As I waited on hold to speak with Mike Long about our travel arrangements, the Beatles’ song “Yesterday” played quietly on the Elite Racing telephone line. The terror attacks of 9/11 had thrown everything into uncertainty, and the tune’s soft words became eerily à propos to the mood of the nation. “…there’s a shadow hanging over me,” sang Paul McCartney. “Oh, yesterday came suddenly.”
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. But the events of Tuesday morning, September 11th, changed not just our travel plans but 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.
In Philadelphia, race director Mark Stewart was uncertain, as well, feeling like he was slipping into a deep depression. There had been so many bomb threats in Center City that his secretary wouldn’t come to work. Mark was trying to do the right thing, but struggled with 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 seemed horribly inconsequential, if not a pure mockery of what true battles we were soon to visit. But running was another form of sport, thought Mark Stewart, one that is as much communal as competitive.
Quickly, Mark found his understanding mirrored by thousands upon thousands of Philadelphia area runners who beseeched him to keep the race going.
Not to say there aren’t battles in foot racing, because there most certainly are. But the battle is as much within each runner as between them. It is a sport without the imposition of skill, and therefore represents pure effort. And for countless millions, within that shroud of effort has come enlightenment and fulfillment.
In the end, the Philadelphia city fathers backed Stewart’s decision to move ahead with the event. So, too, did his major sponsor, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
While the stumps of the Twin Towers and the gash in the side of the Pentagon still smoldered, many in the international family of nations had come to America’s aid rhetorically, sighting the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild her one-time enemies after WW2, and listing all the aid that America had extended to the needy nations of the world saying, ‘who else does this sort of thing?’
But in the absence of a balancing Soviet Union to offset her, America’s reign as sole Superpower had also unleashed a radical anti-Americanism in the poverty-stricken fundamentalist ghettos of the Middle East where the plight of the Palestinians resonated deeply.
And so on Saturday September 15th, 2001, rather than waking up in Philadelphia, I remained in balmy San Diego as all flights had been cancelled nation-wide. The effect of the attack still reverberated around the world. Not only was the freedom of travel curtailed, so too, was America’s psychological sense of freedom put to the test.
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, who trained in nearby Norristown, Pa., broke Joan Samuelson’s 1984 course record by four seconds that day. Her 68:30 win was a final tune up for her 2:18:47 world marathon record one month later in Chicago.
But for the thousands who ran with sweat-moistened skin and tear-swollen eyes, many carrying tiny American flags, the battle was with the weaker elements of themselves.
It has long been understood that distance running is an empowering sport, a movable coping mechanism played by all of mankind on equal footing. It is also the most democratic of all 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.
To halt that communion in Philadelphia 20 years ago, especially in a time of such dislocation, would itself have been a sacrilege.
Sadly, the last twenty years have seen the nation split farther and farther apart by both external and internal forces, a circumstance that would have pleased 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden no end, as his goal was to both unify the Muslim world while dividing our own.
As we remember the horror of that fateful day two decades on, to forget how close we once were would only be an extension of the bin Laden dream. May everyone’s run today be one of remembrance but also understanding before ”All my troubles (that) seemed so far away, (may) now look as though they’re here to stay.”
Reprinted from 9/11/2011