Jamie Citron’s family survived last year’s Highland Park shooting by sheltering in a gas station for hours. His parents, sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew were all sitting along the curb, enjoying the Chicago suburb’s annual Fourth of July parade, when a man armed with a semiautomatic rifle fired 83 shots into the crowd, killing seven people and wounding 48 others.
“We were lucky,” Citron tells InsideHook. “But all of them have dealt with trauma [in the 16 months since].”
Citron says he felt a “profound sense of helplessness” after the shooting. He learned about the tragedy while 700 miles away (the 40-year-old now lives in Washington, D.C.), and in the months after, he grappled with the fact that the nation’s incessant specter of mass shootings had finally caught up to his own life. His hometown was forever changed. His family was struggling.
That included his little niece, Winnie, who was just four at the time of the shooting. She’d started to equate the very concept of running with terror.
This Sunday, Citron is running the New York City Marathon for Winnie, and for all victims and survivors of mass shootings in this country, under the banner of Team Sandy Hook Promise. The nonprofit is at the forefront of gun violence prevention and policymaking in this country, and has, according to its analysis of its intervention programs, prevented dozens of shootings in the last decade. At the last count, SHP has 536 confirmed lives saved. This week, we’re reminded that the organization’s work is needed more than ever, as the country grieves the murder of 18 people, who ranged in age from 14 to 76, in a mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine.
There was no guarantee Citron would even get into the 52nd installment of New York’s hyper-popular 26.2, even with his connections; Citron works in the White House, as deputy assistant to the president and principal deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. But he’ll be out there this weekend, wearing a singlet of white and green, and running for those who were forced to run for their lives. We spoke with him ahead of the marathon.
InsideHook: Can you share with me what your family members experienced in Highland Park on July 4, 2022?
Jamie Citron: I don’t think anyone thinks they will ever be directly impacted by gun violence, but with every shooting it becomes clearer that none of us are safe from this. I was away from my phone the morning of the Fourth and when I looked at it for the first time I had so many missed calls. My blood ran cold. What I learned sent me into shock. My whole family — mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law, niece (who was four) and my baby nephew — were sitting on the curb watching the parade go by when the shots rang out. What we learned later was that the shooter was basically directly overhead. My sister says the shots were so much louder than she would have expected and the whole family quickly fled, sheltering in a gas station for hours while police from all over the area searched for the shooter. We were lucky. They walked away unharmed, but all of them have dealt with and healed from trauma in response. For me it was a profound sense of helplessness, there was nothing I could do and I felt adrift.
What prompted you to channel your experience into running New York?
It should not have surprised me that everyone in my family would have experienced ongoing trauma after the shooting, but it did. It was incredibly powerful watching my sister and her husband work to process their own trauma but support Winnie through hers. One of the unexpected ways that trauma manifested for Winnie was around running. Something as routine as soccer practice became so scary for her, and she would erupt into sobs when the coach would tell the kids to run. Joggers on the street would send her into a panic and she would ask fearfully why they were running and if we should be running, too. Suddenly running around went from being a part of childhood, to something you did to save your life. My sister told me about it that night, and my heart broke. It had been seared in her brain that running was something you did to stay safe. When I heard that, I knew I wanted to do something to show Winnie the power and positivity of running, and I decided to run my first marathon to do just that. I picked NYC because it is known for its energy and community.
Do you have a running background?
I did not start running until I was in my early thirties! Growing up gay, athletic spaces did not feel welcoming to me and I generally avoided them. I have loved integrating sport into my life as an adult and running has helped me see myself as an athlete.
How has Winnie’s perception of running changed over the past year? What role do you hope your marathon run will play in her healing process?
The credit here really goes to my sister Sammi, she has done so much to help Winnie heal from the shooting. The marathon has been something celebratory for the whole family to rally around. For Winnie, I just hope she grows up seeing this as a declaration of how much she is loved.
How did you get involved with Team Sandy Hook? Can you speak to what their support — and broader mission — means to you?
Once I had decided I wanted to run NYC for Winnie, I had to figure out how to get a bib! As you probably know, it is exceptionally competitive. I was reviewing the marathon’s many charitable partners and when I came across Sandy Hook Promise I immediately knew the only way this made sense was if I got to run as part of their team. SHP works to prevent gun violence by teaching young people how to create more inclusive spaces, negating the kind of isolation that so often leads to violence, and it teaches young people how to recognize the signs and signals of someone thinking of harming themselves or someone else and telling a trusted adult so they can get the help they need. The generosity of their mission is undeniable, and I am so proud to run for them. My hope is that one day, Sandy Hook Promise will help make sure that no kid ever experiences what Winnie did.
How has your marathon training gone? Does running for such a noble purpose make those miles feel any “easier”? Or is training still training?
I will say this, with every donation I received I felt more motivated to cross the finish line. My community invested in this cause in part because they care about and believe in me. I owe it to them to carry all that across the finish line with me. When the alarm goes off, and I am running off too little sleep, that is the thought that gets me out of bed. I have hundreds of people to make proud. I would not let them down.
So many runners talk about the sport’s therapeutic role in their life. Have you found any personal solace or healing in your marathon training?
Running has gotten me through some of my most difficult moments, including divorce, the hardship of isolation during COVID, and many job and city changes. It is also how I choose to celebrate many important milestones. I threw myself a 5K for my 40th birthday, and my absolute favorite way to ring in a new year is to literally run into it racing in the NYRR Midnight Run through Central Park. In running I have found centeredness, gratitude, release, community and passion. I wouldn’t be me without it.
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