The marathon is all about honoring your commitments.
About four and a half hours into the January 2002 edition of the San Diego Marathon, race director Lynn Flanagan received a call on her headset.
It was Donna at the volunteer check-in area.
“Lynn, can you come over here?” Donna asked. “I can’t really tell you why right now.”
When Flanagan arrived, Donna explained that a young woman from New York had flown in to pick up her brother’s t-shirt and medal. Her brother was Joshua David Birnbaum, a 24-year-old assistant bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald.
Joshua had lost his life in the World Trade Center just a few months earlier on September 11, 2001.
“Joshua was my older brother, but he was more than that,” says 19-year-old Jill Birnbaum. “He was my best friend in the world. When he signed up to do his first marathon, he asked me to come to San Diego to support him and to meet him at the finish line.”
When Jill first heard the news report on September 11th she called her mom because Jill and Joshua’s dad worked in the World Trade Center Complex. “I remember saying, ‘Tell me daddy is okay,’” she says. “My mom goes ‘Daddy’s okay, but Josh is missing.’ I had forgotten that he was even working in the World Trade Center.”
Josh had run with the wrong crowd in high school and was into the club scene, drinking and drugs. He had been in and out of rehab.
“There was a time when he was losing everyone in his life,” Jill recalls. “It was the family secret no one would talk about. I was his shadow. I was closer to him than my parents or any of his friends. Josh knew that I would never give up on him.”
When he was 19, everything changed. It was like a light switch went off in his head. Josh went to Narcotics Anonymous and kicked his drug habit, then enrolled in a community college in New York. The next step was being accepted at Columbia.
“No one thought he could get into an Ivy League School, but Josh was brilliant,” insists Jill. “He graduated with a degree in Economics.”
On May 18, 2001, three days after graduation, Josh became one of two applicants selected from the 1,000 that applied for a job at Cantor Fitzgerald as an assistant bond trader.
“God gave Josh five years to show what he could make of himself,” says Jill. “He could have died many, many times before he went straight. His goals were to wear the nice suit, make the money and to be on top of the world.”
A long pause.
“And that’s where he was when he died.”
After she received the news that Josh was gone, Jill went into the shower and stood under the spray for what seemed like forever. “I used to tell Josh that I could read his mind, that it was like we were the same person. Suddenly I couldn’t feel his heartbeat anymore,” she admits. “That’s when I knew he was gone.”
A few days before the San Diego Marathon, she bought a ticket to fly to San Diego. She knew the expo closed at noon on Sunday, and that’s when she arrived at the race site. She told her story at the registration area and received Josh’s race number. Then she went to retrieve his t-shirt.
“I saw people getting medals and wondered if I could get one for Josh,” she continued.
“Jill first told her story to Todd Floyd,” remembers race director Lynn Flanagan. “Todd tried to call someone for ten minutes, but he was so choked up he couldn’t get his voice to work. Donna called us over to fill us in.”
Flanagan met with the teary young woman and they set up an impromptu awards ceremony for Joshua in the San Diego Marathon command post trailer with Flanagan, her four daughters and their In Motion staff.
“We gave Jill Joshua’s finisher’s medal and she asked me to sign his race number,” Flanagan recalls. “I told her that Joshua was with us in spirit and that he would be very happy that she came to the race for him.”
“I made a commitment,” insists Jill. “I told Josh that I would be at the finish line for him that day.”
It’s ironic. The marathon is all about honoring your commitments. To your training, to the friends you run with, and to get to the finish line no matter what. Early morning runs in the cold and the dark and late nights in the weight room or on the treadmill make the finish that much sweeter.
Jill Birnbaum took Josh’s number, t-shirt and medal from the San Diego Marathon and had them framed.
On the back of the medal it has a space for the finisher’s name and time. Jill had “Josh Birnbaum” engraved in one space.
And “eternity” engraved in the other.
Postscript: Since this article was written, Lynn Flanagan’s In Motion team has never forgotten Joshua Birnbaum. Each January, the Carlsbad Marathon and the Birnbaum Family present the ‘Spirit of Joshua Award’ to a deserving recipient. Jill and her parents return to Carlsbad each year for the presentation and to keep the memory alive of a young man who died way too soon.