Thursday, May 12, 2016

2001: A Marathon Odyssey - September 11th & My First Marathon

My September 11th story is unremarkable in comparison to so many, but it is mine and the horror of it will likely never completely leave me, despite my efforts over the years to forget. Not much really happened to me that's worthy of reporting, but the feeling of that day will never go away. It's right there as soon as I start to think about it, and sometimes when I don't even try. 

It was 8:30 in the morning and I was chatting with my girlfriend Carolyn on the phone from my apartment in Arlington, Virginia, as we watched the Today Show. Katie Couric was interviewing Harry Belafonte (we liked Katie's shoes, but we felt her hair style choice was poor) and I finished getting ready for work during the commercial break and then half listened as Matt Lauer interviewed someone about Howard Hughes. I called Carolyn back as Matt broke away from the interview to report the first plane.  It seemed strange, but far away. "I'm so late for work," I said to Carolyn, "This is really weird. Let me know what they say - I'm headed out the door." I turned off the TV and made the short commute down Columbia Pike to my office while the second plane hit. This is getting really weird, I thought, but I needed to get to work, and New York seemed really far away. I took the elevator up to the PH, the penthouse, named so in my office not just because we were located on the top floor, but because it was the 13th floor and PH made for a nicer floor name than the somewhat ominous 13th. Up in the PH, my co-workers were discussing New York, the Trade Center, the planes and how strange it all seemed. Moments later I quickly headed back down to the garage because I realized I had left my laptop at home. I sped back up Columbia Pike still not fully aware that our world had changed. I grabbed my laptop, and as I rushed back down Columbia Pike again, the 3rd plane flew into the Pentagon. 

In hindsight one would think my natural inclination would have been to get away from my tall office building, located so close to the Pentagon, but I was compelled to get to my coworkers. I headed back up to the 13th floor and into complete chaos. People were screaming, crying, hugging, holding hands, as they watched the Pentagon burn from our windows. Someone came running through the office shouting, "EVACUATE THE BUILDING! GO HOME! GET OUT OF HERE!" My co-worker John grabbed my hand and pulled me into the stairwell. "WE'VE GOT TO GET OUT OF HERE!" As we made it down to the garage, in full panic mode, I realized I had left my purse on the 13th floor. John looked at me, at the stairs, at the elevator and said, "Let go of my hand for one sec. Wait right here. I'll be back." He got into the elevator and went up for my purse. And I wondered if I would ever see him again.  But he was back in a few moments, my purse in hand. We hugged and ran to our cars. I drove back up Columbia Pike again, now listening to Jack Diamond on Q107 reporting complete insanity: there were still planes in the air, there were planes headed into many buildings, no one knew what was going on.

In the moments between the Pentagon crash and my 5 minute commute back home again, the Red Cross had set up a triage unit at the Salvation Army on Glebe Road, next to my apartment building. All roads were blocked and only emergency personnel and residents of the street were being let in. I talked to a police officer and he asked me for my license. "I can't let you in unless you live here," he said. My license had an older address on it. I asked again. I just wanted to go home so I could find Jeff and my mom and all of my friends.  He let me by. An hour later I left again to pick up Jeff at the metro and we once again begged our way back into the blocked off triage area so we could get home. We were running from the parking lot to the apartment when we heard and felt the sonic boom. In my panic I fell to the ground. I was completely and totally out of control. I realized the feeling of being terrorized.

In the days following, the skies were silent but there were near constant sirens on the roads, or so it seemed. Maybe I was just hyper aware of every noise. Paranoid. Terrified. Stressed. Every little normal life act seemed scary. What was going to happen next? So, when my mother casually reminded me that she would be flying to Dublin in a month for the Dublin Marathon, I freaked out. Dublin was really far away. "What if your plane gets blown up? I'm going with you." 

