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On Clearwater Beach, 'Running Man' runs to honor 9/11 victims

By Ayana Stewart, Times Staff Writer
JIM DAMASKE | Times
Chris Wauben carries three flags along Clearwater Beach on Friday: the American flag he always carries, one honoring police officers and one for firefighters.

CLEARWATER

Chris Wauben often gets questions about his runs along Clearwater Beach.

He's nearly impossible to miss. Wauben, known as the American Flag Running Man, drives from Holiday to Clearwater twice every month, always wearing a red, white and blue outfit. Always hoisting an American flag. He runs the entire beach several times, and people stop him often to ask what he's doing.

But Friday's run was different. When beachgoers saw him, they understood.

People stood in their swimsuits to cheer. To offer him bottled water. Shake his hand.

"Today's a very special day," the 42-year-old said.

Wauben is a native New Yorker. He was living in Westchester on Sept. 11, 2001.

His father was in Manhattan after the planes hit the twin towers.

"He watched people jumping," he said. "It's a day none of us will forget."

Wauben started his American flag runs as a way to thank veterans, and he picked Clearwater Beach because it's always filled with people.

He doesn't mind the attention. For his Fourth of July run, he dressed as Santa Claus. He'll occasionally wear neon pink for breast cancer awareness.

He decided to dedicate one of his September runs to the first responders who died on Sept. 11.

He started at the pier late Friday morning, carrying three flags — the large American flag he always carries, along with two black flags. One has angel wings along with a thick blue line in honor of police officers. The second has a red line for firefighters. He duct-taped a curtain rod to a flagpole in order to fit all three flags.

It doesn't take long for people to notice him. He jogged by people sunbathing, by teenagers glued to smartphones, by children squealing at the shore's edge.

He stopped often for pictures, nodding and waving when people clapped.

Troy Dupree, a 70-year-old Vietnam War veteran, said he thinks people rarely understand how traumatic events affect veterans and first responders.

He sat in a beach chair and watched Wauben maneuver his way through the sand.

"I appreciate it, that's for sure," he said.

Veterans and off-duty police officers were quick to stop Wauben and share stories. He also stopped to chat with foreign tourists curious about his cause.

Mike and Kathy Mochan, who are visiting Clearwater from New Jersey, said they loved Wauben's tribute for Sept. 11.

"We can't ever forget what happened," Mike, 62, said.

The couple stopped Wauben to say thank you.

"I get goose bumps when I see him," Kathy, 58, said.

• • •

By Friday afternoon, the temperature on the beach is brutal.

Still, Wauben runs with a smile.

"As you're running, you're thinking about why you're running," he said. "For the firefighters and police officers who ran into those buildings and never came out."

Karen and Lee Lilly, vacationers from Bel Air, Md., say they remember Sept. 11 vividly. Two of their sons were working in Manhattan during the terrorist attacks.

"They still don't really talk about it," Lee said.

Lee, 61, is a retired Baltimore police officer. He said he thinks it takes courage to do what Wauben does.

"Police in this country are so under fire," he said. "It's nice when a guy goes up and down the beach to remind people."

• • •

Wauben doesn't measure how many miles he runs, but each run lasts two hours. He jogs every day to keep in shape.

He starts the long walk back to his car about 2 p.m., which he always parks on Avalon Street. Wauben is a stay-at-home dad, and he has to pick up his 5-year-old son from Gulf Trace Elementary in Holiday. His wife teaches at the school.

Wauben, who started the runs in December, doesn't have plans to stop any time soon.

"I love running, and I love people," he said. "I'll just keep on doing it."

Contact Ayana Stewart at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. Follow @AyanaStewart.