October 10, 2001 11:00 pm

Those who have run a marathon know that it takes a tremendous amount of endurance somewhere between the 18th and 22nd mile. Some call that part of the race the wall. Its the time when the body has been sapped of most of its energy and the will to finish begins to shut down. Runners must prepare themselves for this time by running at least two 20-plus mile training runs several weeks before the race. It takes a lot of tenacity to blow through the 22nd mile and keep going until the runner sees that finish line at 26.2 miles. The process is called staying power.

Over the past three weeks, Americans have come together as they shared the emotional trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks. Weve endured shock, sadness, anger, frustration, worry and numerous other feelings. Weve come through together. Weve seen smiles from people behind counters who normally never smile. Weve said hello and meant it to people we normally dont care about. Crime in major cities declined. Motorists slowed down on the freeways and actually appeared courteous to one another.

Around La Grande, there have been more American flags flying from the porches of homes or planted on long plastic stakes in lawns than you might see on the Fourth of July. In fact demand for Old Glory has been so great that limits have been placed on purchases. One store in Portland that sells flags is now producing them and cant keep up with demand.

PRESIDENT BUSHS ratings have rocketed to 90 percent. Hard-core liberals in New York City have said they would even vote for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani if given the chance, even though they have despised him in the past. Democrat and Republican leaders in Washington, D.C., have been seen hugging each other and working together.

All this is wonderful, considering that Americans are preparing to pay a large price in waging an active war against terrorists. How long will charity and patriotism in America last? One month, six months or even a year before we get back to normal? When will the flags come down and attitudes turn back to the way things were before Sept. 11?

The past couple of generations of Americans havent had to face an ongoing war since Vietnam. Most of us dont know what hardship and death is all about. Weve been conditioned to think of war being like the conflicts waged in Grenada or the Gulf War. We have no idea what people in Northern Ireland or Palestine or Israel or Spain or Kashmir or Sri Lanka have gone through. Car bombings, kidnappings and other attacks have taken a major toll.

There are almost 100 terrorist organizations worldwide that have as their goal the overthrow of much of what the U.S. stands for. To win a war against such groups could take a decade or more. Like the marathon runner entering the 18th mile, we will need staying power to keep our flags flying and continue to back the president, Congress and military, while making sure America remains a bastion for the masses of people who still want to come to our shores. Are we up to the challenge?