Posts Tagged ‘Boylston’

The race has become my theater for heroism, and of all the races, there is no better stage for heroism than a marathon.
– George Sheehan

Runner's World July 2013 cover

(photo credit Runner’s World)

I can’t believe it’s been a year.

It’s no exaggeration to say next week’s 118th Boston Marathon will be the most significant marathon in American history.  From an historical, cultural and psychological perspective, Monday will stand alone.  That’s a mind-boggling thought for the world’s oldest annual marathon, and one that’s witnessed its share of memorable moments through the years including:

  • 1966, when Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon.
  • 1967, when Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to race (and finish) with a bib number.
  • 1996, the Marathon’s Centennial celebration; with a field of 38,708 entrants it was the largest marathon ever at the time, and remains the largest Boston field to date.
  • 2011, the Year of the Great Tailwind (15-20 mph), when Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya set the current (unofficial) marathon world record in 2:03:02, with Ryan Hall setting the American record in 2:04:58.

Last year, of course, changed everything.  If you doubt this for a second, do a Google Images search for “Boston Marathon” and – if you can stomach the results – count how many of the first 100 photos show the race itself.

I still pause whenever I hear someone refer to those “affected” by the bombings, because I don’t know a single runner who wasn’t affected.  Physically I sat a continent removed from Boston, and yet I felt an indelible nexus with every person in Copley Square that day.  I knew several people who ran the race – some finished, some didn’t, though luckily all escaped physical injury.  And in the immediate aftermath, as reality gradually superseded surreality, I couldn’t help feeling as though I passed through all seven stages of grief, my brain periodically regressing to step one to start the process all over again.

So then as all eyes again turn toward the Mecca (check that, Mecc-er) of marathoning, you can bet I’m looking forward to next week’s Boston Marathon for a whole lot of reasons:

I look forward to what may be the most patriotic Patriots’ Day since the Battles of Lexington and Concord.  Boston is a proud city on a normal day, and a 26.2-mile urban party on a “typical” Patriots’ Day.  So I can only imagine the cathartic high that awaits the city on Monday.  As Spinal Tap lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel proudly described his amp’s unconventional volume knobs, “These go to 11.”  On Monday, I expect Boston to go to 11.

I look forward to the suffocating media coverage.  As much as I’d love to be sporting a Boston Athletic Association bib number on Monday, I’ll instead enjoy chasing the unicorn in spirit, and in solidarity with each of the nearly 36,000 runners who earned their coveted spot.

At the same time, I’ll stand ready here in California to join in on the national anthem, or the city’s adopted civic anthem (“I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by Dropkick Murphys), or wherever my vocal stylings may be needed.  Or more importantly not needed, as during the pre-race moment of silence to honor the victims and survivors of April 15.

I look forward to reading first-hand accounts of the day – at least those that don’t succumb to the writing equivalent of hyperventilation before the race even begins (OMG OMG OMG, BOSTON!!!!!!  Here are ten selfies in my blue and yellow gear I bought at the expo!!!).  I can’t wait to ride the day’s whirlwind of emotions, on social media and through the eyes of my fellow bloggers – from charged anticipation, to irrepressible anxiety, to overwhelming love and respect for the bent-but-not-broken resolve of a city and running community that so easily and eagerly embrace each other.

I look forward to tales from seasoned runners – Boston veterans among them – who find themselves faced with legitimate pre-race butterflies for the first time in years.  And I look forward to feeling my own vicarious shot of race-day adrenaline and sharing their start-line goosebumps from 3,000 miles away.

I look forward to mentally wallpapering over the smoke-filled chaos and carnage of 2013, in favor of scenes from the real Marathon – the adrenaline-fueled stampede out of Hopkinton; the unconditional support of raucous and oft-inebriated spectators; the deafening screams of the Wellesley College Scream Tunnel; the quiet confidence of medical personnel treating nothing more than muscle cramps and exhaustion; the exquisite triumph of mylar-wrapped finishers embracing friends and family.  Boston 2014 promises to be everything that Boston 2013 could not.