I was making absolutely no sense, but the world no longer made sense and everything felt out of control and I wasn't sure what to do about any of it. So I told my mother that I would fly to Dublin with her and we'd do the marathon together. What? In 2001 a good bit of exercise for me was walking  a couple of blocks to the bar. I was not yet a runner, I was in terrible shape. I was overweight. I smoked tons of cigarettes and I spent many late nights per week with a whiskey and a beer in hand at my favorite dive bars. 

My mother, on the other hand, had been training with the Leukemia Society's Team in Training for months, to race-walk her first marathon (her first half marathon was the year before, Mayor's Midnight Sun in Anchorage). But I was thinking, how hard could it be to walk 26.2 miles? And my mom was 30 years older, I could certainly keep up with her right? And I'd never been to Dublin. I would protect her and we would race together.   

I went along with her to a couple of TNT training practices before the race and learned a few things. Race walking is NO JOKE. A lot of race walkers haul ass. I went on to continue respecting them when I first became a runner and would routinely be passed by race walkers. Both younger and older race walkers. They wiggle walk their hearts out! I also learned what it felt like to be sore. Ouch. I could barely move after those training walks. Barfly to marathoner in 3 weeks is not recommended. But I was committed. And my mom agreed to slow down a bit for me. Mostly I was so proud to have some insight into this training world that my mother had been so involved with that I had been paying very little attention to prior to September 11th. She was amazing. She made it to every training practice, during the week and on weekends, and she also did a ton of fundraising for the Leukemia Society. I was beginning to learn that being an athlete is fun and despite the soreness, it's a lot more rewarding than a hangover. And in the next few weeks I had something positive to focus on instead of the terror. Before we knew it, it was time to get on a plane and race a marathon. 

Once we landed in Dublin, there was such a warm welcome by everyone we came into contact with and we felt so at home in this great little city. And we raced!  We wiggle walked our hearts out! We had such an amazing time together. Like my personal September 11th story, nothing much worthy of reporting actually happened to me that day. We raced all over Dublin with a ton of people from around the world. Unlike my September 11th, where I can remember every single mundane detail of that day, the marathon day is a bit of a blur.  But like September 11th, the feeling of that day will never go away. Only this time, the overwhelming feeling and memory is of joy and achievement and being with family and being surrounded by people cheering and smiling and laughing. That is what I will always remember. And when we'd crossed the finish line, my mother and I ended the day in a little pub, drinking our very first ever Guinness to celebrate, while we planned our next marathon. 

 The medal seems old school now, like someone printed them in local trophy shop but it remains one of my favorites.

There are a thousand reasons to love this photo. Please note where we're wearing our bibs. What? Did  we not notice we were the only ones wearing our bibs on our collar bones? We clearly had no idea what we were doing but we were so happy doing it. And I need to give a special shout out to my Le Sportsac fanny pack! That thing was retro even in 2001 (but I think they might be back in style now, cause I've seen the Petworth Hipsters slinging those things around on their hips on Georgia Avenue). I also love our cute little matching cotton bandanas. And the fact that we crossed the finish line together holding hands.  

The smile on my mother's face in this one says it all. Proud. Happy. The smile on my face says I'm ready for a beer! 

This poster was rolled up in the marathon swag bag. My mom had it mounted on wood into a 3D poster for me. I treasure it like I do the memories of that day. I look at it and think, you can do anything. You can get through anything. Grab someone's hand and make it happen.   


  1. wow, that some powerful and inspiring stuff! I know you walked a marathon, but i didn't know you did i with your mom. What a great bonding moment to kickstart your running. Keep these great stories coming! :)

  2. Thanks K! We did another together 2 years later! Someday I'll write that story too.

  3. I remember you calling me that day, I was "working" at AMI, and I stayed on the phone with you as you were driving, trying to get home, screaming, crying into the phone with me. DC, silent skies, except for all those helicopters. Endless helicopters, search lights. I remember. We all remember.

    1. Somehow I missed this comment Julie, and am just now reading it for the first time. It comes right back, doesn't it?