Editor's note: As we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Sunday, this story continues a series of reflections this week. This column is written by Lake Forest-Lake Bluff contributor Steve Sadin. We invite our readers to add their own reflections in the Comment section at the end of the story, or email editor Jim Powers at email@example.com.
When I decided to run the 2001 New York City Marathon, I did it to be one of 30,000 runners standing on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge the morning of Nov. 4 sending a message to terrorists everywhere that the United States could not be defeated.
What I was not prepared for was the emotional journey ahead of me, beginning with my first glimpse of the lower Manhattan skyline without the World Trade Center through the post-race dinner watching the Yankees drop the seventh game of the World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
I had been to New York many times and always felt the vibrancy of the city. Unlike any other city I’ve visited, I can feel New York. It has an electricity all its own. This time, whether I was walking down an Upper West Side street or shopping in a grocery store, I could sense a city in mourning. No one had to say a thing; you felt it.
I chose to stay in an apartment on the Upper West Side — my unit was a few blocks from the finish line — to live the post Sept. 11 New York experience as best I could, riding the subways, shopping in the grocery stores and watching the World Series in the taverns.
My first night there I went to Mickey Mantle’s to watch Game 4 of the Fall Classic. No one, I felt, deserved to win a title more that year than the people of New York. This Cub fan cheered wholeheartedly for the Yankees. Although they ultimately won the game on a 10th inning home run by Derek Jeter, that was not the story.
During the seventh inning, four uniformed firefighters walked into the bar. They received a five-minute standing ovation as the crowd ignored the game.
As the contest continued and midnight passed, a trailer went across the bottom of the screen indicating it was the first time a World Series game had ever been played in November. The room went silent as it took the announcers several minutes to realize the reason.
Baseball had stopped for a week after the Sept. 11 attacks. America’s TV audience did not instantly comprehend the reason for games in November, but the New Yorkers at Mickey Mantle’s got it immediately.
Missing skyline presence
The next morning it was time to travel by public transportation to Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, where the race would start Sunday. I do this each time I run the race — it was my third effort — so I knew how much time to allow that Sunday morning.
Riding the subway to Battery Park, and past the closed World Trade Center stop one station before, was chilling. As I climbed aboard the Staten Island Ferry, I looked back toward the skyline. A New Yorker told me she felt like an amputee who had not yet realized a leg was gone. As I looked at Lower Manhattan, I understood what she meant.
As I returned to Manhattan on the boat, I was drawn to Ground Zero like a magnet. As I stared at the Empire State Building five miles uptown, I realized I could not see it before Sept. 11. The World Trade Center blocked the iconic structure from view.
I walked toward the recovery site to see flatbed trucks removing girders that were twisted like giant pretzels and still steaming from the attack’s heat. As I walked as close as I legally could and stared at the remaining skeleton from one of other destroyed buildings, I could only feel like I do when I visit my parents’ graves.
Not a race, but a journey
I was ready for the race. I was not prepared for the journey.
Preparing for the start of the marathon standing on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge with 30,000 others, six helicopters hovered overhead and the naval presence in the Narrows was eerily comforting.
Just before America’s mayor, Rudy Giuliani, started the race, a spontaneous singing of God Bless America broke out. Few eyes were dry. The applause for Giuliani was deafening.
Memorials from the terrorist attacks hit me in the face all along the route. Each fire station — we passed a number of them in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan — had signs remembering their fallen comrades.
The firefighters on duty paid tribute to the runners as they applauded us all. We saluted back. This race was not about making a fast time. It was about being part of the overall experience.
A sign on the back of a young woman running the race read, “For my brother, 7/4/76-9/11/01."
That hit me in the face as hard as anything could.