Like everybody, I was shocked and saddened by what happened yesterday at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Not one but two explosions, concocted to inflict maximum pain and disfigurement to ordinary bystanders. Lots of commentators and distraught observers are looking for a ray of hope in all of this, and we keep hearing the words of Mr. Rogers over and over again, which roughly come down to this: when something bad happens, look at the helpers. Look at the ones who are running toward and not away from the scene of destruction, the ones who are courageously trying to limit the loss of life and, especially in this particular tragedy, of limb.
When the eye witness reports started filling the airwaves, at first I was annoyed that every runner seemed to want to make sure that listeners got the vital information about their own accomplishment as a runner. I heard lots of things like "I was just crossing the finish line because I was going for my personal best" or "I wanted to finish in under four hours, so I was right there when the first bomb exploded" or "I was already back in my hotel room when the blast occurred, having finished in 3 and a half hours", etc. It seemed ridiculously vain to be talking about personal bests as reports of the casualties just got worse and worse: three dead, scores wounded, make that 120, many of them amputees.
When I mentioned my annoyance to my wise husband Walt, he said something simple and very true. He said, "but you have to remember that these people have worked very hard to get here and that finishing the marathon is a huge deal for them". I realized immediately that he was right and that what I initially heard as narcissim and vanity was really something else entirely.
It's hard to explain. I ran a marathon once, and have written about it on this blog. Once I had done so, however, I had no desire to run another one and in fact gradually stopped running, after traversing an unhappy period during which I hated every second of running and even had nightmares about running. But I will never forget what it took to get to the finish line of that one and only marathon and how explosively happy I felt when it happened. It took months of hard training, after several years of running 10ks. Many folks work their way up from 10ks to a half-marathon or two before tackling a marathon. I didn't go that route. Instead, I decided to pass directly to the 26.2 mile race and began training in earnest just five months prior to the big day. I followed a plan that was published in a running magazine, tailored to the needs of first-time marathoners who worked full-time. For five months, I either got up at the crack of dawn to run before work or ran after work, usually after dark and often in the rain. I got permission from my boss to do one long run each week at lunchtime, which meant taking a much longer lunch hour than was allowed. So every Wednesday, rain or shine, I changed into my running clothes and ran from Belltown up to and around Magnolia and back. And every weekend I took one long run, which started at ten miles and got a little longer each time. As I recall, my goal was to run at least 35 miles per week. On the day of the marathon, my longest run had been 19 miles.
The first 19 miles of the marathon felt good. My ex-husband (we were married at the time), who had already completed several marathons, ran with me - which meant running a slower pace than he was used to but at a fast clip for me. It felt exhilarating. Running, I felt like a gazelle, until I hit 20 miles, at which point I came smack up against the proverbial but very real wall. How to describe it? I began to feel not like a gazelle but rather like an old elephant. I felt heavy and clumsy and acutely aware of my legs and how tired they felt, of how tired I suddenly felt all over in fact. I found myself trying to remember what it was about running a marathon that had ever appealed to me in the first place. A nagging pain in my left foot (which turned out later to be a nascent stress fracture) began to scream at me: Stop! Now! The thoughts inside my head soon took over, until they were all I could hear. This might have been a good development had they been happy, positive thoughts. But they were not. They were dark thoughts. What were you thinking? They said to me, in indignant disbelief. What is so great about running a marathon? I felt defeated and just wanted to quietly exit the course and blend in with the crowd. Just then, I was abruptly yanked out of my own head by a burning sensation in my foot that was spreading up my leg. I stopped. What's wrong, asked my husband/pacer. I stepped on a rock, I yelled. It was true. I had stepped on a sharp rock and the pain was unbearable. Don't stop, he said. When I did just that, he told me I would get excruciating cramps if I didn't cool down first. Just walk, he said. You don't have to run. Just keep walking. So I did, limping a bit and cursing him under my breath. What did he know? That's about when the crowd came to my rescue, not just encouraging me but also appealing to my orgeuil. You're almost there, they yelled. You're doing great, they yelled. And though it was not true that I was "doing great", it was true that I was almost there. As I returned to the reality outside my head, I heard someone yell - to me! - C'mon, you've got less than a mile to go!" This was meaningful to me and it was galvanizing. I thought to myself, no matter how I feel I know I can run one lousy mile. This thought go me moving more quickly, jogging at first and then running. I had no idea until I saw the photo below (and now I can't remember if it was an official photo or one taken by a friend) how visible on our faces was the sheer joy we felt at finishing that damn marathon. Look at us. We are grinning madly, almost laughing. We are about to cross the finish line!
In the end - and perhaps only because this photo is the sole physical reminder I have kept of the event (unless you count the lingering pain of my decades old stress fracture when I walk barefoot) - what I remember about the marathon is this: the absolute joy I felt at crossing the finish line and the deep gratitude I felt toward the cheering crowd of mostly strangers.
And that's what makes yesterday's Boston Marathon so deeply horrible: the fact that the simple, sheer joy of this event was obliterated for many participants and spectators by a bomb. A bomb designed and then assembled to suck joy out of this world and this life.
My old friend Michael Mosher, who continues to run at age 70, posted this on facebook today:
I am reposting something from Brian Bort which was posted on the meet-up page of the Berkeley Running Club (BRC). It seems like the right thing to remind people of after yesterday.
Thanks to Anya for checking in with our BRC Boston Marathon runners; they are all fine. Running is an extremely peaceful endeavor, and it will remain so. I hope you feel that peace on your runs, and remember that every step running is a step in the right direction.
Thanks for what you do and who you are, keep running. +brian
My run has slowed to a walk, but in my head I am still running with all of you runners out there as you lead us in the right direction.