My memories of that day and what followed are, of course, centered around my team and running because that’s what I lived and breathed at the time. When the first plane hit the tower, I was getting ready for my 9:30 class and my roommate Suzie shouted out the news to me. I remember watching the footage with the rest of my roommates, then writing a status on my instant messenger along the lines of “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center”. I didn’t fully grasp that it was a terrorist attack until I got to my first class. At some point I left to go to the bathroom and ran into a girl in the hallway who explained the rest of what had happened. My professor would not, however, let us go home because she thought her class was more important than this terrible tragedy. I’m not kidding.
I had another class after that, but that professor cancelled to let us go home. Since many of the students at James Madison University are from northern Virginia, and a lot are from the NJ/NY area, everyone was worried and wanted to call home. This was a time before everyone had cell phones, and it wasn’t so easy to reach your loved ones. I did have a cell phone, so I tried to call home several times to make sure everyone was okay. My family is from upstate NY and my dad travelled a lot for his job, so I was worried there might be a chance he had been in Manhattan. Luckily I did get through and got to talk to my parents and my sisters. I remember my sister telling me that one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center had flown toward Albany (where we are from) and that the terrorists had used the Hudson River to navigate towards New York City. That gave me chills.
I don’t remember much else in the late morning/ early afternoon, but I do remember when we all started showing up for practice. My coach knew we would be upset, but he explained that running would help us to deal with our emotions more than cancelling practice would. He did give us the option of individually deciding whether to practice, and one of my teammates chose to take the day off because she hadn’t been able to get in touch with her family. The rest of us hopped in the vans and made our way to Masanetta Springs for a classic Coach Rinker cross country workout; long intervals, hills, short rest, no mercy. It was exactly what we needed at that moment.
We had a really good cross country team that year, and were ranked #12 in the country. A few weeks later, we travelled to Roy Griak in Minnesota, which would be our first experience flying anywhere since 9/11. I know I was scared of everything and everyone, and that was a common sentiment at the time. We showed up at the airport hours ahead of time. So many things had changed; there were all these things we couldn’t bring on the plane, you had to show your ID to everyone, security eyed you up and down. The biggest worry was our spikes and whether we could bring them in our carry-ons as we were always made to do (along with our uniforms). Anyone who has ever run track or cross country knows that’s a requirement in case your luggage gets lost!
The race itself went really well for us as a team. I got chills again on the starting line, seeing all of the teams with their multi-colored uniforms, all newly emblazoned with American flags. I actually remember tearing up a little bit, which was something pretty rare for me at the time. I used to be really good at holding it together and then channeling all of my feelings through my workouts. In fact, that year was my best year of running by far, and I think some of it was due to my need to deal with life and the post-traumatic stress from September 11th.
I didn’t actually see the ruins of the World Trade Center until January. We were on our way to the Armory for an indoor track invitational. I remember being excited about the meet because I was in really good shape and my coach had put me in the mile, a race I almost never got to run. I was deep in thought when we crossed the bridge and I saw the Manhattan skyline for the first time since the terrorist attacks. There were two giant holes where buildings once were. Something about seeing that actually made it real to me. I got a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach and burst into tears. It made me so angry that that had happened, and it filled me with pain and fear.
We stayed in New Jersey, but the sky over our hotel was gray and full of dust even that far away from the World Trade Center. It was quite a long process of trying to clean up the rubble left behind. When I got on the bus on the morning of our race I was not feeling great, and seeing the skyline again was a harsh reminder. Somewhere on that bus ride I made the decision to not be angry anymore. I really took a moment to just think about what had happened and appreciate how our country had come together during such a difficult time. I was overwhelmed by feelings of pride and patriotism, and I decided to take those feelings with me and let them carry me through my race. I remember starting in the back and feeling awful for the first few laps, but somehow I worked my way toward the front. When I heard the bell ring to signal the final lap, I suddenly got the feeling that I was flying! I sprinted the last lap with all I had, and I ended up winning and setting a new meet record. Truthfully I was happy that I had won, but it didn’t really matter to me. I just wanted to run my cool down with my teammates and get some good New York pizza.
I learned an important lesson from all of this, which I guess is my point for writing about it. My coach was right: coming to practice was far better than going home. Your team is there to hold you up when you’re going through hard times together. I’m reminded of that every year on the anniversary of September 11th.