Airports and airplanes will always be full of visual triggers for Christine "Kiki" Homer.
She feels a reflexive ache when she sees pilots wheeling their bags down the concourse. She glances inside the cockpit door when she boards a plane. At cruising altitude, she gazes out the window and thinks of the vast blue yonder her brother saw through the windshield. He had worked to be in that seat since he was a little boy.
Homer, who lives in Manhattan, found herself restless and anxious as 2011 approached, bringing with it the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and her brother's death. He was the first officer on United Flight 93, which crashed in rural southwestern Pennsylvania after the passengers and crew tried to wrestle control of the plane from terrorist hijackers.
Kiki had turned 45, her two kids were grown, and the looming milestone made her want to take stock and reorder her life. "What am I going to make of this year?" she asked herself. She hadn't done much of anything athletic since she had run the New York City Marathon in 2002 with a Flight 93 group. Homer decided she wanted to do the race again and emailed other Flight 93 family members this past January to gauge interest. Knowing them, she wasn't surprised when responses began flowing in.
"Training for the marathon is a project you have to take in steps," she said. "It's a renewal of commitment to life and living."
Homer and 17 other Flight 93 family members and friends intend to do that Sunday morning in New York when they put one foot in front of the other roughly 50,000 times, the number of strides it takes an average person to cover 26.2 miles.
Some are experienced. Others are novices whose only goal at their mid-morning start will be to finish before dusk. They have all raised monetary pledges for a tangible memorial, but they've also constructed their own kind of memorial in motion, built day by day with blocks of time. With progress and setbacks, pain and reflection and moments of accomplishment, their training has mirrored the slow, uneven process of grieving itself.
Except the marathon has a finish line. The race, unlike mourning or healing or filling in the gaps that will always pockmark the narrative of the flight, is something they can complete.
This much they know: Their loved ones, seemingly boxed in, chose to act. When Flight 93 drilled into an empty field in Shanksville, Pa., an event that could have made that horrific day even worse -- a direct attack on the U.S. Capitol -- was averted.
The runners' T-shirts are emblazoned with the motto, "They never gave up, and neither will we." It refers to the immediate challenge of the race and the ongoing effort to raise the millions of dollars still needed to finish the brick-and-mortar memorial taking shape at the crash site. Phase 1, whose centerpiece is a simple, stark wall of names, was dedicated in September. The families have devoted themselves to making sure the stories behind those names are fleshed out in other exhibits and facilities.
That's why Emily Root Schenkel has pushed herself to do "something as far outside my comfort zone as I could get" to honor her godmother, veteran flight attendant Lorraine Bay. That's why Dale Nacke, who will forever picture his burly brother, Joey, among the men trying to ram their way into the cockpit, took a cortisone shot to soothe his inflamed knee this week.
"I will finish regardless, if I have to run, walk, crawl or handstand," Nacke said. "There is no other option. It's as real to me as the sun in the morning. There's no amount of temporary discomfort I can endure that can come close to matching what he and the other passengers endured. That was never a choice for them. It would be feeble and selfish of me to give up."
Running a second marathon is all part of a bigger transition for Homer. She resigned her position as a corporate attorney this fall after 22 years and is taking time off to explore a new career. When she's jogging and feels drained or distracted or dubious about what she's doing, Homer directs her thoughts to LeRoy.
"There's something about the component of pain -- feeling the pain and working through it," she said. "The pain can be the pain of running or the pain of losing my brother. I just count 100 steps, or I say 'I'm going to get to the next tree.' Maybe that's symbolic of the healing journey and path."
When she got Homer's email in January, Lyz Best, a petite former competitive gymnast and springboard diver, had never run more than six miles at a stretch. Coincidentally, she had just decided to enter her first triathlon.
Running was something she and her husband Jeremy Glick had done together. He used to slow his pace to keep her company on trail runs, and was elated when she conquered one particular hill. After he was killed, she ran to help stay grounded as she navigated a new life as the single mother of a baby girl, walking a tightrope between private grief and public loss.
Elapsed time "doesn't make your longing for that person any less, but you learn how to put it in its place and separate it from the other beautiful things in your life," said Best, 41, as light streamed in the windows of her lakeside home. She was remarried five years ago to Jeremy's close friend, Jim Best, with whom she's had another daughter and a son.
There were no shortcuts along that 10-year-long road. How difficult could a marathon be? "If you do it, I'll do it," she wrote to her sisters-in-law.
Jeremy Glick, one of six siblings who grew up in northern New Jersey, was a charismatic former judo champion who would become one of the most familiar faces of Flight 93. He and Lyz, his sweetheart since high school, were on the phone for 27 minutes that morning. She told him about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He told her the passengers were planning an assault on the cockpit. They exchanged simple, loving words that turned out to be the last of their 18-year relationship.
Neither Lyz nor Jeremy's older sister, Jennifer, was drawn to spend time in Shanksville in the aftermath of 9/11. "I wanted us to build our own little fortress and I didn't want to let other people in," Jennifer said. She tried to find ways to be true to his spirit and runs a foundation, Jeremy's Heroes, that provides financial support for school-aged kids who need it to participate in organized sports.
