September 11

It was just a little warmer that morning 20 years ago. But the same blue sky. I’m flooded with emotions – remembering the horror and fear, the thunderstorm the next night when I found myself standing by the bed screaming, having been awakened by thunder in the middle of the night.

But I also remember how uncomfortable I felt as everyone trotted out the flag and vowed revenge. I had just interviewed a ton of scientists about climate change. The IPCC had just convened and issued its report; the National Science Foundation had just issued a report on global warming. The first sentence referred to clear, compelling evidence of anthropomorphic climate change. But Bush wasn’t interested. He pushed it aside. Then the US pulled out of talks on racism in Durban, South Africa. Israel objected to Palestinians having been invited. They were boycotting. So we were too. (Sounds an awful lot like cancel culture, btw.) The US seemed tone deaf and utterly out of step with science and the rest of the world.

Then came that day. Max, my nephew wasn’t quite two years old. I was out in the garden, so proud of myself for having earned my first chunk of money as a consultant. I think it was $12,000 for 120 hours of work. I felt rich. I was lazing in the garden, doing the crossword puzzle and listening to NPR. When the alert came about a fire at the World Trade Center, I ran inside and turned on the TV. My (at the time) brother was a report for CBS and lived a block from the World Trade Center, so I figured he’d be covering it.

The picture was crazy – someone running with a camera. Rubble and sky and dust and street. I flipped channels to NBC and saw the picture of the first tower on fire. I called my brother’s apartment. My sister-in-law answered. She was terrified. Come uptown now, I suggested. But she said she needed to wait for my brother to call. I hung up and watched the TV. The fire seemed to jump from one tower to the next. How could that happen? They’re not that close to each other…then Janice Huff, the weather person, called her own station. Her voice sounded sleepy, like this was the first sentence she uttered. She told the anchors to look at the tape. It was a second plane.

I called Elizabeth again. She was understandably panicked. What if the buildings fall down? She asked. That’s not going to happen, I said. But still I told her she needed to get out of there and come uptown. She said she couldn’t leave. I had heard that the C train was still running. I’m coming to get you, I told her. I hung up and debated – I could ride my bike or take the train. Train seemed more plausible. I ran to the 86th Street station. There were several of us waiting. The C train came; we got on. We stopped at 81st Street, 72nd Street and then, as we neared 59th Street, the train stopped. No announcement. Just stopped. Minutes went by, and in the lengthening fluorescence I began to think how stupid I had been getting into a train, underground. Only a few months before there had been a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. And we knew we were in the middle of a terrorist attack.

Seemed that almost everyone in the train car had some moment of wondering if this we were going to die together. We all began to chat, asking questions about each others’ work and families, about what we had seen on television, about the plans for the day that had just been interrupted.

A woman sitting next to me was from Romania and needed directions to someplace. I don’t remember where. I said I would help her when we got off the train.

An hour and a half went by. Finally the train inched into the 59th Street station and an announcer told us that was it. Trains weren’t going further. Above ground, already there was a silent march of white soot covered people with briefcases walking back uptown. Eyes fixed forward. I tried to call Elizabeth, but I couldn’t get a cell signal. I wasn’t going to be able to get her on foot, so I turned and walked back uptown, this time up the West Drive in Central Park.

What a strangely untouched world in the park. Runners, skaters, bikers, sun dappled trees. How could they? Did they know? Were they oblivious? I walked home and tried calling from a landline, but still couldn’t get through.

I called my brother. He had spoken to Elizabeth. She had gotten out and was on her way to a friend’s house on the Upper East Side. They were ok, Max and Elizabeth. The buildings were gone.

I had to do something. Something to combat terrorism. I needed to bridge gaps in understanding. But I had no skills. No economics, no biochemical engineering. I couldn’t build a water system or an electric grid. I looked on the UN website. No jobs I was qualified for. I began looking for not-for-profits where I could volunteer. I entered my criteria: global, dialogue, empowerment. A few options came up. I wrote them all.

One option, the one that would change my life, was American Jewish World Services. I sent them an email then walked down to the Red Cross with my neighbor to donate blood.

The lines were long at the Red Cross. I was right ahead of a woman who was there with a few younger people. Strangely familiar woman. Finally, realizing that I was staring, I apologized and said, it’s just that you look so much like Ruth Messenger. Good thing, she said. Because I am.

We laughed. That was it. Eventually someone sent us away. The blood supply wasn’t an issue. There were too many of us and, well, very few injuries. Just death. We walked home.


I really didn’t feel it yesterday morning when I lined up for the race. I had arrived way too early, excited about my “local competitive” status. I was expecting something more than what I found – an open area, an open tent covering the food. And runners lounging around on the grass. But the bathrooms were clean and the waits weren’t so long. And no lining up in the corrals 50 minutes before the start. Just an escort directly to the line with only 20 minutes to go.

