Tuesday, November 11, 2008

October 14, 2001

Several months ago, I submitted a story to Real Simple Magazine to answer the question, "Tell us about one of the most important days of your life in 1500 words or less." I'm sure a lot of people wrote about their wedding day, or their kids bring born, a graduation. I wrote about the marathon I ran in in Chicago in 2001, a month after September 11th. I was on the eve of losing my job and was heart-broken that my city had been violated so terribly. I was angry, confused, and scared. For that month after the attack, I felt alone. The Chicago marathon changed some of those feelings for me, and as it turns out it was one of the most poignant moments of my life. Here's the story:

"In the summer of 2001, I was in Toronto on the Broadway tour of The Full Monty. I was the first person hired full-time for the tour and we had grand plans. I had been working so much that I had neglected my workout schedule and decided a big goal would help me to recommit. In the Fall the tour would be traveling to Chicago, and the Chicago marathon would be in the middle of our run.

I was a cross-country runner in high school and always interested in running a marathon. Chicago was a perfect opportunity! I recruited my friend, Mark, the drummer on the show, to run with me. He wanted to get in better shape, too, and agreed to go the distance with me. I purchased a training book that laid out an ambitious but doable schedule for us and we were off.

Long runs, short runs, speed workouts, stretching, improved eating habits. Mark was with me every step of the way, everyday, with his cheery attitude and lovely British accent. There was no way I could have gotten through the experience without him. Training in Toronto was a magical time in my life because I felt like I was regaining my sense of self. It was easy to get lost in my work, and I needed to rediscover who I was and where my life was going. This training helped me do that.

Before Chicago, we had a brief hiatus and I returned to New York City for a few weeks. I did a few touristy things I had always wanted to do. On September 7th, I ventured to the World Trade Center and had a look around. I had never been to that neighborhood before. There wasn't anything particularly remarkable about that afternoon. I remember that it was a long, beautiful walk along the Battery. I do remember looking out over the water and feeling lucky to be there. I looked forward to coming back to New York when the tour was over.

I left for Chicago on September 9th. Mark and I were getting into top physical shape, and were glad to be reunited to finish our training in Chicago. And then September 11th happened. My brother left me a message that morning, panicked that I was in New York. I figured he heard about some kind of crime in the city on the news. I dismissed his concern as nothing more than his overprotective nature and sense of exaggeration. I tried to call him back and his cell number was busy. Odd. I tried to call my mom. Busy. Was the entire AT&T network down?

I walked to work that morning, winding my way through the theatre district in Chicago. A beautiful day. I had never been to Chicago before and was entranced by it. This was going to be a great run for us. I stopped in at the Corner Bakery to get a coffee and a danish. Could life be any better? Then I got to work.

My boss was frantically searching on the internet, listening to NPR. The office phone was ringing off the hook.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"Two planes flew into the World Trade Center."

"By accident?" I asked.

"I don't think so," he replied.

And then everything was different.

My beautiful city, the very area I had been only days before, was in chaos. We worked all day, talking with our producers, easing the fears of our company members, and trying to calm our own fears. Finally, they closed the Loop in Chicago, and we were forced to leave the theatre.

I went to visit my friends and finally saw so many of the pictures that people had been watching all day. It was even more devastating than I had imagined. I went to bed that night thinking that our nation would never be the same, that all these years I had taken our safety for granted. I was right on both counts.

Within a month, our show announced its closing and we lost our jobs. The bottom fell out of the theatre industry. But before closing down, Mark and I ran the marathon. On Saturday, October 14th, we arrived at the starting line at 6am. We dropped off our valuables at check-in and got our numbers. We had trained hard in the final weeks – running was the only time of day I felt useful. Still, I was worried that we weren’t ready. Maybe we wouldn’t be able to finish. Maybe there was just no point to anything anymore.

We lined up, the gun went off, and slowly we wound our way through the neighborhoods of Chicago. The morning was sunny, the temperature perfect. A few miles in, I found that for the first time in a month, I noticed the sunshine, and felt warm. Mark and I stopped at every water and food station to keep our energy up.

What struck me the most about that race was the generosity of the crowd lining the entire route. I hadn’t expected that. They had orange slices and popcorn, cowbells and signs to cheer us on. That crowd made me believe in the goodness of the world, in our ability to reaffirm life. 

17 miles in, my knees began to ache terribly. “Come on, Love. We can do this,” Mark said. With that vote of confidence, he gave me a Tylenol. My knee pain was gone in minutes since my blood had been pumping strong for over two hours. Mentally, I was still feeling rattled. And then Mark did something that will make me love him forever. Mark asked me, “How did you start running?”

No one had ever asked me that before. Truth was, I started running to run away from my life. My dad was sick for most of my childhood and during my teen years, the situation in my home grew dire. I suffered from insomnia, and found that long-distance running would tire me out enough to sleep peacefully for a few hours. When I was racing, I knew my family was proud of me. I also thought if I could get good enough, I might be able to go to college on a partial scholarship. There was no money in my family to send me to college.

In my junior year of high school, I sustained a terrible injury that knocked me out for the season. I was devastated. I felt broken. I had a hard time walking for a number of months and began to run on my injured foot too soon, re-injuring it. A few months later, my father passed away after a long illness. While there was more peace in the house after his passing, it was an uncomfortable silence. That spring, I ran to forget, to hide. I didn’t care if I won any event. I just wanted to exhaust myself.

After that injury, I had the goal of someday running a marathon to pay tribute to my family for having lived through a difficult time. So this was it. This marathon was for my family. And if I could make it 26.2 miles, I’d believe that finally my body and my spirit were no longer broken.

Mark was quiet the whole time. I thought he might be bored with my droning. Turns out he was just a very good listener. “I’m sure that today your dad’s proud of you,” Mark said. And I believed him.

At the 26-mile mark, the finish line was in sight. There were banners flying high, and masses of people cheering. I felt like I was flying. At that point, Mark and I had to split because they timed men and women separately. We’d reunite at the end of the race. I smiled so wide crossing that finish line that I thought my face might crack. I lost all sense of exhaustion and burden. Mark and I made it – 26.2 miles in less than four and a half hours, step by step, together.

That day, I learned more about the world than any other day before or since. I developed a special fondness for Chicago – I felt that the crowd who came out that day breathed new life into me at a time when I felt very hollow and alone. That crowd helped me to refocus on the generosity and commitment of people to a community. Despite a dark set of circumstances facing all of us, we could rediscover happiness and enlightenment and move forward. I learned that true friendship carries us in the most trying times. I’m forever indebted to Mark for his positive attitude and belief in me. Almost 10 years after my dad’s passing, I lived up to the promise to honor my family. I raced toward sunshine, and found it. And I have been alight ever since. "

The photo above can be found at: http://riseupomenofgod.files.wordpress.com/2007/05/running-man.jpg


Stephen Sweeney said...

Christa, Very nicely done.

Christa said...

Thanks, Stephen :)