Of course I look forward to the actual race.  Although the men’s field reads like a “who’s who” of American distance running (including all-time great Meb Keflezighi), I have no delusions that an American will win on either the men’s or women’s side.  Still, I’ll be watching:

  • as Jason Hartmann and Shalane Flanagan strive for the podium after each finishing fourth last year (for Hartmann his second consecutive fourth-place finish);
  • as Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, who ran a course-record 2:03:45 in Chicago last year, chases Geoffrey Mutai’s Boston record of 2:03:02 (weather and tailwind willing)
  • as Ryan Hall – who holds the American marathon record (2:04:58) but who hasn’t raced competitively since DNF’ing at the 2012 London Olympics due to injury – runs to regain his status as America’s premier marathoner, and to prove his days as a sponsor-savvy “golden boy” aren’t behind him.

Meanwhile, over at Fenway Park and with the marathon as their traditional backdrop, I look forward to the World Series Champs channeling the emotions of the day into a hometown drubbing of the Baltimore Orioles.

I look forward to Race Director Dave McGillivray renewing his personal tradition of being the very last finisher in his own race.  McGillivray has run every Boston Marathon since 1973, and this year he’ll be running to raise funds for the Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation.

And I look forward to the last official runner – the one just before RD McGillivray – crossing the freshly painted finish line on Boylston that welcomes each Boston Qualifier into the hallowed ranks of Boston Finisher.  As newly anointed finishers sport their BAA swag, flaunt their unicorn medals and raise their pints of Sam Adams Boston 26.2 Brew, that {whoosh} you hear will be an entire nation letting out its collective breath – relief tinged with sadness steeped in defiance.  From sea to shining sea.

I doubt I’ve read more on any single topic in the past year than on the bombings.  Even so, and despite the flood of media attention being rightly directed toward Monday, I’m admittedly looking beyond.

Under the glare of the world’s spotlight, and with cameras documenting the city’s every breath, Monday will be all about moving – moving tributes, moving reminders, moving mountains and of course, moving 26.2 miles.  Tuesday, though, is about moving on.  For many Bostonians and many others “affected” by the all-too-real nightmare of April 15, Tuesday is about closure.

For the families and loved ones of Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, Lu Lingzi and Sean Collier, closure will always be that distant point on the horizon that, no matter how far and how fast they run toward it, never seems to get any closer.  For others, the notion of closure won’t change a future of constant pain and mounting medical bills.  And no matter what happens in that Massachusetts court room in November, closure will never reprise the heroic role of first responder to those who lost limbs, or innocence, or something far less reparable in Copley Square that day.  The truth is, time doesn’t heal all wounds.

For many others, though, closure means a much-needed shot at normalcy, a chance to restart lives and press play on a documentary that’s been stuck in slow-motion – or worse, on pause – for a year.  A chance to trade in the tears for weak smiles, the weak smiles for guarded laughter, and to move forward with renewed confidence knowing the world is filled with heroes we just haven’t met yet.

For the city itself, it means showing the world that “Boston Strong” isn’t a catchy mantra for a difficult time – it’s a way of life.  For runners everywhere, it means doubling down on the blood-, sweat- and tear-soaked training regimens required to qualify for the greatest foot race in the world.  For Red Sox and Yankees fans, it means getting back to the knuckleheaded comfort of hating each other, in the sporting-est sense of the word.  And for ESPN, it means getting back to the business of barely acknowledging Boston (or any marathon for that matter), since how much of a sport can it really be if America doesn’t dominate its biggest stages?

So even more than the tremendous emotional release that awaits on Monday, I look forward to Tuesday.  And the day after that, and the week after that, and the month after that.  I look forward to looking back, to remind ourselves not how much we’ve lost, but how far we’ve come.

Most of all, I look forward to looking forward.

For a compelling first-hand account of the 2013 Boston Marathon from someone who was there (and who ran a PR of 2:44:35 before the day fell apart), check out Scott Dunlap’s post on A Trail Runner’s Blog.

For more thoughts on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, see my posts “Boston on my Mind” and “Boston F@&#ing Strong”.

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We’ll keep training harder, for the people who perished today.
– Wesley Korir, 2012 Boston Marathon winner

BAA logo

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.

Finish line

© 2013 The New York Times Company

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.