The people’s race
Hundreds of competitors start the 117th running of the Boston Marathon last week in Hopkinton, Mass.
I spoke last Sunday with an old friend who was signed up for Boston, his first marathon.
“I think I’ve done everything I can,” he said about his final preparations. “I’ve run 1,500 miles in the last six months. I’ve never done that before.”
He also raised nearly $10,000 for a local children’s charity in the lead-up to the race. He’d never done that before either. But what I find remarkable is how ordinary those two numbers — 1,500 miles and $10,000 — are among Patriot’s Day runners, and among most marathoners. Most, if not all, of them, run hundreds or thousands of miles in preparation. They raise millions of dollars for worthy causes. And they prove something to themselves that you will likely never get at your day job.
I finally got my friend on the phone Monday, after 15 minutes of panic. He was sobbing: He’d left the finish line area 10 minutes before the bombs went off.
I told him I was just glad he’s alive.
Running is the simplest sport. Every time I pack my bag for a race, I remind myself: All you need is your shorts, a shirt, and shoes. And really, you don’t even need those. You just need to get up, get out the door and get moving.
At the Boston Marathon, it is all on display. If you spectate, you drive to the course, you set up camp like a tailgate party, and you wait. It’s like a giant party that stretches for 26 miles: In residential areas there are families with barbecues and lawn chairs, kids playing, dogs barking on leashes; as the course nears the Boston College campus, rowdy college students offer beer fresh from the keg to passing runners; everywhere there are people standing, chatting, cheering, clapping and yelling.
And they don’t stop after the elites are past. They keep cheering for all the thousands of people who got up, got out the door and got moving.
You can tell the elite racers are approaching by the police escort, the TV helicopter overhead, the murmur and roar of the crowd down the course. They fly past, here and gone, lithe and intense. Then you wait, and slowly the trickle of runners turns to a river and then a flood, with shouts of recognition and side-of-the-course hugs as runners pass the people they know. The hug, and then they are gone, intent on the finish line, miles and miles away.
For a long time I thought that running was a selfish endeavor. After college, I moved to California and joined a Nike-sponsored team, hoping to fulfill my dream of becoming an Olympian. I trained beside Olympians, I ran with American record-holders and was one of the top 40 middle-distance runners in the country. We ran every day, usually twice a day, and were lean and wiry. We joked as we passed recreational runners — they were members of the same tribe, but part of a distant clan. We ran our easy days faster than they raced. We were the “elite,” and they were the joggers.
At that level, the distance running community is like a small town. You know everyone, or at least know of everyone, and they all know you. Your credentials are the times associated with your name: mine were 3:41, 1:47, 8:02, 14:19. Running at that level is simple: run fast, you get respect. Run faster, get more respect. But there are also camaraderie and deep bonds built through shared sacrifice. That sacrifice can be quantified, too.
An elite miler will run more than 3,000 miles in training in a year. An elite marathoner will run more than 6,000 miles in a year. That’s 20 miles a day, plus hours more each day in recuperation, stretching, nutrition, cross-training.
The pressure comes from all that work: In an elite marathon, or any elite race, who wins comes down to who is lucky enough to be the best prepared on that day. Any time you step to a starting line, you are vulnerable — to failure, to the risk that all those miles will add up to second, or fifth, or a DNF. You put yourself out there in front of the world, and on the flip side there is an indescribable exhilaration in pulling ahead of a race with no one between you and the finish line. I loved nothing better when I could do it. But that exhilaration is fleeting.
At some point, your times stop improving, or your priorities change and you have to make sense of that and move on. I’ve been in elite races, I’ve won them and lost them and felt the roar of the crowd envelop my body. It took me nearly a decade to realize that in Boston, as in most races, everyone hears the roar of the crowd in their ears. Everyone steps to the line with that vulnerability, that possibility of failure or disappointment. But everyone can find that exhilaration, everyone can find it within themselves to dig deep inside and go beyond what they believe is possible.
The finish line of the Boston Marathon is equivalent to the box seats in a pro sports stadium. It’s where the magic happens, where people cross over the barrier that’s been in front of them for 26 miles plus months or years of training. You find ordinary people at the moment they achieve unbelievable things. They reunite with friends and family. Any spectator can get right to the edge of the course — there’s no real preference other than first-come, first-served. And the finish line, as we found, is also vulnerable.
I don’t know what this atrocity will mean for this wonderful, open-air festival. I don’t know if we’ll see the course lined with the National Guard next year, or if the finish line will still welcome anyone who wants to cheer.
I do know that 12 years after 9/11, our response is far different to this kind of terror. We know that the best way to show our strength as a people is to live our lives without fear.
Tuesday, I got up before dawn and went for a run. At least that is still simple.
Rob Mitchell is state editor of the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.