The last time I had this many people check in on my well-being was September 11, 2001. I guess a lot of friends know that I have run the Boston Marathon and that I talk so highly of it. I first ran it in 2010, and it was one of the absolute very best days of my life, not just because it’s the world’s elite marathon and I had finally qualified and then had a fantastic run on the day and re-qualified in the process, but because the whole experience was just phenomenal. The crowd is the most exuberant, passionate, joyous crowd I’ve ever seen at a marathon, putting New York City to shame; the organization is absolutely spotless. Both these aspects were reinforced last year, 2012, when I ran the race in heat so unforgiving that the Marathon organizers had taken the unprecedented step of asking people to defer; my time, like just about everyone’s that day, was understandably too slow to requalify and yet I put it down as my favorite race of the year. This was in part just because of surviving the experience, an endurance test that felt more like being in the military than running a traditional marathon; but again because the crowd, and the appropriately military precision organization behind the event, ensured that an incredibly difficult day was ultimately a joy. I didn’t go straight out to requalify for 2013 at a different race, as many of my fellow Boston runners did; I figured that with the pressure and the cost involved, I’m happy to run Boston every other year. I followed yesterday’s race online, happy for my fellow runners that the weather was 30F cooler than last year. And I continued thinking about my upcoming marathon in Burlington, VT over Memorial Weekend, where I have been hoping to have as a good a day as I did in 2009, when I finally ran a Boston qualifying time.
Of course, that run will be tainted with sadness, and we will have to see what happens about Boston next year. I don’t believe it’s in the human spirit to allow murderous cowards to dictate our lives, and I imagine that the Boston Marathon will go ahead. It will, however, never be the same.
It is too early to point fingers. It’s not too early to offer sympathy for the victims, to denounce the bombings, to applaud the efforts of the first responders and volunteers, and to acknowledge that while running is at times a solo endeavor, a quest for individual solace and peace, at other times – as with a large Marathon – it is an incredible community event, in which friends but mostly strangers find themselves sharing a profound, life-affirming and even life-changing experience. My own love of running hails from finding, back in my late 30s, something I’m relatively good at and which keeps me happy and healthy; it hails to just as large a degree from discovering in the process that the running community is exceptionally good-natured, positive-minded, caring and sharing.
It doesn’t matter that I was safe and sound in the Catskills yesterday as opposed to being at Boston. I had a dozen or so friends from this area running the race and probably dozens more from around the world. And it doesn’t matter that my running friends appear to have been spared the bloodshed, which maimed and killed primarily spectators. It doesn’t matter that the death toll was marginal compared to the bomb attacks in Iraq the same day, wherein 50 people lost their lives. It doesn’t matter that for those of us who grew up in England in the 1970s and 1980s (or, God forbid, Belfast), such cowardly bombing attacks, on the part of the IRA and INLA, were so regular that they became a part of daily life (and death). It doesn’t matter that this attack feels personal to me not only for this marathon being such a beloved event, but because I spent much of my initial time in America in Boston, living out of a suitcase there for several months, having the time of my life despite my vagabond status.
It doesn’t really matter that the attacks occurred at a time when most runners had already crossed the finish line, being that Boston is an elite marathon and the weather was cool and runner-friendly; the fact that the attack was timed right around the point of mass crowd density for most marathons (including last year’s Boston, in the searing heat) may be of interest to law enforcement however, in terms of the attacker possibly be a marathon neophyte who wished to cause maximum mayhem. No, what really matters is that people were killed and maimed at a celebratory, peaceful, communal event. And that if it can happen there, at such a spectacularly well-organized event, which has previously gone off peacefully for 116 years, it can happen anywhere. And that not being in the wrong place at the wrong time this time is no guarantee that you won’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time next time.
My heart goes out to everyone who has been affected. As the father of an 8-year old boy who has often come out to cheer his dad on at the finish line – I have crossed the mat with a smile on my face rather than a grimace on several occasions for his own loving encouragement – I can not begin to fathom the pain for one family in particular. According to the Boston Globe,
one of the dead was an 8-year-old boy from Dorchester who had gone out to hug his dad after he crossed the finish line. The dad walked on; the boy went back to the sidewalk to join his mom and his little sister. And then the bomb went off. The boy was killed. His sister’s leg was blown off. His mother was badly injured.
My wife was saying yesterday, before the deaths were announced, that many people would be uttering “What if…” in terms of their movements, which are so hard to guarantee on race day. It is impossible to imagine how that boy’s father must be feeling, knowing that “if only this” and “if only that,” his family would not have been, all too literally, destroyed. But why was he not to encourage his family to attend? How was he to know that such a positive event as this would result in the death of his loving, proud little boy? I bleed for him and his kin. Emotionally, only, however, not physically. There was quite enough blood on the asphalt yesterday.
Another part of the horrific story is that which may be purely coincidental. That:
Among those who watched in horror as a fireball belched out across the sidewalk on Boylston were the parents of the schoolkids murdered in Newtown, Conn. The Atlantic reported they were sitting in a VIP section at the finish line, across the street from the explosion.
So much pain, so much sorrow. As was pointed out to me once at a spiritual talk, we humans are unique in our compassion: as was demonstrated by the selflessly instinctive acts of so many people in Boston,we are the only animal that leaps into a burning building to save one of our own. Unfortunately, we are also the only species that appears to put so much time and effort into killing many of our own.
I will leave it there for now. I need to clear my head. I need to do the thing that, for me, best verifies that I am alive, that I am connected to the earth and to my ancestors. As I did on the morning of September 12, 2001, I am going to go for a run.
CORRECTION (April 17)
It turns out that the father of the eight-year old boy murdered in the bomb attack was not running in the Boston Marathon. He was standing with his family when the bomb exploded. Although I had tried to wait before posting something online, and although I thought I was wise to trust the Boston Globe, typically one of the more reliable of American newspapers, I was caught in the misinformation stream that follows a major event such as this. The Boston Globe has now run this story on eight-year old Martin Richard and his family. I send all condolences and sympathies to his family.