September 11, 2005

United we ran: A tribute

Four years. It can seem like yesterday or a lifetime ago.

Four years ago, Rudy Giuliani decided that the New York City Marathon would take place as planned. We who had entered received an email from the New York Road Runners Club inviting us, if we were able to put our fears aside, to come and stand tall on the start line. Thirty thousand of us did. As we stood on the Staten Island end of the Verrazano Narrows bridge, fireboats in the harbor below, helicopters above and sharpshooters on the bridge towers, we were filled with power by things I can only inadequately articulate.

NYPD officer Daniel Rodriguez lent the morning his velvet tenor voice and led us in "God Bless America," runners from scores of nations singing along. As we loped toward the bridge to begin our run, we sang "New York, New York." Once on the bridge, those of us who knew Manhattan looked to our left to the island's tip and paid pained, silent tribute to the gaping hole in the sky.

Had I to rate my life's days, this was one of its most profound. Shortly after the race, this essay came to me, whole, in one piece. The first draft was the final draft. It was published around the country and emailed around the world. Today I share it again:

United We Ran

I know where hope lives. I know where strength, endurance, passion and pride live. They live in New York City. In November I ran through 26 miles of these affirmations of our humanity.

This New York City Marathon was not about athletes turning in impressive times. It was about going the distance – the distance from profound sadness and loss to a point where collective human goodness and hope carry us toward a finish line we still can’t see. In a city pierced through its core by hate and pain, hope is alive and well. There is no doubt it will triumph.

Thirty thousand runners came to New York to fuel that hope. We came from all over the globe to tell New York it doesn’t stand alone. Runners from Kansas and Denmark and Japan and Algeria and California and Scotland and Venezuela came to show the people of Brooklyn and the Bronx and Long Island and New Jersey and Staten Island and Manhattan and Queens and Yonkers and White Plains and southern Connecticut that their pain is shared. When pain is shared, it is eased.

In turn, the two million spectators who lined the 26.2 mile five- borough route fueled the runners with something far more nourishing to a spent body and mind than any energy drink or quick-acting carbohydrate. They carried us through the neighborhoods, up the hills, over the bridges, past the buildings, down the avenues, around the corners and into Central Park with their humanity. To say we connected is to understate the pure human goodness that permeated every inch of every borough. When we slapped palms with kids in Brooklyn and exchanged high-fives with teenagers in the Bronx and looked into the eyes of young mothers in Queens and smiled at old men on kitchen chairs waving flags and raised defiantly clenched fists to the firefighters watching from their engines and station houses, we said, together and loudly with no words, “We cannot be beaten. We will overcome. We are united.”

Go to New York if you can. You will hear occasional sirens and see a few hazmat trucks roaring down the street. You will likely make the unspeakably painful pilgrimage to Ground Zero to try and take in the enormity of the loss and grief. You won’t be able to and you will walk away numb. You will see billboards and walls with the faces of young people gone forever. You will see the tired eyes of cops operating on adrenaline and resolve. You will see fire stations wreathed in purple bunting and covered with drawings from schoolkids in Lubbock, Texas and Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

But keep walking and looking and you will find hope. You will check into your hotel and be given both a key and a smile that thanks you for coming. You will ask an elevator attendant how he’s doing and he’ll thank you for asking. You will eat dinner in a Turkish restaurant with an American flag painted on its window. You will see the colored bulbs strung across Mulberry Street in Little Italy, lighting the hopeful faces of waiters beckoning you to try their pasta tonight. You will see the pulsing neon of Times Square and the lacy spires of St. Patrick’s and the window dressers at work on Fifth Avenue. You will look from the Chrysler Building’s gleaming art deco cap to the Empire State Building, doing justice to its role as New York’s tallest building by beaming its red, white and blue floodlit top like a beacon to the city and the world.

I know where hope lives. It lives in New York City. And it lives in all of us.