Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Unfinished Race

Dick Raphael/Getty Images
Start of the 79th Boston Marathon, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, April 1975

Runners who have completed the historic race from the village of Hopkinton, in Massachusetts’s Middlesex County, to downtown Boston, 26.2 miles east, invariably have their own favorite parts of the course and those they dread. In the first category, there is the casually festive Main Street start, more Fourth-of-July parade than world’s most competitive marathon; the gently rolling downhills of the first ten or so miles; the deafening, soprano cheers of the women pressed against the barricades for an entire half mile in Wellesley; the young children holding orange wedges and giving you high fives by the Natick Town Green; the local drum corps that miraculously jolts up your pace as you enter the unforgiving Newton hills. Those hills, of course, are among the moments of agony that—along with unexpected head-winds, dehydration, and expiring legs—everyone prepares for, knowing that they have felled some of the race’s best runners in the past.

But it seemed beyond any runner’s imagination that the finish line itself—the final moment of triumph—could turn into a nightmare, a zone of horror and devastation that stood the entire logic of the race on its head. Until mid-afternoon, Monday’s running of the Boston Marathon, the 117th time it has been staged, was the race at its very best. Unlike the 87-degree heat many of us remember from last year, the weather this time was near perfect: a cool 39 degrees before the start, rising to the 50s during the race itself, with little wind—ideal racing conditions. The elite field included the usual surfeit of impossibly speedy East Africans; but also a surprising number of talented Americans, especially in the women’s bracket. Above all it had been a great day for many of the 27,000 or so amateurs who were taking part and who formed the core of the marathon’s spirit. Many had spent years preparing for it, and not a few recorded personal record performances in the hours before the bombs went off.

Monday’s horrific tragedy struck at the heart of this most civic of sporting events, one that does not charge admission or require special access to watch, and that is open to anyone who can meet its tough qualifying standards. The bombs were an assault not on any institution or authority but on the lives of innocent people, some of them runners, many of them simply well-wishers who had come hours early to stake out a spot near the finish line.

It’s impossible to forget Martin Richard, the eight-year-old local boy, and his six-year-old sister, who had come out to see their dad finish the race: the boy was killed in the blasts; his little sister severely maimed. They were standing alongside the course, just a few miles beyond where my own kids had been watching. As those of us who ran and who watched try to comprehend what happened, it is worth remembering what the Boston Marathon is about in the first place.

Taking place every year on Patriot’s Day, a Massachusetts civic holiday, the Boston Marathon commemorates one of the very earliest moments when we came together and defined ourselves as a nation—the Battles of Lexington and Concord that opened the Revolutionary War. And as such, the race has retained a civic spirit that other large city marathons don’t quite manage. Because of its start well outside the state capital, the marathon is not a metropolitan event but a more universal experience that unites working-class towns with collegiate enclaves and middle-class suburbs; even the military takes part with its own annual march alongside the runners.

The Boston race is also, perhaps, the country’s greatest celebration of amateur athleticism: runners take part either by qualifying with fast times in other races, or by joining fundraising teams for local schools and health care causes. Many come from overseas, if they can obtain one of the coveted spots in the field. Despite its competitive nature, it is almost uniquely convivial among sporting events: apart from the handful of professionals at the front, the vast majority of us were not competing against others so much as running with them. Anyone who has completed the race will have experienced the power of the pack on the narrow road to Boston, the sensation of floating along amid hundreds of footfalls and breathing cadences—everyone joining forces to conquer the race, or simply to complete it.

The finish line at Copley Square is something sacred, an experience you cannot adequately describe or explain to a non-runner. It is hidden from view until you round the corner onto Boylston Street, and for much of the last mile your tired limbs are beginning to question whether you will ever get there. Then suddenly, there’s the big turn, and there it is, the five hundred meters or so to the finish, an apparition of glory, a moment when you feel yourself—intoxicated with adrenaline and fatigue—preternaturally connected to tens of thousands of cheering strangers who seem to be thrilled and astonished that you have made it at all. Before the explosions, it was a picture of jubilation and public order, the crowds complemented by the legions of race volunteers who were supervising the impeccably organized finish area.

The Boston Marathon celebrates Patriot’s Day, but it also draws, more than any other race, a direct connection to the original marathon of antiquity, when Pheidippides, the Greek courier, ran the twenty-six miles back to Athens to announce victory in the Battle of Marathon. When it started in 1897, the Boston—or “American”—Marathon was inspired by Pheidippides’s run, and has long been associated with overcoming insurmountable obstacles. There is the 1946 victory by Stelios Kyriakides, a latter-day Greek runner who survived the Nazi occupation of Greece and was so emaciated by the food shortages there that doctors advised him not to run. Sponsored by a group of Greek-Americans, he came to Boston and set a world record. There is Alberto Salazar’s unforgettable all-out sprint victory at the end of the 1982 race—the so-called Duel in the Sun with Dick Beardsley—which caused him to collapse, Athenian-style, at the finish.

But it may have been Pheidippides himself who best conveyed what Boston means. Reaching Athens, he is said to have blurted out “Joy to You!” to the city magistrates. It is arguably joy, more than any other feeling, that is the truest measure of the Boston Marathon. On Monday, someone was able to turn that joy to terror, and for a time, we will have to live with that. But this senseless, unthinkable attack should also remind us that we cannot be stopped. We will be back on Hopkinton’s Main Street next Patriot’s Day, and the Patriot’s Day after that.

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