We’ll keep training harder, for the people who perished today.
– Wesley Korir, 2012 Boston Marathon winner
It shouldn’t have to be this way.
I was ready to publish a much different post today. It was (and still will be) a post about my most recent marathon experience, a literal example of how I’ll go to the end of the earth and back for a sport I love. Like a digital carpenter I’d plied the tools of the blogging trade in referencing the grueling workouts, the frequent ups and downs, the thrill of accomplishment, the rapturous sense of being a better person for having given everything I had to give for 26.2 miles. But more than anything, I’d chronicled the camaraderie that emerges when a diverse collection of like-minded individuals strives toward and achieves a common goal.
But then, in a cruel twist of fate, it was that sense of camaraderie that got kicked in the gut by yesterday’s gruesome and tragic events at the 117th Boston Marathon, where two explosions near the finish line killed three people and injured at least 176 others. And in seconds, all perspective changed.
Clearly running means a lot to me – I spend a lot of time sharing my thoughts on the sport and my involvement in it. But the city of Boston is also ingrained in my constitution – my father was born and raised in Newton, MA, roughly 5 miles from the marathon finish on Boylston Street. I’m a lifelong Celtics and Red Sox fan. And despite The Onion’s recent decidedly Onion-like portrayal of Beantowners as “playing their adorable little game of ‘Big City’ “, Boston is a dynamic and storied place, and one of the few East Coast cities that doesn’t make me immediately want to leave.
So understandably, as I sat 3,000 miles away in the safety of my living room, a maelstrom of raw emotions gripped me in the aftermath of the bombings:
Sadness and empathy – for the three individuals who lost their lives for no other reason than that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and for all those directly affected by the wanton bloodshed of the day’s events.
Sadness, too, that nobody is talking about how Kenya and Ethiopia once again dominated both the men’s and women’s marathon, or how Americans Jason Hartmann and Shalane Flanagan captured strong fourth-place finishes. Before 3:00pm EDT, I had to root around on the ESPN.com homepage just to find race results – ESPN was so disinterested that coverage of the WNBA draft trumped the marathon. Thirty minutes later Boston was dominating the website’s headlines for all the wrong reasons, and suddenly my desire for more in-depth marathon coverage was perversely granted. And now I long for the day when “explosion” isn’t the top choice among Google’s Autocomplete suggestions when I type in “Boston Marathon.”
Shock – at stark images of blood-strewn sidewalks and first-hand accounts from runners like Roupen Bastajian, a Rhode Island state trooper and former Marine who crossed the finish line just before the first explosion and then hurried to help other runners. “These runners just finished and they don’t have legs now,” Bastajian said. “So many of them. There are so many people without legs. It’s all blood. There’s blood everywhere. You got bones, fragments. It’s disgusting. It’s like a war zone.”
Sympathy – for the entire city of Boston, whose distinctive pride and spirit – as embodied by their own distinctive holiday – should have been on full celebratory display yesterday in front of an international audience.
Violation – for the ravaged innocence of my sport and its flagship event, neither of which can ever get it back. I don’t look forward to the new and perverted definition of normalcy that awaits us at future marathons.
Anger – at the (to this point) faceless cowards whose own misguided anger motivated such a senseless and unconscionable act of – just typing the word makes me angry – terrorism.
Shortly after the news broke I received concerned text messages from several friends wanting to make sure Katie and I were okay. I appreciated their thinking I was fast enough to qualify for Boston, even though the closest I’ve come so far was the 5 miles I bandited during my brother’s 3:14:05 effort in 1998.
Nonetheless like most runners, I knew several people who would be among the select few racing in Boston this year. My sister-in-law qualified this year and even registered for the race before deciding to sit it out. Based on her standard marathon finish time of around 4 hours, she likely would have been finishing around the time chaos engulfed Boylston Street.
Several friends in this year’s race had already finished and left the Copley Square area before the bombings. And another friend, whom I was fortunate to meet just last month, was leading a blind runner and had just passed mile 25.5 when the first explosion forced them off the course. Fortunately for both him and his running mate, there will be other Bostons. Not so for the 8-year-old boy and two others who were killed by the blasts.
It’s unclear at this point who is responsible for the carnage that dominated Copley Square in the latter stages of yesterday’s marathon. It’s unclear whether they were targeting a particular person or group of persons, the Boston Athletic Association, the marathon event itself, Patriots’ Day as a symbolic holiday, or perhaps even the entire city of Boston.
But what is clear is that the sport of running is forever changed. Not in the sense of big obvious changes such as beefed-up security at major events, though that will inevitably happen. Rather, I worry about more subtle and insidious changes to psychology as doubt and hesitation creep in, replacing the easy confidence of some runners who find themselves racing in large crowded venues. Am I really comfortable doing this?, they will ask. Others who qualify to race in Boston next year may very well decline the opportunity.
It shouldn’t have to be this way.
I experienced September 11, 2001 with a sense of surreal detachment, as though like a movie all the events I saw unfolding on television would cease to be and life would return to normal as soon as I turned off my set. I wasn’t directly affected on a personal level by the 9/11 attacks, and so honestly I always felt removed from the situation, like a zoo patron watching tigers feed from behind the glass.
But even though I still live in Northern California as I did then, Boston feels more personal. Not only because of my history with the city, but because the running community really is an extended family. If you don’t believe me, lose yourself for an hour in the intricately woven web of the running blogosphere. Or check out the sheer number of “Team In Training” runners at your next local marathon. Or spend some time with a group of Marathon Maniacs… you’ll wonder how you ever had fun without running 26.2 miles.
The runners who line up in Hopkinton and finish in downtown Boston 26.2 miles later are the best of the best. The vast majority of them I don’t know and will never meet. But as one who shares their passion, I understand and appreciate the sacrifices – not to mention the fartleks, hill repeats, tempo work, icing, stretching, compression and “vitamin I” (ibuprofen) doses – required of those who chase the elusive unicorn.
They’re tall, short, young, old, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, leaders, followers, Nike aficionados and Saucony loyalists. They’re strange friends to some and friendly strangers to others. They’re the elites I emulate, the bloggers I follow, the weekend warriors I cheer. They’re all very different, yet very much the same. And regardless of race, creed, age, gender, color, nationality, religion, disability, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or even marathon finish time, they’re my people. One nation, indivisible, with fast starts and strong finishes for all.
And so I can add to the list one more emotion that gripped me in the aftermath of Monday’s tragedy: Certainty. Certainty that both the fiercely proud city of Boston and the equally strong-willed running community will rally together behind yesterday’s tragic events. Certainty that an unambiguous message will be sent to those responsible, the message that after all the literal blood, sweat and tears we put into training for, qualifying for and preparing for this race; the tireless hard work and dedication we put year after year into maintaining the Boston Marathon as the oldest annual marathon and most prestigious organized foot race in the world; and the unwavering focus we put into doing things our own way – after all that, you think two bombs can demolish our dreams and deter us from our mission?
I look forward to proving you wrong.
My original post for today will appear in a few days. In the meantime, the city of Boston and those of us who define ourselves as runners will slowly but surely return to life as usual. For many – myself included – that life will continue to boast the same ambitious and overriding goal: to qualify for Boston. And hopefully one day, all of us not-yet-fast-enough marathoners will again be able to say resolutely and without a hint of twisted irony, “I’d give my left arm to run Boston.”
It shouldn’t have to be this way.