It’s one of those iconic things where you don’t even need to use the full name to know what it is, sort of like how the sight of a “swoosh” automatically invokes “Nike.” Well, to runners anyhow. You don’t say “I ran New York” or “I ran L.A” or even “I ran Athens”–the hometown of the marathon. If you did, you’d probably get some confused looks. But “I ran Boston”? You’re likely to get looks of awe or curiosity or congratulations or that inside look that only people who’ve run Boston can fully appreciate.
The marathon itself is a beautiful thing. It’s the longest conventional-distance race (26.2 miles, for the uninitiated), but that’s plenty long. For scale, the farthest I’ve ever run at once is about 16 miles. I feel like I could pull off a half marathon with minimal amounts of specific training. A marathon is different, though. You have to respect the distance, what it can do to your body, your mind. Boston takes that respect to a whole new level. It’s not that it’s the hardest marathon there is (not that it’s easy) or that it fields only the best athletes (though they do come). It has something to do with hard work, pride, pain, joy, tears, determination, heartache (or did I mean Heartbreak?), courage–and tradition. It’s an intangible, inexplicable quality that draws people, myself included, to Boston.
April 15, 2013.
The 117th running of the Boston Marathon commenced with the elite division. Originally all six US athletes who competed in the 2012 Olympic marathon were slated to race Boston, but ultimately all but two–Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher–dropped out due to injury. They finished fourth and sixth, respectively. That would have been the news of the day, until everything changed.
I had just gotten out of my last lab of the day and was going to drop off my bags in the athletics’ complex so I could go for a tempo run. I stopped to check Twitter on my phone; aside from watching a live stream, following raceday tweets is the next best thing to watching a race in person. You get little snippets of people’s triumphs, disappointments, encouragements, and all sorts of interesting commentary. (I also really wanted to know if Joan Benoit Samuelson had made it in under 2:52:43–her goal of being within half an hour of her 1983 record at Boston. She did, with a 2:50:29 for 47th place overall.) But along with a few older tweets along the lines of “FINISHED MY FIRST #BOSTON!!”, “PR 3:35:08 #bostonmarathon”, and “bonked at mile 22…rode back in an ambulance which would’ve been fun if i didnt feel like crap”, my feed was starting to be overrun by tweets like these from running media companies:
The mainstream media hadn’t yet begun to cover the situation, so what I was seeing was from the aforementioned running media organizations, runners, and spectators. At first I thought it was a hoax of some sort. That lasted for about five seconds as my feed filled with more and more tweets. For about one second after that I thought, “I wonder what sort of explosion they’re talking about?”–but that didn’t really need to be asked. As an offspring of the post-9/11 world, in the deepest part of my heart, I knew. The real question was, “How bad is it?” I reasoned in my head that the press crews from Flotrack, Runnerspace, etc. usually had spaces reserved in fairly close proximity to the finish line, and since reports were coming in that the explosions occurred near the finish line, it couldn’t have been that bad. I suppose it depends on how you define “that bad.”
My next move was to text my friends in the running community. Weirdly enough, this year, I don’t actually know anybody who ran Boston. The people I know who would normally go are either injured, pregnant, just married, or taking some time off from marathoning. I have never been so thankful that people did not qualify for Boston. Even though I don’t personally know anybody at Boston this year, the running circles from back home exploded in a frenzy of social networking activity. (As an aside, the man in orange in the incredible photograph from the Boston Globe’s John Tlumacki, of which another version made the cover of Sports Illustrated, is actually a local runner from back home, so when photos and videos of him going down started surfacing, the club team’s Facebook page went into even more of a frenzy trying to verify the status of all of its members at Boston. As an aside to this aside, I actually think that Tlumacki’s photo is quite brilliant. Obviously, there’s always an element of luck to photography–especially live-action photography–but the framing, lighting, background, and even the colors of the runner’s jersey and the officers’ safety vests make this picture so powerful. Perhaps most important, though, the dynamic motion makes this photograph into more than just an image: it tells a story.)
I’ve never been to Boston (though I’ve always hoped to, and I still hope to–perhaps even more now than ever before). I didn’t know anyone there. I’m halfway across the country right now; home is on the opposite coast. I should have no reason to feel so connected to this tragedy more than any other tragedy. But I do. I believe that it’s because the running community truly is a community. Something about the shared sweat and tears and joy and triumph brings us together in a way inexplicable to those on the outside looking in. It lifts us up when times are good and holds us together when they aren’t.
As much as I view viral quotations (which, half the time, aren’t even real quotations) on Twitter and Facebook with skepticism, one by Fred Rogers struck me. He wrote in his book, The World According to Mr. Rogers: Important Things to Remember, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” This is so true. For one, it was a crowd of runners. That whole deal I made about community? It matters. Secondly, humans as a whole have somehow managed not to evolve ourselves away from the run-to-help-rather-than-away-from-danger complex. That’s a good thing. It wasn’t just a few people–everybody rushed in to help. Medical professionals in attendance originally to assist struggling runners, spectators, race staff, police officers, National Guardsmen who ran the rucksack race earlier in the day, runners who happened to be medical professionals, runners who happened to know that if someone is bleeding, you should put pressure on the wound. Everyone, runners and non-runners alike, stepped up.
Runners are some of the strongest people I know. If you want to tear someone down, runners probably aren’t the best target. Marathoners, least of all. By nature, I think, running draws a certain personality type (why do you think cross country teams tend to have the highest GPAs of all a school’s sports teams?) And let me tell you, it’s not one of shrinking violets or defeatists or quitters. Despite the steely picture I’m painting, runners are also an incredibly compassionate, passionate, community. We love the race, but we also love each other. I think this image from the Life in the Day of a Runner Facebook page says it all:I think of the Tom Petty song (I like the Johnny Cash version better):
Well I won’t back down, no I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down
Gonna stand my ground, won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground and I won’t back down
Well I know what’s right, I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I stand my ground and I won’t back down
And, on a slightly more pious note, from 2 Corinthians 4:8:
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
And finally, I’d like to leave you with this cartoon from the New Yorker, drawn by Christopher Weyant. If you don’t have a vague understanding of the baseball culture, this won’t make sense. But it’s so true. As my former principal/advisor says, “We’re pullin’ for ya.”See you next year, Boston, for the 118th running of the Boston Marathon.