From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

His Dream Came True

The temptation was to stop. Quit running. End the pain that wracks the body of every marathoner. But Erich Maerz heard the voice of his brother Noell urging him to finish the journey that Noell could not.

The New York City Marathon was a 26.2-mile trip through five boroughs and a dozen emotions. It began in sorrow on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge as Maerz gazed across the harbor to his brother’s burial ground at the World Trade Center ruins, still smoldering in eerie defiance and filling the gaps in the skyline with white smoke.

As Maerz ran through Brooklyn, he communed with his twenty-nine-year-old brother, Noell, a bond trader missing since the September 11 terrorist attacks. As he crossed the Queensboro Bridge, he concentrated on good memories instead of the burning sensation on the soles of his feet.

As Maerz ran in the shadow of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, he thought about Noell’s baby daughter, born and named Noel on Halloween, seven weeks after her father made a last frantic phone call to his wife. Four hours and forty-four minutes after he started, Maerz crossed the red, white and blue finish line under a canopy of fall color in Central Park. He wiped away a tear, for a short life well lived, for a long race well run.

“He was looking down on me,” said Maerz, who ran under his brother’s name and registration number, 8334.

“In my mind, I ran ten, he ran ten and the crowd ran six. Noell will be in the record book as the finisher. That was his goal.”

The 2 million spectators lining the course on a day as crisp as a red maple leaf were so loud that runners said they could hardly hear their labored breaths over chants of “Go USA!” and “New York loves you!” For flag-waving New Yorkers, the thirty-second annual event that began with the release of white doves was a cathartic celebration of New York’s resilience, a giant pep rally for the city. For many of the 30,000 runners wearing T-shirts imprinted with the photographs and names of missing businesspeople, parents, police officers and firefighters, the marathon was a memorial in motion, a race of remembrance.

Never has a marathon been such a powerful symbol of man’s desire to endure. Never has a finish line been so emblematic of man’s will to overcome suffering.

Noell Maerz had been ready to run his first marathon. The former Hofstra quarterback was an accomplished triathlete, kayaker and skier. He was a handsome, energetic young man in the prime of his life, thrilled with his job at Euro Brokers and anticipating the birth of his first child and the first anniversary of his marriage to Jennifer, who he had met on a subway. Why not cap it all with the New York City Marathon?

“Noell loves people; people love him,” said Ralph Maerz, fifty-six, who mixes present and past tenses when speaking of his eldest son. “In the whole twenty-nine years I raised him, I could never stay angry at him for more than ten minutes. He always got out of trouble. That’s why we figured he’d get out of the Trade Center, too.”

Just before 9:00 A.M. on September 11, Noell made three calls from his office on the eighty-fourth floor of the South Tower. He told his father a bomb had gone off but he was fine. He told Jennifer that the plane had not hit his building and not to worry, that he was getting out and he loved her. He called Erich and told him that people were jumping out of windows, but that he was down to the seventy-seventh floor. Minutes later, a second hijacked plane hit its target.

Erich Maerz, twenty-seven, decided to finish what Noell started.

He talked his father into joining him, and Ralph, an ex-smoker who hadn’t run since high school, completed Sunday’s race in five hours, thirty-one minutes. He said he borrowed Noell’s energy.

“At mile twelve, I said, ‘Noell, I’m so glad I can share this with you,’” Ralph Maerz said. “At mile twenty, I said, ‘Noell, I hope you’re enjoying this. I hope you can see all these people cheering.’

“And at the finish line I just looked up and said, ‘Thank you, Noell.’ I was so proud of him. Now I can say he’s proud of me.”

Erich and Ralph are putting their race numbers in a hope chest for little Noel so someday she will understand how her father’s spirit endures.

Linda Robertson

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