I went to Boston last weekend because I wanted to see the marathon the year after.
Marathons have environments that defy logic. I’ve seen them in St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas and now Boston. To think: An event that considers its origin the death of a Greek messenger sharing the good news of a battle is equated with a party. But it’s true. Marathons have evolved from the necessity of Pheidippides, to the straight-business approach of most of the twentieth century, to block parties full of behavior that would be considered odd in about every other circumstance.
At marathons, everybody is waving. Thousands of spectators carry signs, watching and appreciating athletes who for the most part aren’t any different from them. Runners rub vaseline on their bodies and ingest copious amounts of poor-tasting gels. Marathons are also the only places where it is perfectly normal for individuals to limp around wearing a blanket crafted out of spacesuit material holding a plastic sack full of bagels and yogurt and admiring the race medal hanging from their own neck. (It is also normal, recommended, even, to tell these people, “congratulations.”)
This was especially true in Boston. People on bridges were waving at me while I was on a bus or walking and I wasn’t even a runner. Near the finish line, four people stood atop one of the city’s highest buildings watching below. Two women behind me would identify a person by the number on his or her bib and then cheer like crazy in their Boston accents when he or she ran by. Apartments along the course were empty because the inhabitants had spilled out onto balconies, sipping beers, or into their front yards, watching and playing games. I saw two young women saying, “congratulations” to a runner and then to a police officer. It was about three in the afternoon by that time. The time and the gratitude expressed toward the officer were reminders.
Until 2:49 p.m. last year in Boston, everything must have felt as normal as it did on Monday. Then the actions of two terrorists stole three lives (later two more) and altered forever many more.
Tragedies happen every day and have wide-ranging implications, but the Boston bombings pierced at our sense of safety in a country defined by freedom in a way few events have since 9/11. And Boston reacted with empowerment. Soon after one terrorist was killed and the other apprehended, David Ortiz said, “This is our fucking city.” This weekend the town was awash in banners, signs and paint all containing that sentiment. I saw them by the race course, on the windows of Starbucks, near the water.
I would also say this reaction, to me, has been expected. Seeing Boston this last weekend and on Monday reinforced for me the unwavering belief we have in recovery and that the American way is going to win out. Is this being overly prideful? I don’t think so. I consider it confidence in our personal abilities and in the abilities of our civic, state and national leaders. In the face of adversity, we know we will recover and move on because that’s what we’ve always done and what we will always do.
In this case, running the marathon, as Boston has done since 1897 was key to recovery. At the beginning of the Boston Marathon Monday, as the limited mobility contestants prepared for the first official start of the 2014 race, the announcer in Hopkinton bellowed, “Boston strong.” He said we were, “taking the marathon back.” Bill Rodgers soon trotted by in orange windbreaker and said to no one in particular, “We’re doing this for Boston and America.”
Over the next couple of hours, from the limited mobility contestants to the elite women to the elite men to the average runners, I saw my favorite parts of the Boston Marathon: these race starts.
This viewpoint goes back to high school. My cross country coach, Greg Wilson, hosted “The Saints Challenge” at the beginning of every season at my St. Thomas Aquinas High School. He always told us his favorite time of the year was the first cross country meet. More so than the state championships, he enjoyed these dreadfully hot Saturday mornings that usually took place during Labor Day weekend. He liked them because so many runners were getting their first taste of the sport. All they know as they stand at the starting line is that they are about to undertake a considerable challenge, and they are excited.
The marathon is like this. It’s more than a challenge. It is without question going to suck. Anyone who has run a marathon before, regardless of speed or skill, knows the last few miles of the race bring about incessant pangs of physical misery. Your legs have given out, your breathing labors and your shoulders feel like they have fallen from the top of your body into your back.
At the starting line, the runners know what’s coming, but they don’t act like it. It’s like they have selective memories, or better yet, insane confidence.
Whatever lies ahead, we can handle it.