Marathon man on a Manhattan mission

America is not known for long-distance stars. Simon Turnbull talks to a New Yorker running in the name of respect for greater heroes
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Brian Clas paused for thought after his morning run through Central Park – a gentle stretch of the legs ahead of his debut in the New York City Marathon today. "Sure," he said, "of course the marathon could be a terrorist target. I mean there are going to be 30,000 of us up there on the bridge at the start. But I'm not particularly nervous about it. I don't think there's anything more to worry about than what we do in our daily lives in New York now.

"You know... getting on the subway, going to the train station, driving your car through the tunnel. All these places are potential targets. All these things are potential risks. I strongly believe it's right that the marathon should go ahead this year: to show the world that life goes on in New York City, and to show that we continue to live our lives the way we have the freedom to do so."

The world saw that show of defiance last week, with the World Series games at Yankee Stadium and the second coming of Michael Jordan at Madison Square Garden. But the 32nd New York City Marathon has the capacity to demonstrate much more. The race that runs through the five boroughs of the city on the first Sunday of each November – from Staten Island to Brooklyn, to Queens, to the Bronx, to Manhattan – has always been an annual show of unity in the Big Apple. This year, in the wake of what has become known as simply 11 September, that unifying force will be particularly poignant. Each of the 30,000 runners has been issued with a ribbon bearing the logo, "United We Stand, United We Run".

Doves will be released into the sky above the start line on the Verrazano-Narrow Bridge, in the shadow of which the debris from the World Trade Centre is being screened. "We believe that this year the marathon has a special purpose in bringing together the people of the world," Allan Steinfeld, the race director, declared last week. "It will be dedicated to the victims of 11 September, to the survivors, and to the heroes who worked to save others."

It took Rudolph Giuliani, the New York City mayor, just seven days after the World Trade Centre attack to give Steinfeld and his fellow organisers at the New York Road Runners Club permission to go ahead with the staging of this year's race. They have done so with tightened security measures in place. All runners had to produce photographic identification before collecting their race numbers yesterday. Only kit-bags made of clear, see-through material will be allowed at the start and finish areas. Security officers will be in attendance at the 24 drink stations along the route. And armed Coast Guards will patrol the closed harbour waters under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

It is not the scenario Brian Clas imagined when he decided to dedicate three months, in between jobs as a medical researcher, to preparing for his first New York City Marathon. After the events of 11 September, however, the race means that much more to him. He is, after all, a New Yorker – a resident of Manhattan, in fact. He also happens to be the fastest marathon runner from New York City.

The 29-year-old actually boasts a 100 per cent marathon record. Clas, the New York State mile champion in his high school days and US 20km road race champion in 1997, made a winning debut over the 26.2 mile marathon distance in November last year, setting a course record of 2hr 18min 3sec in the Philadelphia Marathon.

The New Yorker is unlikely to be challenging for overall victory on home ground today – against the likes of the Ethiopian Tesfaye Jifar, an impressive runner-up to Haile Gebrselassie in the world half-marathon championship race in Bristol last month, and Britain's Jon Brown, who finished fourth in the Olympic marathon in Sydney last year. But Clas is one of the leading contenders for the United States marathon championship that is being incorporated within today's race.

He will also be running with the words "New York Athletic Club" emblazoned across his red-and-white club vest. "That's going to make it pretty special for me," he said. "I should be the first person the New Yorkers on the street will see who they can identify with – someone who runs for a New York club, someone they can really get behind. There's something about being a New Yorker running in the New York City Marathon – even more so this year, with all the emotion behind the race."

The rawness of that emotion remains close to home for Clas, who lives less than half a mile from the finish line in Central Park. He was asleep in his apartment on West 74th Street when the tragedy of 11 September was unfolding in lower Manhattan. "I was woken by several phone calls asking if my wife, Maggie, was OK," he recalled. "Her office is in the World Financial Centre, just opposite the World Trade Centre. I didn't know what was going on until I turned on my television and saw the two towers burning.

"Obviously I was concerned for Maggie. She usually gets off the subway in the World Trade Centre. She should have been there at about the time the planes hit but she was late that morning. She had worked late the night before and overslept her alarm. She rang shortly after to say she was OK. She'd got down there after the second plane had hit and had managed to get out of the area safely. She was lucky she was late." Others, of course, were not so fortunate. And New York's fastest marathon runner intends to honour their memory on his journey through the five boroughs today.

"I haven't decided what to do yet," Brian Clas said, "but I will have something pinned to my vest. I may wear a black ribbon. I do feel some mark of respect is appropriate."