to save a wounded Navy corpsman trapped in an ambush in Anbar Province.
“It's great to get people out on such a beautiful day,” Van Buskirk said. “But we really do this to remember 9/11. Before his last deployment to Iraq, Travis Manion stopped over in New York to see the 9/11 site. He had that connection with that day and the sacrifices he and other Americans would continue to make, so we want to remember that every year.”