Racing for Renewal
by Fatima Ahmad
No living American will ever forget Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I began the day with a run, and ended it wondering how I would ever again summon the energy and passion for something as seemingly inconsequential as road racing. Many runners shared this sense of the futility and pointlessness of pinning on a number to take part in something that thousands would never again enjoy.
I was scheduled to run the Philadelphia Distance Run on Sunday, September 16. I checked to see whether the race was still being held—many sporting events in and around New York, where I live, were canceled—and finding it was still on, thought hard about whether or not to go through with my plans to compete. I was in great shape, and Philly was to be my final race before my fall marathon, Twin Cities on October 7.
I did a light speed workout on Thursday to see how it felt to run hard. Although my Wednesday run had felt awkward and wooden, Thursday’s set of 300s were light and zippy, imparting a ready-to-go sensation. I talked to my husband, who was also signed up for Philly, and he admitted to having no enthusiasm for the race. “I’ll just be going through the motions,” he said dully. Several of his teammates had bagged their plans to accompany us.
I lined up Sunday morning with no idea what to expect. I started farther back in the pack than usual and took little notice of the elite field. As the horn sounded I was wiping tears from my eyes, brought on by a moving tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks, two of whom would have been with us on the starting line. I really never stopped thinking about the disasters in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania during the next 13.1 miles. Like many Americans, the events of September 11 were in my consciousness continually for weeks afterward, and are still seldom far from my thoughts.
Yet I had a fantastic race that day in Philadelphia, running faster for the distance than I had in six years. I don’t know why, though the simple fact that I was fit probably explains at least 95 percent of it. Did my overwrought emotional state contribute, either positively or negatively? I know that I felt better during and after the race than I had anytime in the previous five days.
No one can tell another person how to feel and what to do in the wake of tragedy, whether personal or global. Tegla Loroupe elected to run the 1995 New York City Marathon within days of the death of her sister, and defended her title. Other runners I know, who lost friends and family in the World Trade Center disaster, canceled their plans to run this year’s New York City Marathon and other races. I respect both decisions. Each runner must do what feels comfortable and right.
As I search to define the role of running in this altered world, I’ve been helped most by reaching out to connect with other runners. These days I run—and race—to seek solidarity, to show gratitude, and to affirm that I am still here. Seen in this light, running feels far from a trivial pursuit.