In September 2001, tens of thousands of runners were in the heat of their marathon buildup, logging miles to be on the starting line of the New York City Marathon on November 4. Then the Twin Towers fell. Miles no longer mattered, at least not in the same way as they had before. Running became a means of pounding out anger and grief, of trying to understand what was incomprehensible.
Runners trained in uncertainty, until the New York Road Runners announced the race would go on. The marathon was part of a sporting season dubbed the “Comeback Season” by the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It began when president George W. Bush threw out the first pitch when the Mets hosted the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium. Baseball, football, hockey, NACAR, and running fans and athletes took it from there.
Among them was Deena Kastor. Kastor was 28 at the time and training for her first marathon. She’d selected New York for the course—a five-borough race her coach said had the grit of cross-country. The New York City Marathon was a way for her to bring her love of and success at cross-country to unfamiliar territory.
Fifty-four days after the attack, Kastor lined up race morning with an international field of 30,000. Some wore black ribbons in honor of the people killed in the attack. Others carried American flags, wore flag tattoos or socks. The final miles of the line marking the course had been painted red, white and blue. At the start, police officers and firefighters linked arms and led the runners to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Below, armed Coast Guard officers guarded the waterways. Boats sprayed water as helicopters hovered overhead. About 2,800 police officers patrolled the course. As runners crossed the bridge, many looked left at the altered skyline.
Kastor went on to finish seventh in the race, the top American, and her time of 2:26:58 was an American record debut.
Now 48, the Olympic bronze medalist and American record holder in the marathon reflects on the race, its impact on her career, and the significance of running in times of tragedy.
Women’s Running: Thanks for joining us, Deena. I want to start by asking where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001?
Deena Kastor: Yes, it seems we’re part of a generation that will always remember where they were then they heard the news. I had just moved to Mammoth Lakes, California to help launch Team Running USA [the training group that became the Mammoth Track Club]. This was before there were multiple professional training groups and Meb Keflezighi, Jen Rhines, and a bunch of us and our coaches were hoping to increase the U.S. medal count in distance running.
We’d only been there a few months when the towers fell. It was just before six a.m., and I sat down with coffee to watch the news. As they were talking about an explosion at the World Trade Center, behind them the second plane hit the South Tower. I remember running into the bedroom and waking up my roommate Leigh Daniels and saying that something horrible was happening.
We watched together and it slowly dawned on me that this was real. We were being invaded. I felt scared for the workers in the tower and their families. I also remember being grateful to be in the mountains, in a remote place. We went to practice not knowing if it was happening or not. Coach Vigil said, you know, let’s practice. We were fortunate to be safe and we had work to do. I think we had a hard workout that day but we ended up running easy.
We set off and it was eerily quiet. It seemed frivolous to talk about things like the weather, upcoming races, or what we were doing that weekend. Andrew [her husband] would later tell me he was running in the Santa Monica mountains that morning and when he passed another runner, neither of them could say good morning. They just shook their heads.
I thought about the firefighters and the EMTs rushing into the building and felt helpless. So I just ran thinking about throwing love out into the universe, hoping that was something.
WR: For a while you trained without knowing if the marathon would happen. What was that like for you?
DK: It’s similar to what happened for athletes in 2020 when we weren’t sure if the Olympics would happen. You prepare the best you can. Training actually released some of the uncertainty for me. I woke up every day thinking about the race itself, thinking, okay, I’m going to do my job. So it gave me the blessing of time in my running shoes, which gives us time to process what’s going on, whether we’re trying to understand hatred, or find a way to be supportive and loving to those around us.
In the weeks following, I was learning more about had happened and I thought that the best we can do is be kind to those people we pass by. We don’t know what’s happened to them, what they’re going through, and the only thing I felt like I had power over was kindness.
WR: Did you think the race should go on?
DK: I didn’t have an opinion. I knew that the New York Road Runners and city managers would make the right decision. I think inside, I didn’t think it would happen. But once the decision was made, I trusted it. I trusted that we would be safe and I did not worry about another attack. Once we were there, it felt so good to be in a city that needed this vibrant event, to be a part of it any capacity, as a volunteer or runner or the police squad. It felt like we were part of bringing the city back together.
I think now of the bombings at the Boston Marathon, when you feel immediately vulnerable and shaken and defeated, and then you slowly come back together and put on this amazing event the following year to show resiliency and strength. That’s the best we can do. As a runner, the best I can do to represent the people who lost loved ones and those who survived is do my best. We helped start the healing process, I think.
WR: Tell us about the race. What was it like? How did it feel?
DK: It was a mixed feel; the somberness of seeing that empty space in the New York City skyline. But it was also a patriotic event. There was this huge American flag hanging from the bridge. And to hear Susan Chepkemei of Kenya singing our national anthem next to me on the starting line. It chokes me up every time I think about it. We hugged afterward. It wasn’t just a New York or even an American event, it was the world coming together to show support.
It was my first marathon and I started to sense that the marathon was a community—you’re on the starting line with tens of thousands of other people and you might be chasing different goals, but you’re there for each other. This race really showed me that, introduced me to it. It was a tribute to all the people who rushed into the city. It was a show of resiliency. I think most people would resonate with the fact that when you’re doing something for a higher purpose, there’s emotional energy that comes with that. When you find your “why,” there is deeper power. All of us on the line that day had different goals, but our “why” was the same.
WR: And the race itself?
DK: It started somber, there was an underlying sadness at the beginning. As we ran, there were about two million people on the course, with noisemakers, American flags, signs like “Call it a comeback New York” and “Race to Remember,” and so the mood shifted to something more joyful and proud. I had a job to do and the honoring of others, the celebration, took the pressure off. It prevented me from overthinking the race. My focus shifted from my goals to helping inject life and resiliency and celebration into the city. I still suffered greatly with blisters and doubting whether I could finish, but just knowing that the importance of getting to that finish line with the other thousands was monumental. It seemed like the race was this mutual experience of all of us taking to the streets.
WR: When you reflect on the race, what do you think about?
DK: I think about what a gift that race was to really hook me on the marathon. I went to Ground Zero with my family after the race and the rescue workers were going through the rubble. There was still smoke coming up from those holes in the ground. The scope of the destruction was just unbelievable. Lives were lost. Families were ripped apart. I think again that when they said that the race was going to go on, it was clear that our job was to make sure that the city felt supported by showing up and running. That was the gift. It showed me the bigness of the marathon, not in distance but emotion. When people come together after tragedy, to uplift, inspire, and heal, a bond is formed between them. It was a powerful group of people to call your community and it made me fall in love with the sport of marathon from that day forth. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time.
WR: In times of tragedy, why does running matter?
DK: Running matters because running gives everybody what they need all the time. If you need time to reflect on social justice, a personal problem, your health, if you want to raise money for charity or raise awareness, you get answers every time you get out there. At the time in New York City, we needed to run for each other and that mattered more than a personal goal.
Now to me, it all boils down to how we treat one another. It seems so simple. We miss the mark a lot. It’s unbelievable how war and rivalry is at the forefront of our culture. It doesn’t seem to get us that far. My profession is competition, but I use my competitors to get the best out of myself, to be the best I can be in the moment. I’m not going to war against them. A battle doesn’t win anything. It’s about personal growth. How can we all be better? How can we all be kinder?
So running is about clarity. You have the time and the mental capacity to just push everything else aside and focus on what you need at that moment. That clarity of space we have when we are in our running shoes, to process, to think, maybe even ask ourselves those thoughtful questions, like, how could we make a positive difference.