On 9/11 anniversaries, the family gathered at Jeremy's burial plot in the Catskills and swapped stories that celebrated his life. The kids brought soccer jerseys, superhero figures and lucky pennies to leave at the grave. Then everyone went bowling or visited a petting zoo. They would end the day at Dairy Queen, where they'd buy an extra-large milkshake and then spill it, because that's what Jeremy always did.
Jen Bucco Glick and Kristen Schwartz Glick are married to Jeremy's brothers, Jared and Jed, quiet, introspective men who took a long time to open up about their loss. Jen met Jeremy just twice. Kristen and Jed didn't start dating until 2004, and it was some time before she learned he had walked from midtown Manhattan to Jennifer's place in Brooklyn on 9/11, limping in new dress shoes, blurry with shock and sorrow. When Lyz had a book published -- written in the form of letters to her daughter -- Kristen pulled it off the shelf at Barnes & Noble and read the whole thing right there, thirsty for understanding.
Late last year, Jennifer signed up for a 5K charity race and talked Jen into joining her. That endeavor appeared ill-advised when Jen, convinced she couldn't run, tumbled off a treadmill twice during a workout session. But she finished the race in 34 minutes, exhilarated. They were already training for a half-marathon when Kiki's invitation arrived. Kristen, who finished the New York City Marathon in 2007, is the most seasoned runner among them.
The "Glick Chicks," as they call themselves, recently completed their first 20-mile run together. They've all been transformed by the training in one way or another, but Jen, a high school history teacher with twin 4-year-old girls, may have come the furthest. She feels like a legitimate role model now when she tells students they have to challenge themselves.
"It's helped me to be a better mother and wife and teacher," she said. "This proves you don't have to be blood to be family -- we're doing this together and no one can take that away. I'm also running it for my husband, to show how much I love him and to make a connection. Flight 93, what they did, I can't imagine. To know you're going to die, but you're saving other people -- that's what you have to think about when your knees hurt."
The four of them will spend Saturday night at Kristen and Jed's place in Brooklyn. They'll eat Italian food and rent a movie -- "Rudy" is a candidate -- and try to get some sleep.
Jennifer Glick has spent some time visualizing what it will feel like to finish. The image she describes isn't of exhaustion or elation or cheering crowds, but rather a thought balloon that she'll release to her brother. Her eyes well up before she says the words aloud: "This one's for you, Jer."
Saying something, doing something
Lorraine Bay, United's third most senior flight attendant on the day she died, didn't place any calls from Flight 93. Her goddaughter, Emily Root Schenkel, imagines that is because she worked until the last moment, comforting passengers or helping some of them convert a food cart into a weapon.
Friends later received greeting cards she had mailed that morning. "She was the card maven," Schenkel recalled. "If you stubbed your toe, you got a card."
Family members found a supply of cards, neatly organized and marked with Post-It notes, among her belongings. There were Christmas presents, as well, including a silver Nordstrom's box earmarked for Emily, as there was every year. Lorraine was Emily's father's cousin, but the two cousins were raised in Philadelphia practically as siblings and Emily always knew Bay as her doting Aunt Lorraine -- elegant, confident, independent.
"When I got the email from Kiki, I thought, this would really be a way of saying something and doing something," Schenkel said in the dining room of her Bethlehem, Pa., home with 2-year-old Lanie, Lorraine's namesake, munching a bagel on her lap and her 4-year-old son napping in the next room. "Lorraine was the kindest, most generous person and I've searched for a way to show how I felt about her."
Schenkel, 36, was a competitive figure skater as a child, played all the usual team sports and currently rides dressage, but she was completely out of running shape when friend and veteran runner Lee Daignault persuaded her to start a "couch to 5K" program a year ago. When she mused about whether a marathon was possible, Daignault offered to train with her.
There were some humbling days, and several cold, rainy mornings when Schenkel would have hit the snooze button if Daignault, who will start the race with her and another family friend, hadn't been waiting.
"On two runs, I got too aggressive,'' Schenkel said. "On a 12-mile [run], about four miles in, I realized I was going to have to walk. So I ran five and walked seven. Another time, I had to walk the last two miles and had trouble breathing. So much of it is mental, playing these games in your head. I'd hit a low point, but then somehow I'd come out the next day and hit a high point. The 16-mile run was thrilling."
She has set the modest goal of doing 12-minute miles and aims to finish in five and a half hours.
"Nothing is keeping me going except myself, Lee and trying to honor [Flight 93]," she said. "But if for some reason I had to be carried away on a stretcher and couldn't finish, it won't be the end of the world. For me, it was about the training, forcing myself to get up and make the time."
One of her fellow first-time marathoners, Dale Nacke, stubbornly refuses to entertain the idea of stopping short of the finish.
His brother, Louis Joseph Nacke II -- "Joey" to the family -- was 12 years older and helped guide Dale through a nomadic childhood. Their father, Paul, was a plant manager for A&P and the family moved around a lot. Dale treasured the time Joey took him to Washington, D.C., for the day and snapped a photo of him sitting on a bench in the Mall. Apparently, the souvenir meant something to Joey, too, because he kept the cracked, faded snapshot in his car for the rest of his life.
