The 24th Philadelphia Distance Run was scheduled for Sunday September 16, 2001. Our TV crew had planned to fly east on Thursday the 13th after completing our post-production work on the inaugural Rock `n Roll Virginia Beach Half-Marathon TV show. But the events of Tuesday morning September 11th would change everything, from our travel plans, to our conception of the world through which we traveled. Yet even then running would prove an invaluable ally in the struggle to make sense of it all.
The Beatles “Yesterday” played on the Elite Racing telephone line as I waited to speak with Mike Long about our travel arrangements. The song was eerily appropriate to the mood of the nation. “…There’s a shadow hanging over me,” sang Paul McCartney. “Oh, yesterday came suddenly.”
“The uncertainty of everything,” was how Mike put it as he scrambled to reorder flights in the face of an ongoing FAA ban. “There are so many conflicting issues of security and economic impact of a flightless United States.”
Philly race director Mark Stewart was scrambling, as well, feeling like he was slipping into a deep depression. There had been so many bomb threats that his secretary wouldn’t come to work. He was trying to do the right thing, but not quite knowing what the ‘right thing’ was.
Sporting contests throughout the country had been cancelled out of respect for the national tragedy. These pseudo-battles of ours pitting mighty teams in titanic struggle upon well-groomed playing fields somehow became horribly inconsequential, if not a pure mockery of what true battles we were soon to visit.
Since the ascendancy of the NFL in the 1960s, war games had become the American idiom of sport, teams battling one another for territorial supremacy. But running was another form of sport, thought Stewart, communal as well as competitive.
Quickly his vision was shared by a myriad of area runners who beseeched him to keep the race going. Not to say there isn’t a battle in foot racing, because there most certainly is. But the battle exists is as much of the will as of the flesh. It is a sport without the imposition of skill, and therefore represents pure effort. And for countless millions, within that effort has come enlightenment and fulfillment.
In the end, the Philadelphia city fathers backed Stewart’s decision to move ahead with the race. So, too, did his major sponsor, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
Out in San Diego, some friends called trying to persuade me not to fly in the face of the anxiety that gripped the nation that fateful week. But it was only when we learned on Friday that flights were cancelled out of O’Hare in Chicago, our intermediate stop, that we knew we couldn’t go.
While the Twin Towers still blazed and the Pentagon smoldered, many in international circles had come to America’s aid rhetorically, sighting the Marshall Plan, the re-building of Germany and Japan after WW2, and all the aid extended to the needy nations of the world saying, ‘who else does this sort of thing?’
But in the absence of a balancing Soviet power, America’s reign as sole Superpower had also unleashed a radical Anti-Americanism in the poverty-stricken fundamentalist ghettos of the Middle East.
On Saturday the 15th, rather than waking up in Philadelphia, I remained at home in balmy San Diego. Yet the effect of the attack still reverberated around the world. Not only was the freedom of travel curtailed, so too, was our psychological freedom put to the test.
The reflexive self-gathering that one might experience walking down a dark, deserted alley? That was the feeling that emerged in the wake of 9/11, a feeling that has yet to fully recede a full decade later.
That weekend in mid-September 2001 games throughout the country came to a standstill, but not running, not in Philadelphia, the cradle of American freedom. In Center City Philadelphia, 5600+ starters joined together in what was as much a mass exercise in patriotism as a competitive footrace, offering effort as remembrance.
“We are running for those who couldn’t run out of those buildings in New York and Washington,“ said Pat Croce, former Philadelphia `76ers president who headed up disaster relief drive for the area Red Cross.
“This is different than baseball or football,” agreed race director Mark Stewart. “This isn’t people cheering someone catching a ball. This is a participatory sport, and they are doing it for themselves; for kids in the neo-natal unit at T.J. University Hospital; for kids with leukemia. They’re raising money for the Red Cross, offering their personal effort to honor sacrifice.”
Kenya’s Catherine Ndereba broke Joan Samuelson’s 1984 course record by four seconds that day with her 1:08:30 win, a final tune up for her 2:18:47 world marathon record one month later in the Chicago Marathon. For the thousands who ran with sweat-moistened skin and welling eyes, many carrying tiny American flags, the battle was with the weaker elements of themselves.
But running is an empowering sport, a movable coping mechanism played by all of mankind on equal footing. It is also the most democratic of sports, the true meritocracy. So while it was understandable, even proper, that aggressive team sports withdrew in such times of national mourning, it was equally understandable and just that running continued. For it is a sport which doubles as a community, connecting men not only to the deepest sense of themselves, but to the common dignity and grace of all men.
In times of crisis, many people often take to the roads to find in running’s rhythms a solace and natural re-ordering. Yet it is not a diversion, but an engagement full and complete, an internal mining of the psyche that so much of life intrudes upon.
Not simply a physical exertion, running is often a search for truth, a discovery of what is good and what remains wanting as the alchemy of the heart and lungs turns air to fuel, and fuel to speed. It is blood pumping on sinewy strides embracing both the doubts and the exhilarations that mount with the distance covered. To halt that communion, especially in a time of dislocation would, itself, have been a sacrilege.