josh billings

Fans line the finishing stretch of the 2019 Josh Billings RunAground.

Late in the summer of 2001, Patty Spector was out with her partner for a training session paddling on Stockbridge Bowl. The 25th Josh Billings RunAground triathlon was days away and she was in the process of taking the event’s helm from race director June Roy Martin.

Now, after 20 years as The Josh’s race director, Spector remembers that Tuesday morning.

“The race was that weekend, and I actually was paddling that year. I was training on the Stockbridge Bowl with my partner in the morning, and we came around to the boat ramp, and there were people there with the news on. Things just seemed weird.

“That’s when I found out about 9/11.”

It’s not an easy anniversary to celebrate, but next Sunday will mark Spector’s 20th year in charge of The Josh.

“Patty took the reins and ran with it. She has infused life into the race with new ideas and activities — paddlesports now too!” wrote Martin in an email. “She and the committee have a passion for it and it is such a great race due to them and the sponsors who support it each year.”

It’s also been 20 years since hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, just 140 miles south of The Josh’s starting line in Great Barrington. The 9/11 attacks took place at 8:46 and 9:03 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. The 25th Josh Billings was scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 16, just five days later.

“When 9/11 occurred, we were in turmoil and really not sure if we should do the race,” said Martin, who ran The Josh from 1999-2001. “We had supplies en route that were delayed, we were told the box truck we rented and used to transport supplies for race start was not available. We had people en route who were delayed.”

Civilian air traffic was shut down for about two days, and getting on board a plane wasn’t at the top of many folks’ wish list in the days, weeks and months following the attack. This year, Spector said The Josh is expecting competitors from all over the country and beyond, with a lot of flights set to land in the area over the next week packing cyclists, paddlers and runners.

In the five days between that Tuesday and Billings Sunday, Martin, Spector and the committee met again and again to discuss what to do.

“We discussed whether to have the race or not. I was on the committee then,” Spector said. “I know we had someone sing the National Anthem at the start. It was a strange year. It was sort of like celebrating the Josh, but not celebrating anything.”

The committee found some local companies to chip in, gathering supplies from vendors and patched together the 25th annual event. Miller credited her executive members including former director Sally Underwood Miller, Lou Oggiani, Larry Lane, Stephanie Ambrose, Ginny Akabane and Spector.

“People were really upset as the whole world was impacted. I called all of the executive committee and spoke to each one of them and my feeling was that we needed it,” said Martin. “We needed a healthy distraction on that Josh Sunday.”

It was true, as there were 292 finishing teams at the 2001 event, won by the Bold Move team of local paddlers Alex Sabo and Sean Jennings, along with biker Kurt Hackler and runner Mark Mayall in 2 hours, 18 minutes and 9 seconds. After the race, Hackler, who came out from his home in Maynard, told The Eagle, “I’m used to doing events on a shoestring budget. Out here, all the locals are completely into the race ...and it feels really good to be a part of something like that.”

Pittsfield’s own Sean Nealy, a one-time record-holder in the event, returned to compete in the 25th Josh because the professional races to which he was committed to that weekend were canceled following the attacks.

As it always does, The Josh did what it could at the time. According to an Eagle story in 2001, “Proceeds from this year’s race will be donated to one of the relief funds to aid victims of last week’s terrorism attacks in New York and Washington.” Martin estimated the total at the time to be around $3,000.

“It was awesome,” said Martin. “People turned out to cheer and to celebrate the race. I did get a few phone calls from folks who were really upset, and I explained that we needed to have our summer end as it always did.”

That’s where Martin invoked the most famous of Billings’ sayings: “To finish is to win.” It was true when the RunAground started 45 years ago. It was truer in the days following 9/11 when normalcy felt so distant. And now, in still in the midst of a lingering pandemic that has reportedly robbed The Josh of its Tanglewood afterparty, it remains a fact.

Julia Lord, then a 39-year-old ironwoman who grew up in Stockbridge, went from within a mile of Ground Zero on Tuesday, Sept. 11, to winning her iron division at The Josh in Lenox that Sunday. She said her young sons convinced her to do it, even though her husband wasn’t ready to celebrate anything just yet.

“I’m happy I did this,” Lord told The Eagle in ‘01. “It was cathartic.”

Mike Walsh can be reached at or 413-496-6240. On Twitter: @WalshWrites89.

Sports Editor

Mike Walsh is sports editor at The Berkshire Eagle. He's been with The Eagle since 2017. Walsh also authors the NENPA-winning Powder Report column. He's an avid snowboarder, runner, homebrewer, and he used to play a pretty mean sousaphone.