by Dante Zappala
On the night of Aug. 5, 2009, Kevin McShea started his shift at the Northwest Detectives unit of the Philadelphia Police Department. He was presented with a case. A young girl had died on Forbidden Drive when, inexplicable even to fate, a tree branch fell and struck her while she was running. We would all later discover that she was Katie Ladany, a vibrant 23-year-old teacher at Dobbins. But on that night, she was Jane Doe.
Five years later, Kevin recounts the details of that night in vivid detail. Katie was simply out for a run. She carried no identification, only her iPod. He had never met Katie but it was his job to figure out who she was. He had to get to know her but had little to go on.
She wore a Bucknell Rugby Shirt and Mt. Saint Dominic Academy shorts. When Kevin searched on those two items together, he came across a picture. He was pretty certain he had identified her. But he needed to contact her family and have them come to Philadelphia to make the confirmation. He made the painful call to her parents.
Kevin is my teammate. Although it has been 23 years since we competed together on Central’s cross-country team, I still think of it in the present tense. I feel we are still suffering together through hill repeats on the South Lawn and 800 intervals at the Girl’s High track. We continue to celebrate the Public League Championship we earned together.
Kevin remains a runner. He competed at Boston in 2013 and is looking to get back there again. He’ll try to pick up a qualifier at the Philadelphia Marathon this year.
When we met for lunch recently, we discussed the present—vacations, careers, fatherhood. But this is the time of year where memories take precedent. He was remembering Katie. He has developed a bond to her over these past 5 years. The recent anniversary of her death is another somber reminder of a promising young life cut short by a terrible tragedy. He participated in a five-mile memorial run that started at Bell’s Mill Road and led to the bench that marks the spot where she was killed.
Just that morning on the day we met, I had stood a half mile from Katie’s bench, participating in another memorial. It was the sixth anniversary of my father’s death. We congregate each year at the Mt. Airy Bridge to remember him. He ran in the Valley almost every day for close to 30 years, even when he moved to South Philly. This particular part of the trail, as with every other part of the trail, still holds his footprints.
Kevin and I wondered aloud what it is about running and memorials that seem to come together so naturally. He knows a lot about it. He helps to organize the Philadelphia Police Department’s participation in the Law Enforcement Memorial Run to Washington, D.C. Formal events such as these mark anniversaries and raise awareness. Informal runs like the ones to Katie’s bench or the Mount Airy Bridge must be even more prevalent.
Why running? We’re vulnerable and unconstrained by formality when we run. We can simultaneously sense our freedom and our mortality. When we do it together, we’re collectively exposed. Perhaps that is how we find some semblance of understanding in the events that seem devoid of it.
The branch that killed Katie came from a healthy tree. The storm the previous day was not the cause. It simply fell and landed at the exact instant she was there. That moment, which has so much meaning for so many people has, itself, no meaning at all.
After we remembered my dad by the bridge, I ran back to the Valley Green Inn by myself. I passed by the spot where that branch fell five years ago. I know this is where Katie died, but I suspect it is also where she lived, for this is where runners thrive. We form connections with others and with ourselves on these trails. We build stockpiles of memories. A few of them will become the fossils we discover when we return years later.
When I was a kid, I was with my father, feeding the ducks down at the Inn. I told him running was easy and so he challenged me to a race. He started shuffling as I sprinted out ahead of him. I laughed and turned to taunt him. But it didn’t last very long.
We arrived where Katie’s bench is now. It’s a beautiful spot, a half mile out, high above the waterfall. Just beyond is a bend, a blind corner I’d never been around.
I stopped. I was completely gassed and ready to turn around. I had learned my lesson.
But my dad was grinning and said, “Come on, let’s go a little further now. Together.”