We went to the green start – the lower level of the Verrazano Bridge. Not the place for the awe-inspiring iconic start. Just the pounding of feet and Garmin unable to find a signal. The runners around me were fast. I had to try to keep myself in check. But Garmin wasn’t much help, vacillating between 7:30 and 14:00 pace. I knew I was running steady but with all the runners passing me, it felt as if I was going backwards. I just kept going with my eyes fixed on daylight ahead. Finally out into the open. Some faint superstition was bugging me. The only other time I had a green start, under the bridge, was in 2013. That was also the only time I started but didn’t finish the race. And once again I was feeling the uneasy burbling of stomach problems.

I was determined to keep myself on an even pace – nothing above 9:20. Sadly, unlike last year, when the wind and my months of training seemed to buoy me, keeping to a 9:20 – 9:25 pace wasn’t even easy. I didn’t feel much tendency to speed up. And after about 7 miles, I really needed a pit stop. I ran for the nearest. No line – that was good. But inside I found a truly foul mess of a place, a stopped up urinal almost overflowing, garbage stowed inside, no toilet paper (I had some with me, having learned the hard way). Pooped and ran, hoping no one else would make the mistake of opening that door.

90 seconds lost. I calmed myself, picked it up a little, but felt that I was going to have more stomach problems soon. Gurgling and chugging along. Arms ok, stride ok. Off pace, though and not really feeling it. The first half didn’t fly by, it was a slog. I repeated my mantra, “strong mind, strong heart, strong body.” But I knew my best long runs this year hadn’t been nearly as strong  as my best runs last year. I didn’t go in with the confidence that I was ready.

Still, the sudden appearance of the 59th street bridge caught me by surprise. I must have drifted off. I had done that bridge backwards and forwards and I knew it would be hard. All I had to do was keep going. And find a loo. I really had to find a loo. But that would have to wait until First Avenue.

Too late.

By the time I found a loo, just after the turn onto First, I was a mess. Called Harley, my training partner. I really wanted to drop out, but instead, I did my best to clean myself up. There were people out there cheering for me. My team from work. My friends. People I didn’t want to disappoint. And then the intrinsic motivation kicked in: Even if you’re not going to have a PR, you have a chance to prove to yourself that you have a strong mind, strong determination and – as we Buddhists say – that “never-give-up” spirit.

Another 6 minutes lost. So that was going to be it. I ran up First Avenue. Just needed some Gatorade. I was pretty sure I was seriously dehydrated. I had to take my time. I was getting dizzy. There was my friend and former coach, Susanne, calling to me. Still had the nagging thought that I could drop out and go home. But then the Willis Avenue Bridge was right in front of me. I reminded myself that the only way to make sure I finished was to run as far away from home as possible, so I’d have to run back.

How well I know that part of the course. I always practiced it: up First Avenue and across the Willis Avenue Bridge. I love running in the Bronx, past that old, stately church, the housing projects, car repair shops, taiko drums, and across 135th Street to the Fifth Avenue bridge. But whoa, I was really dizzy. Stopped to walk and almost lost my balance. Another runner saw my wobble and stopped to see if I was alright. She wanted to take me to medical. I didn’t want her to wreck her race. I talked her into running on, but then, when I saw the medical tent, I had to stop. I asked for salt. They checked my pulse. It was ok, they said. I sat for a few moments eating salt and drinking a little water and then said, I’m finishing. No matter what!

Two more minutes lost.

So off I went. Harley would be waiting for me on Fifth Avenue. And there was Elyse and the Merms yelling encouragement at Marcus Garvey Park. Then Mary Wittenberg at a water station. She called out to me, saying I looked great (although I surely didn’t). But no matter. One foot in front of the other. And then there was Harley, as promised, in her pink jacket. She jumped in and ran (and walked) with me, just coaxing me along. I had to walk a lot then. I was just trying to finish. There was no longer any hope of picking up the pace again. My quads were like rocks. Then we were in the park. There was Jon with the the kids. I was so excited to see them, I got a slight burst of energy. Then we just had to make it out of the park and across 59th Street. Harley stayed with me right up to the turn back into the park. I just had to finish. No matter what, I kept telling myself.

People have bad races. Sometimes they drop out. But Meb finishes. I thought about Meb. I thought about the other great runners I knew who had finished bad races. My orthopedist told me he finished a marathon a few weeks ago and was 22 minutes off his PR. Sometimes it’s enough to finish with your head held high.

So I did.

For a few hours I thought, ok that’s it. No Boston for me; I’m done with marathons. But this morning I woke up and had to keep myself from putting on my running shoes and heading out to the park. What is that? Determination. I can do better. And I will.