As I write this, one day after the Boston Marathon signaled to begin its 117th race from Hopkinton, Mass., to Boylston Street in a historic downtown, we all know what makes this year’s race so memorable. With conflicted joy in my heart I know many are safe and unhurt and yet, many are not. Like most, I struggle with the flurry of emotions – denial, anger, depression. To try and place a meaning on this horrific act within the confines of this column is superfluous.
What may be more important and far more relevant is to focus on the meaning of the Boston Marathon. Why is it important and why does it matter so personally to so many people?
The race was established in 1897 as the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) Road Race. It had 18 entrants. The race has been held each year since then and came to be what we know as the Boston Marathon. The number of entrants has grown – for 117 years, mind you – to a pool of well over 26,000. Its largest number of entrants was in 1996, the 100th anniversary, and totaled 38,708 people. The race runs through eight towns in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wallesley, Newton, Brookline and, finally, Boston.
To compete in the Boston Marathon requires a qualifying time from a qualifying race (the local Mercedes Marathon is a qualifier), which constitutes an almost insurmountable feat for some. The qualifying times have changed over its history, and last year qualifying numbers decreased, making it even harder to Boston Qualify (BQ). Five minutes were shaved off, meaning that whereas three years ago I had to run a 3:40:00 or faster to qualify, I now have to run a 3:35:00 to qualify. Men’s qualifying times are 30 minutes faster than their female counterparts.
The last time I ran the race, April 18, 2011, there were 68 countries represented. That same year, Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai set a course record and the fastest marathon ever with a time of 2:03:02. Think about that. He sustained a 4:42 pace per mile for 26.2 miles. How can you not be amazed at that ability?
The Boston Marathon is where, in 1967, a woman named Katherine Switzer registered to enter the all-male race as “K. V. Switzer” and was allotted a race number. She became the first woman to finish the Boston Marathon with a registered bib number and helped usher in marathon running for women. She completed the race that year despite an incident with a race official, Jock Semple, who tried physically to remove her from the course.
Each year at the Boston Marathon you can find Dick Hoyt pushing his son, Rick, who suffers from cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair for the entire 26.2 miles. The two have become a staple in the Boston lineup since 1981.
The Boston Marathon is where, in 2010, packet pickup was extended for a day as Europeans scrambled to cross the Atlantic on flights delayed after Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted and made air traffic hazardous. Runners were arriving as early as the morning of the race to run the historic marathon.
Last year, the B.A.A. encouraged all runners to voluntarily defer their entry to the following year as temperatures were predicted to reach the high 80s midday. As I watched from the sidewalk on Boylston Street, I cheered for all friends to finish the race in good health, as temperatures did in fact soar to an uncomfortable 89 degrees. Watching thousands of runners run by with their sweat-drenched hair, sunburned faces and elation at the sight of the end, it was clear that the intense emotion overwhelmed the physical beating of the previous 26 miles.
The Boston Marathon isn’t filled with professional athletes. It’s filled with people like you and me, who will never be an NFL player or an Olympic gymnast. These are people who worked their butt off to see a dream fulfilled. These are people who tried and failed and tried again. These are people who devoted months, if not years, of weekly speed work, multiple marathons and thousands of miles under their feet to get to one single finish line.
And the Boston Marathon is where, this year, I prayed that friends would be safe after the horrible news of two explosions occurring within a block of each other near the finish line.
I’m relieved I wasn’t there this year. I’m grateful for a knee aggravation that sidelined my training. I’m even more grateful that my memories of that infamous finish line remain somewhat pure. That’s likely why I’ve inadvertently limited my news consumption over the last day to avoid pictures and video of the unimaginable scene.
Yet, in spite of that tragedy, the Boston Marathon is still so many great things. It’s the moment I ran by Wellesley College at the 20K mark for the first time and felt temporary deafness in my right ear as scores of fanatical women cheered for the runners and begged for their kisses. It’s each time I crest Heartbreak Hill and exhale a huge sigh of relief that Birmingham has remarkably steep hills on which to train.
The Boston Marathon is still the sight of the Citgo sign as you enter the city, signaling that only one mile remains until the finish line. And it’s thanking the hordes of kids who wait with pitchers of beer or lemonade or anything fluid to give you just a little more fuel to get you to the end.
The Boston Marathon is still the “right on Hereford, left on Boylston” that reassures me I will get to the finish line.
And the Boston Marathon remains the moment I crossed that finish line for the very first time, with tears billowing as I touched the ground with so much exhaustion, so much emotion and so much excitement that the only thought running through my head was simply, I did it.
The explosions that occurred yesterday can’t take any of these things away. They can’t take away Mutai’s fastest marathon time ever. They can’t take away the exhausting speed work. They can’t take away the 4:30 a.m. alarms signaling that it’s time to run again.
The explosions can’t take away that euphoric feeling of crossing a finish line for the very first time, no matter the distance – 5K, 10k, half marathon, ultra marathon.
And the explosions didn’t take away this morning’s five-mile run with my friend Whitney, as we passed no fewer than 33 people on our regular route around Homewood, doing the same thing we were doing. Running.
We run. We’ll all continue to run.
Because that’s what we do. In times of need, we run. When we are scared, we run. When we think things can’t possibly get any better or any worse, we run. And when all else fails, we run.