It was a complete fluke that Joey was even on Flight 93. He was a warehouse manager for a toy company who seldom traveled and booked his 9/11 business trip at the last minute to try to solve a minor issue; he planned to fly back from the West Coast that night. He had been married less than a year at the time of the crash. Joey and Dale's father, literally broken-hearted, died six weeks later.
Dale quit smoking a few years ago and started riding a bike for fitness, logging as much as 150 miles over two days. Bad knees run in the family, and Dale always had trouble when he tried to run more than seven or eight miles, but he was still game to race in New York.
Since completing a half-marathon in just over two hours earlier this year, he's been fighting an affliction common to first-time runners, an injured iliotibial (IT) band. His doctors have tried to talk him out of running Sunday. He told them that wasn't on the table and hopes a cortisone shot will help mitigate his pain.
"They say I won't damage myself permanently," Nacke, 40, said last weekend from his home in suburban Atlanta. "I'll try to power through it as best I can. At a snail's pace, I just completed 16 [miles] the other day."
He will have company as he hobbles through the five boroughs -- his 59-year-old cousin Patrick White, who has had to slow his own typically uptempo pace to survive marathon preparation.
A lawyer who lives in Florida, White wore a heart monitor early in his training and discovered he was pushing too hard for distance work. He also injured his IT band this summer, but was able to take enough time off to let it heal. The flip side is his endurance base eroded and he's not sure how he'll feel as the mileage piles up Sunday. He has climbed mountains, hiked and kayaked, but "on a physical level, this is the hardest thing I've ever done," White said.
White and others at his law firm have contributed extensive pro bono work to acquire and assemble the land for the Shanksville memorial, and he is one of its most passionate advocates. Walking through Newark Airport a few years ago, he paused when he saw a crowded gate and counted off 40 people as an exercise. What were the odds that any arbitrary group of strangers could be as cohesive as the one on Flight 93? It still awes him.
Every morning, White slips on a stainless steel bracelet engraved with Joey's name, kisses it, and meditates for a moment on the boy and the man he knew. Then he repeats something to himself.
"I'm making a commitment that no matter what it takes to complete this project, I'm going to do it," he said. "No matter what's asked of me that day, it's less than what was asked of them."
Emily Root Schenkel walked up to the Wall of Names at the Shanksville memorial for the first time carrying her daughter Lanie. Seeing the words "Lorraine G. Bay" carved in marble struck her with almost physical force. How her aunt would have loved the feisty little girl in her arms with the tangle of curls and the milk-chocolate eyes. "I lost it," Schenkel said. "It was so permanent.''
Dale Nacke has traveled to the site many times, witnessing the transformation of a charred crime scene back to greenery.
"To see the memorial's scale and scope, how well done it is, gave me some peace," he said. "It's finally a fitting tribute. But there's no closure. The first [anniversary], the fifth, the 10th, those are just numbers we assign to things."
Lyz Best had never before been to Shanksville on a 9/11 anniversary, and was surprised by the way the 10-year ceremonies affected her.
"When I think of [Jeremy], I think of him as my best friend, my husband and the father of our daughter," she said. "I've been holding him so tight that I didn't see what this story meant to other people. For me, the simple things he did for me and my daughter ring higher. A smile we shared, something funny he said, the look on his face when he saw our daughter being born. We met when I was 14 and I have a long list of memories."
Best listened to former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, poet Robert Pinsky and others on the dais talk about heroism, their voices growing raspy with emotion, and it hit her that she couldn't and shouldn't try to keep Jeremy to herself, that he had become part of a bigger context. "I let him go a little bit to that place where he is now," she said.
Jeremy's sister Jennifer felt her emotions shift at the memorial dedication, as well. She and other family members met some of the first responders, including one who was nine months pregnant when she arrived at the crash scene, and talked to them about how the tragedy had affected their lives. For the first time, in some ways, she let the national significance of the event sink in fully.
"President Clinton spoke about how these were ordinary citizens who went to extraordinary means," Jennifer Glick said. "We tell the kids at Jeremy's Heroes [the family-run foundation] they need to tap into that through sports."
The family and friends of those aboard Flight 93 have had a decade to dwell on the meaning of sacrifice. For many, that time has built emotional stamina that will come in handy Sunday. When they gather at a restaurant after the race to celebrate their joint effort, they'll be unified in their belief that a few hours of fatigue, shin splints and blisters, are a pittance compared to the eye blink -- little more than 30 minutes -- in which the passengers and crew had to face mortality and try to change history.
That courage is indisputable, but those left behind have been equally brave in their own way.
Nothing could be more grueling than listening to a cockpit voice recording that documents a final, chaotic struggle that gives way to the rush of the wind. Little could be as demanding as the task of raising children who lost parents or comforting parents who lost children.
Anyone who has worked through grief and loss knows there's no outsprinting them. Some mornings it hurts to get up and others are filled with peace and hope and strength. It's a long slog. The key is to keep moving forward.
Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.