On Marathons and Tragedy

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The sport of marathon began in tragedy. The legend says Pheidippides lost his life after running from the battlegrounds of Marathon to Athens to deliver the message that the Persians had been defeated.

I don’t know if that’s really true. I mean, it’s plausible, but it doesn’t make any sense. I would understand if the war was at a turning point and he needed reinforcement, but if the war is over, why not take a little break? Get some water, have a little bit of food, and use the restroom.

Were it not for the gruesome photos I saw and heartbreaking stories I heard Monday, I might think the same of the bombing at the Boston Marathon this week. It’s plausible, but way too senseless to be true.

Raw emotion. Focus. Harmony of mind and body. These are what I saw the first time I watched the Boston Marathon on Patriots’ Day, 2005.

A man grabbed at his right side, slowing to a walk while wincing in pain. A stranger called to him with words of encouragement, and as if to acknowledge the support, the man sped up to a shuffling jog. A woman with a photo of her cancer-stricken daughter pinned to her back ran by in purple as people around me shouted, “Go, Team!”  

Enhanced by gasps and cheers from the crowd, I actually saw Rick Hoyt’s beaming face and triumphant raised arm as his then 64-year-old father pushed him in his wheelchair toward Copley Square in well under four hours. I had to be part of this race.

The ride out to Hopkinton is daunting. It actually takes quite a while to drive 26.2 miles. How are thousands of people going to run back to Boston? Hold back through the deceptive downslope of the first leg, get a good luck kiss in the scream tunnel, relax over Heartbreak Hill, high-five some crazy college kids, and finally, make that left turn onto Boylston Street.

Even hours after the winners have crossed the line, the crowd is still roaring. Cowbells. Names announced. Shiny blankets. The finish line freshly painted on the ground.

Smoke. The sound of breaking glass. Ears still ringing. Pools of blood. No, streams. The smell of burnt flesh. A cry. Someone else not crying. Makeshift tourniquets. Panic. Chaos. Surreal. Sirens. Help. Fear. Confusion.

Sorrow. Attempts at rationalization. Possible scenarios.

The load at the hospital. Volunteers. Blood donors. Open homes. Love. Community.

A personal attack on someone in the crowd? A precursor to a larger attack on American safety and security? A disgruntled runner who missed the qualifying time for this race? A kid who miscalculated his practical joke by orders of magnitude?

None of these makes it OK. Sometimes things really aren’t OK. Not OK, not OK, not OK. Have to find meaning. Must be OK. Have to find a way to make it OK! Obama and Maddow will make it OK. Make it OK!

I got home on Monday and paced around my house, disturbed, the thoughts laid out above running through my mind. I sat to write. Stood again, paced. Sat. Stood. Hugged my wife. Finally, I put on a pair of shorts, put on my jacket from Boston 2008, laced up my running shoes, and went on a run.  

The sun was out and the wind was blowing hard from the northwest. This run wouldn’t be fun, but that seemed appropriate. The sand stung as it hit my legs. I looked down to avoid getting sand in my eyes. With each step I saw my legs — they were still there, attached to me, propelling me forward.

When I opened my mouth to breathe hard, I felt the grit between my teeth. Tears came periodically, sometimes because of Boston, sometimes because of the wind, sometimes the pollen in the plants that line the path along Ocean Beach. The Great Highway was closed. The path nearly deserted.

If I lifted my head too high while reading street signs, my hat would fly off. Songs from an Animaniacs tape I borrowed in eighth grade and never returned came to my head. Then the severed limbs.

I saw a young couple walking — the man had bright yellow hair. Then screaming. Snot on my face. Sand sticks to it. Roughness as I try to wipe it off. One runner gets to the path, coming toward me. Runs half a block and turns around. The man’s voice from the radio interview, sobbing as he recounted the time period before he knew if his wife was safe. She was.

I got home and didn’t shower until long after the sweat had dried. Facebook was flying with comments about the … the what? The bombing? Boston? The horror? The race? The marathon? The tragedy?

Should specific labels about who did this, what their motives were, and whether or not they’re punished make us feel differently? 

Once again, sorrow.