32. The New York Marathon after 9/11

32. The New York Marathon after 9/11

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

The New York Marathon after 9/11

We all stand together to help each other… We remember forever all the brothers and sisters that we lost on that day.
 ~Rudolph W. Giuliani

The New York Marathon is one of my favorites, but that year running it didn’t feel so much like a choice as a necessity because two months earlier the Towers had been taken out. I got a call from a friend who was doing television coverage for the marathon. Because I currently held the world’s best marathon time for female leg amputees, my friend thought of me for her segment, which would focus on non-New-Yorkers returning to the city after 9/11.

I agreed, because, like everyone else, I was looking for something helpful to do. I quickly sent out an e-mail requesting that friends donate dollars for miles. I got a thunderous Minnesota response and quickly collected thousands of dollars for the 9/11 relief fund.

I felt a bit sick as we flew in over the gaping hole in the New York skyline. Once on the ground I noticed something else that was different; people on the street were more open and vulnerable, making eye contact, initiating connection, showing they needed each other.

On Marathon morning, my friend interviewed me on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Bridge, with almost 40,000 runners filling all available space, waiting for the ten o’clock start. It was a cool morning but people seemed to be shivering more from emotion than temperature. “In Memory Of” signs were pinned on thousands of runners’ backs, and most of us instinctively huddled in groups. Plenty of runners get loose by mile 20, but never before had I seen so much crying before a race. Haze and grit hung in the air, but even though inhalers were tucked into jog-bra straps and waistbands, I think we were all aware of our good fortune to be alive and able to run through the New York streets.

There were groups of police officers and firefighters along the course. Both groups had suffered terrible losses, and we were all running in honor of them, with NYPD and NYFD hats and T-shirts peppering the crowd.

Being an amputee runner often invites attention and emotional connection — even with strangers. Prosthetic running legs look interesting, and their very existence represents resilience. This is the human way; we fall and with a little help, we get back up. Hopefully, we end up stronger than we were before. When people see my leg, they feel they understand something about me and seem encouraged to share something about themselves. As the race began, I fell in step with a young woman wearing a baby-blue T-shirt printed with a picture of a handsome young man.

“I’m running for my boyfriend. He was killed when the first tower came down.” Her sentences fell to the ground, mixing with our steps.

“This would have been his first marathon. I thought I would be able to feel connected with him if I ran for him… it’s so hard to be here without him, so hard to be anywhere, really….”

Her tears dropped and I couldn’t speak, only able instead to put my hand on her arm.

“I know he would want me to do this for him, but I’m not a joyful runner anymore.” Her last sentence toppled from her lips to join the others on the ground.

My pain for her and for all the others like her came out in a sob. She looked over at me and nodded, accepting what I had to offer. At some point we lost each other. I have thought of her often throughout the years, hoping she has found her way back to being a joyful runner.

I ran in and out of stories, the slapping sound of thousands of shoes on the road as background. Tears and laughter wove through the crowd. Applause broke out every time we passed a group of firefighters or cops.

Spectators were jammed in along the course. I knew when I crossed the invisible line between neighborhoods because Brooklyn accents switched to Jamaican, which then changed to Puerto Rican. As we crossed another street, Hasidic children with sleeves pulled down to cover their hands lined the curbs to give us high-fives.

My pace slowed as I ran into Harlem, where the gospel choirs stood on the stairs of their churches. A woman caught my eye, sent a big smile my way and in a beautiful Jamaican accent, called out: “You can do it, girl, you know you can!” Her friends joined in, and at that moment, I did know I could. On Marathon Sunday, it’s easy to believe we can figure out how to live peacefully with each other.

I wasn’t having a great leg day. At an aid station, I leaned on two firemen in order to get my prosthesis off, because there wasn’t a chair or even an open curb to sit on. I finally broke the suction, pulled the leg off and smeared Vaseline on the raw spots. The taller of the two looked down at where the prosthesis had rubbed open a rather gruesome-looking sore, and groaned, “Oh, dear Lord. Does that always happen?”

I had to laugh because I knew this man had seen a lot worse, probably within the past week.

“Not always. I’ve had races where nothing opened up on me. Now, that’s a good race.”

His buddy chuckled at my tone and socked his friend in the arm.

“She’s fine, Sal. Cut it out. She’s almost good to go, aren’t you, sweetheart?”

The firefighter, who wasn’t much taller than me, but probably had seventy-five pounds more muscle, held onto my waist so I wouldn’t fall over. Once I got my leg back on, he literally pushed me back out on the course.

“Make us proud. You’re doin’ what we all need to do.”

I raised my hand, fingers splayed. They did the same. I ran on, feeling like I had made two new friends that, in all likelihood, I’d never see again.

I was still tightly surrounded by other runners as we made our way into Central Park. Normally I care enough about my time that I sprint the last quarter mile of the race, but this day, I almost slowed to a walk because my feelings overwhelmed me. I came across the finish line, sobbing. As I tried to catch my breath, I saw another runner doing the same thing. Our eyes met and we crossed the road toward each other.

“It’s been so emotional, hasn’t it?” I gulped out amidst my tears.

The tall, dark-skinned man wearing the NYFD cap made his own sobbing sound. We put our arms around each other and moved toward our race bags and warm clothes. We were only able to get out partial sentences, but they were enough.

“Did you see the fireman running with the picture of his station mates?”

“The one with his dog?”

“Oh, yeah, and did it feel to you like everyone wanted to talk?”

“Yes, and could you feel the energy when we went under the NYFD banners?”

“It was so sad and so hopeful all at the same time.”

“And didn’t you feel compelled to stop and hug people?”

“Yes, and I did.”

We went silent then, wrapped in the glow of life, and the sadness of tragedy. We never exchanged names, we just cried together for the worst and for the best of humanity.

~Lindsay Nielsen

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