“Run as fast as you possibly can at any given moment, and don’t stop.” I repeated this phrase to myself thousands of times over the course of the four hours, two minutes and 13 seconds it took me to complete the New York Marathon in November 2001, just six weeks after hijacked airplanes toppled the World Trade Centers right across the Hudson from the start of the race. This being my third New York Marathon, I knew that it would be different from the two before because every marathon is a new experience, but I had no idea that showing up to participate would turn out to have as much of an impact as did finishing the race itself.
Living in Los Angeles, I had felt almost entirely detached from the events of September 11th. Of course witnessing it “live” on CNN, I felt profoundly sad and horrified, but in that “saw it on TV” kind of way. We sat in our comfortable living room on one of the most beautiful Southern California September mornings and watched the clips play over and over for hours, waiting to see what would happen next, but not feeling any sense of personal danger or fear. Then, to get our toddler out of the house, we went to the playground by the beach. It was empty…and beautiful. Our family and friends were safe and accounted for, and our lives were not immediately disrupted. I have never felt more disconnected from the rest of the world then I did at that very minute. So standing on Staten Island in the crowd of 25,000 waiting for Mayor Guliani to share a word of encouragement and sound the gun to start the race, I felt fear for the first time. Myopically, I wondered if the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge would blow up when we crossed it?
It didn’t. The crowd got moving quickly and I began to settle into my marathon mode. “Not too fast, you don’t want to burn out …Shake out your arms and stretch your neck…I hope my son’s OK with the babysitter…Please let me get back to him quickly…Take off your hat and throw it on the dumpster ahead…and so it went for the first few miles. My running pace was entirely erratic and undisciplined. I watched the timer clock as each mile passed. More than ten minutes for the first mile, then an eight minute mile…eight-and-a-half minutes…seven minutes and fifty seconds…and so on. I knew this was faster than my usual pace and that I probably couldn’t keep it up for the whole race. I also knew that this kind of erratic pace made me a dreadful running partner, but that didn’t turn out to matter. I lost track of my husband in the first quarter mile when he stopped to pee. My in-laws, preferring a slow and steady pace, hung back and disappeared into the crowd by the end of the first mile. Even my best friend and running partner of 15 years got a stitch in her side at mile six and said I should go on without her. So, there I was, mother of a not-yet-two-year-old, casually trained, and coaxing myself through the marathon alone.
It’s often said that marathon running is 10% physical and 90% mental. In my own experience, I have found this to be entirely true. As the time wore on and everything began to ache, my body begged for relief, but I was determined not to drop out. After all, my friends were watching my progress on the Internet and I had told so many people I was going to do this, I couldn’t not finish. Not to mention the fact that my son was at my friend’s place with a new babysitter and I was desperate to get home to him. In this marathon, like none other before, I found a powerful new voice inside, coaching me to “run as fast as you possibly can at any given moment, and, don’t stop.”
As I ran with my head down staring at the pavement before me to avoid an emotional reaction to the crowds that would derail my breathing pattern and preclude my completion of the race, I found myself in need of very different motivations at different times. Sometimes I would get a rush of euphoria and energy thinking of crossing the finish line, of how good the bath after the marathon would feel. Then, seconds later, I’d realize there were still so many miles to go and feel an overwhelming desire to quit right then and there, sure that I couldn’t finish. My mantra worked under both these circumstances. When I was feeling energetic, I picked up the pace moving more quickly toward that goal I had in mind. For those times I wanted to quit, the second half of it, and, don’t stop became a bottom line as I shuffled along at a snails pace, but moving just the same.
Brooklyn, for me, is the best part of the race. I’m still feeling good enough to look around and enjoy the bands and the crowds. I love Lafayette Street and all the children who come to cheer us on. The mixture of reggae blaring from 4th floor windows and Hassidic Jewish families dressed in somber black coats, but always with chairs to sit for the duration, I find incredibly invigorating. I am amazed by how many fire stations there are along the route in Brooklyn, and how many firemen are out cheering us on. The first ten miles pass in a blur and, just as the first wave of fatigue arrives, the crowds die out and we move into Queens for the most silent and solitary phase of the marathon. The red carpet on the Pulaski Bridge signals the approaching half marathon mark, a huge milestone. I cross the half marathon at one hour, fifty-eight minutes and change. If I keep up this pace I’ll beat four hours! Now I have a bigger goal, but a lot of work ahead of me.
