I wanted to share my feelings as a (tri)athlete from the Greater New York metro area after the horrific events of September 11 in New York City, southeastern Pennsylvania and Washington D.C.
I awoke this morning from a nightmare that must have been conjured up from an overdose of terrifying pictures delivered by TV stations all day long, images that were too incredible to ignore and too horrific to comprehend. With Hollywood flicks like "Independence Day" in good memory, it was no wonder that my shocked psyche mixed me a nocturnal cocktail of horror culminating in living through the apocalypse (played out in the form of a nuclear attack by extraterrestrials). I am sure many people across the country could not find restful sleep today either, not knowing where their loved ones are or awakening to the terror of an even more sinister reality.
With phone lines down and business life crippled there was no point in clogging up roads going into New York. With way too much bad news coming from the TV set, I was looking for a way to deal with the endless stream of thoughts and questions pouring from my mind, still wrestling with the horrific reality settling in.
How could this have happened? Who did it? What can we do about it? How will life be after the rubble has been cleared?
Although I felt guilty about heading out for a bike ride I knew this activity would be the best way to help me organize the barrage of feelings and thoughts.
As I headed out into the crisp New Jersey morning air, I wondered what the motorists were thinking as they saw me in my brightly colored bike jersey. Were they upset to see me "enjoy myself" while thousands were buried (dead or alive) under thousands of tons of steel and concrete 20 miles further east? Or did they understand that this was my way of doing what I needed to do to keep my sanity?
The evening before I was delighted to see the way strangers on the street dealt with each other: As we waited in line to give blood, there was soft-spoken analysis, genuine sympathy and a strong feeling of solidarity. Not the stereo-typical abrasive New York lingo, but words of kind-hearted fellow humans offering support and reassuring, sharing feelings of sadness, rage and helplessness but also hope and encouragement.
"So what is it that we, the survivors of this tragedy, can do to get back on our feet?" I thought as I headed up the first climb of the day. Praying is the first thing that comes to mind and I am sure most people had a "one-on-one" with the divine entity they believe in. Donating blood is the other thing. If you are a doctor, nurse or EMT member, you could hope to be able to get into the city to help out.... If you know somebody affected by the attack, you can offer your support, lend a hand or a shoulder to lean on.
But when all of that was done.... what else could be done?
And as I pedaled on I realized that what I was doing right here, right now was exactly what we needed to do.
After we have done all that can be done from the outside, we need to make sure that the goal of the perpetrators is not achieved: They wanted to destroy the symbols of prosperity in a system that allows the free pursuit of happiness, and then the epicenter of military might of the nation that was built on a system of democratic freedoms. Making sure the world got first-class coverage as their evil plan played out, they were looking to crush the American spirit, a spirit that came up with couch potatoes indulging in burgers and fries but also fun-loving lunatics that think it would be kinda fun to see if you could pull off a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike and top it off with a marathon. Not because it is easy but because it is hard! Because it allows us to celebrate our lifestyle and compete in friendly competitions in some of the most scenic places on this planet. And competition is also at the very heart of the economic system that allows us to earn enough income to afford ourselves the luxury of buying titanium bikes, super-slick wetsuits and the latest running shoes.
But would we ever be able to compete again? Race against other athletes, hoping to come out on top. Should we even participate in these mini-wars? What is the point in who gets a certain piece of metal that is handed out at the end of these events when we should strive to have the feeling of solidarity evident in these days outlast the emotions of rage and anger?
One hundred minutes into the ride, I did not feel like turning around yet and took one more turn onto a country road I had never ridden on. In a way this road symbolized the new era that seems to be upon us: It was a hilly road but also promised some scenic vistas. Rolling over the first few hills, I noted a colorful spot on the side of the side. I swerved around and came back to see what it was. It was an American flag - in pretty bad shape, the edges frazzled but still in one piece. I picked it off the ground and tucked it into my center pocket on the back of my jersey making sure it showed its colors to anyone I was passing by.
Climbing the hills after the turnaround, I made sure the outside world saw a strong rider carrying the flag proudly to the top and on the descents the Star-Spangled Banner "came to life," waving energetically in the wind.
The thoughts in my mind had cleared up. I felt stronger with every mile that I was able to show the world that the values that we believe in and stand for are still very much alive. No single event, as painful as it may be at first, should crush our spirits.
My ride ended at an overpass that allowed me a distant view of Manhattan and I was reminded of the horrors of yesterday's events. The massive plume of smoke over the city looked like a wound bleeding in the otherwise cloudless sky. A shroud cloaked over the East Coast.
As I pulled into the garage, I made sure "that our flag was still there" - and I could swear it looked much better than when I picked it up some two hours ago.
To all my fellow athletes, I want to encourage them to go out and do what they love to do: swim, bike and run. Wear those team colors proclaiming your (team) sponsors' messages... it is how private enterprises advertise in a free market economy.
And when enough time has passed, hone those race skills again, shave the legs and put the race wheel on and enter a race. Competition is what makes us better athletes, and we should not feel guilty in participating in this fundamental test of human performance as it is as much part of our biology as it is of our history and economic system!
I certainly hope that the organizers of the NYC marathon are able to pull off the logistical challenges of getting tens of thousands of runners from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to Central Park safely. I also hope that Bill Burke is able to put on a second NYC triathlon next summer.
The more good we do (donate blood, help others recover from the horror) in the months to come, the better lives we live, the more compassion we show, the sooner we get back to our workout routines, the stronger athletes we become, and the quicker we rebuild the World Trade Center (just to prove a point, I suggest making them 111 stories - one better than before!) the sweeter the revenge will be on those who have no respect for the value of human life.
Wayne, New Jersey
P.S. I am not sure that it makes a difference but I am a foreign national (Austrian) living permanently in this country. So this is not about American patriotism (my passport does not show the insignia of the USA) but about athletes from anywhere in the free world valuing life and the spirit of leading a healthy lifestyle coming together.