A survivor's marathon dream
graphic October 31, 2001: 1:20 p.m. ET

With Sept. 11 in mind, one Wall St. lawyer will run New York a ninth time.
By Martine Costello
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NEW YORK (CNNmoney) - In a way, Jim Yellen ran the race of his life on Sept. 11.

He was coming out of the subway to get to his job as a lawyer for Morgan Stanley at the World Trade Center when the first plane slammed into Tower 1. He saw bodies falling to the ground, and then the second plane hit Tower 2.

Yellen, 45, stood by the fountain near the two towers in shock, watching the horror unfold around him. Then Tower 2 started to collapse. He started running and made it to safety just ahead of the ugly cloud of black smoke and debris.

For those memories, and for New York, Yellen is running his ninth New York City Marathon on Sunday.

"I haven't trained this year, but it doesn't matter," said Yellen, who lives on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "I'm just going to run. It's incredibly important for me to run this year."

Yellen ran his first marathon in 1993 as a way to quit his two-pack-a-day smoking habit. His last cigarette was Sept. 20; he crossed the finish line Nov. 5.

Jim Yellen running New York in 1996. This will be his ninth New York City Marathon.
"The only time I could stand not smoking was when I was running," Yellen said. "It became a substitute."

Since then, he's run a total of 13 marathons, including races in Paris, Prague, Rome and Stockholm. He finishes anywhere between about 4 hours 15 minutes and 5 hours.

"There's still nothing like New York," Yellen said. "I like to say it's a 26-mile standing ovation for you."

He said one of the great things about New York was that he could see the World Trade Center as he made his way in the herd of runners over the Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn.

For the next 16 miles, until runners crossed into Manhattan over the Queensboro Bridge, the towers were like a good luck charm over his left shoulder.

"I've worked in the World Trade Center, either Tower 1 or 2, since 1985," Yellen said. "In every marathon, standing on that bridge, I've stared at my office."

On Feb. 26, 1993, when a terrorist bomb killed six people and injured more than 1,000 others at the Trade Center, Yellen was getting ready to leave his office to teach a class at Fordham Law School. At the time, he was working on the 58th floor. He made his way down the smoke-filled staircase, his book bag on his shoulder. It took him three hours.

Jim Yellen, wearing his New York marathon shirt, at the finish line of the Stockholm marathon.
"The class started at 1 p.m., and the bomb went off at 12:05 p.m.," he recalled. "I know what it's like going down those stairs."

He said that's why he treasured a framed poster of the 1994 New York Marathon that hung behind his desk. It was an artist's rendering of the Trade Center towers with runners climbing up and down them like ants on top of an anthill. In the corner, he stuck a small picture of himself from one of his races.

"I always thought it was so neat because my office was in the Trade Center," Yellen said. He posted a message on the New York Road Runners Club Web site recently, asking if anybody has a copy of the poster they don't need.

"If anybody has one in the back of their closet, I'd like to replace it," he said.

On Sept. 11, as Yellen stood in the shadow of the towers under attack, he kept thinking about the firefighters and police rushing inside. It never occurred to him that the mighty buildings would come down. He was frozen in the spot, unable to believe what was happening.

"The way I describe it is my eyes were seeing things my brain could not process," Yellen said. "I thought I was in a dream. It was very surrealistic, like a movie, and I was praying I would wake up."

But when the second plane hit, he realized with a cold dread that it was not. He feared that everybody he worked with, about 3,500 people, were dead.

"It seemed to take only seconds for the building to pancake," Yellen recalled. "I was about 150 feet away. Watching it go down jolted me out of my shock."

He turned and started running.

"I had to outrun the smoke, which was coming at me very fast," he said. "As soon as I got about 100 yards away I knew it wasn't going to catch me."

When he got to Broadway, it was pandemonium.

Why we run marathons

"It was a scene from a bad Hollywood movie," he said. "Everyone was running. People were falling down and getting up. There were muffled screams and shock. People were crying. There was mass hysteria and panic."

When he sees video of the aftermath, he's always struck by how tame it seems compared to the actual day. There was a powerful burning smell. And there was the thunderous sound of the buildings crashing down, like a detonation. And blended in were the people all around him, whispering, screaming, or crying, "Oh my God."

"It's so hard to describe, because it's sensory overload," Yellen said. "You just kept praying you would wake up."

A few days later, Yellen decided to talk to his students at Fordham. The tragedy was so raw in his mind, he was shaking. While most of his coworkers made it to safety, seven lost their lives.

"I told them my story," he said. "And then I said, 'When you're in a panic about your final exams in March, remember this talk. All you're going to think about is whether you'll make law review, and being at the top of your class, and getting a good job. But what's important are the people in your life and the people that are close to you.'"

For Yellen, what's important Sunday will be running for all of the victims, his lost colleagues, and the graceful landmark that was such a big part of his life.

"I've run all these marathons since 1993 looking at those buildings," he said. "I have to run. Otherwise the terrorists succeeded." graphic

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