Pia Levine, who is scheduled to compete in the Aquaphor NYC Triathlon on July 14, runs in a way that differs from other endurance athletes. Having survived a Jerusalem bus bombing in March 2011, just two days before running her first marathon, she says she participates to show that she has not been defeated by terrorism.
Levine, a 21-year-old Yeshiva University Stern College for Women student from Edison, N.J., will compete on behalf of OneFamily, an organization that helps rebuild the lives of those affected by terror in Israel, and that has supported her in her own recovery.
In the past two years, Levine has run four half-marathons, and competed in two bike tours and two triathlons to raise money for OneFamily and other Jewish charities. She spoke with the Forward’s Renee Ghert-Zand about the terrorist attack that changed her life, and how the Boston Marathon bombing has added to both her trepidation and determination.
Renee Ghert-Zand: How did you get into marathon running and competing in triathlons. Do you have a history of athleticism?
Pia Levine: My father died of cancer in June 2010, and I wanted to run in his memory and to support of Chai Lifeline, which had been so supportive our family when he was sick. I signed up to run with the Chai Lifeline team in the ING Miami Marathon in January 2011, but decided not to do that race and instead to run in the first-ever Jerusalem marathon in March of that year.
I’ve always been told I have the athletic build, but I’m not an athlete. I’ve always been a pretty strong swimmer, but I don’t play sports and was never on teams. I snowboard, so I guess my legs are pretty strong.
What do you remember from the bus bombing in Jerusalem on March 23, 2011?
I was in Israel that year to study and work on an archeological dig, and I was on the bus with my friend when it pulled in to the Binyanei Ha’uma [The Jerusalem International Convention Center] stop. The doors opened. People got off. The doors closed. Then there was an explosion. It was like a really, really loud bang. The bus was shaking, the glass shattered, the doors shattered, and then it was quiet for…I don’t know how long. I have no concept of the time because I experience it in slow motion when I think about it.
I was in the back of the bus near where the explosion was…. My friend and I were not injured, but everyone around us was. There was glass around us, but it just didn’t touch us. One woman was killed and there were a few major injuries, and then some more minor injuries.
What happened after the attack?
The bus driver drove maybe 100 feet from the explosion site and then let people off through the front of the bus…. My friend and I just ran back to my dorm and called our families.
I was a mess. My brother came in from Bar Ilan University and my cousins came to check on me to see if I was okay, but I really wasn’t…. The next day, I was too scared to go outside…I was literally shaking and didn’t know what to do. Then I got a phone call from Chantal Belzberg, a founder of OneFamily, asking how I was. She was able to tell that I wasn’t ok. She came to take [me and my friend] to the hospital to get checked out. We were treated for shock, which is a real injury even if you don’t see it. We were given an anti-anxiety medication to take, because that’s what you have to do.
How were you able to run the marathon the next day?
I wanted to do it so badly because I had raised all this money and had emotionally fixed myself on doing this for my father, and not doing it would be like letting him down. But there was also this part of me that didn’t want to go outside because I was afraid I was going to get blown up. Some people told me not to run, but others, like OneFamily, told me I had to do it to show that I could rise above it. You have to show the terrorists that they didn’t beat you, that they didn’t win, that you are not going to stop your life just because they tried to.
I ended up just doing it. I made a good time for my first marathon, but I think it was because I was just running on adrenaline for the most part, or I felt like someone was chasing me.
Are you still dealing with PTSD, and does competing in marathons and triathlons help?
I still have PTSD, although it definitely is much less than it was. But it still affects me here and there. I’ve become a more nervous person, and things like loud noises and public spaces bother me. I also use public transportation far less than I used to.
Competing definitely helps. Because it was my first outlet after the attack happened, I was able to just run and prove myself, and it was my way of showing myself that I am alive and there’s a reason I’m alive. It just continues to reassure me that I didn’t let them get to me and that I won’t let them get to me…Running and competing in triathlons…has become my coping mechanism.
How did you react to the news of the Boston Marathon bombing?
They [the bombers] took away my happy place, because marathons are the way I cope. Their decision to plant bombs at the finish line…it takes away the safety of it all. I feel safe when I run, so the idea that I won’t be safe when I finish a race kind of rips out the foundation of the new strength I have built up to deal with things.
The NYC Triathlon will be your first race since the Boston bombing. How are you feeling about it?
The NYC Triathlon is on a very large scale, it’s a ton of people. I got emails about all the new security measures…. My anxiety level shot up while I was reading the email…I am sure there are threats, but I’m not going to let it stop me.