In the three NY marathons I have run over the years, the end of the Queensboro Bridge as it empties out into Manhattan to the roars of the largest crowd along the entire route is always the most difficult part for me. On the one hand, I’ve finally reached Manhattan and the marathon is technically more than half over. On the other hand, I know miles of 1st avenue lay before me, and a dismal trek through upper Manhattan and the Bronx separates me from the Central Park finish line that, as the crow flies, is only blocks away. I always hyperventilate a bit as I come over the bridge. I think it’s partly being overwhelmed by the crowds and partly the road ahead that does it, but I find I really have to put my head down and block out all noise around me to keep my breathing steady and even (this compared to my friend who enjoys socializing, munching on bananas, sipping beer and stopping to chat right at that spot). I find hunkering down and focusing on the road ahead to be my only recourse for this mental hurdle. I make it up 1st avenue, across the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx and round the turn back into Harlem, realizing I’ve reached the ultimate mental battle of the race.
The last four miles are excruciating. Not only do I have the requisite fatigue and sore toes, but I’m also getting a strange ache in my stomach every time I run downhill. I find myself wondering if I could be causing permanent damage that might preclude producing a sibling for my son? My mind plays heavy, powerful tricks to try to coax me to stop running and drop out of the race. The pressure to quit is relentless, even down to the last quarter mile I struggle to keep going, but my mantra is stronger. It’s amazing the clarity that can go hand-and-hand with pain and struggle. The constant stream of thoughts, the monkey mind, disappears, replaced by a clear focus on and don’t stop. Simple. Then, with the finish line finally in site, a flood of euphoria comes over me and I pick up the pace, take off my sunglasses and raise my arms in victory sprinting to the finish line as if I had run a fifty-yard dash.
Exhausted and elated, I finished and achieved a personal best time for the NY Marathon, though I missed my goal of beating four hours by just over two minutes. As I file out with hundreds of other runners, I reflect on the marathon itself and my accomplishment. In the initial minutes following the end of the race, it is all about me. How exciting it had been… How proud I am to have finished… How great my finish line photo will be… How terrific the celebration dinner will be… How to cut out of the line and get to 85th Street as fast as I can… How sore my legs are already.
Yet, as the immediate euphoria subsides, a new sensation begins to creep in. Throughout the marathon, I had kept emotion at bay, trying to push aside any thoughts of sadness or personal grief of my fellow runners or spectators. Now, with the luxury of the race behind me, I allow myself to absorb the sites I had witnessed along the way. I had heard stories before the race started of people running in memory of friends who had died in the attacks, but nothing had prepared me to run along side a man wearing a t-shirt listing dozens of friends he knew and lost, or a single photograph of a loved one bobbing ridiculously on the back of a runner’s t-shirt. As we passed fire trucks seemingly every mile or two, hoards of firemen stood outside the trucks cheering us on. I couldn’t believe they were clapping for us. They were the heroes – we should have been clapping for them, and many of us were. There were hundreds of signs thanking us for showing up, and more expressions of solidarity and patriotism than I had ever seen displayed before. American flags decorated the route and the runners. Collectively, we were a diversion for the morning, a few hours off from the weight of grief that hung palpably over the city.
Looking back more than a decade later, I realize that in many ways, I ran the marathon in the same way I witnessed the events of September 11th; with detachment. Not as the result of apathy, but as an ultimate defense mechanism. Maybe deciding to get on a plane when the country was at high alert and go to New York to run the marathon was, in my own way, an effort to be present there and to gain some kind of understanding and connection to an event that was so defining for the world, but seemed so unreal to me? These days we all face busy, overscheduled personal lives, an over-heating planet, crumbling financial markets and struggling politicians. We’re bombarded with so much daily tragedy that we are becoming desensitized to the grief and suffering of others. The magnitude of these challenges coupled with the entertaining formats via which they are conveyed, makes it easy to sit back and watch the spectacle with detachment, as I did that day. Opting out altogether is the most comfortable option, but also the most vacant. I’m beginning to see that making the conscious decision to participate rather than just sit back and watch, might just turn out to be the greatest accomplishment of all.