It has taken me a long time to collect my thoughts after two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. When I heard an eight year old died from blast-propelled shrapnel, I was devastated. But when local sports writers proclaimed Boston’s Patriot (and marathon) day forever changed, I thought, my god the terrorists have won.
Anyone who has ever run all or part of Boston knows the truth. No terrorist could ever, or will ever, change the joyous celebration of our day.
The Boston marathon is much more than a race. It is a 26 mile journey that reveals who you are as a person. And then there is the crowd that lines the route to which every runner connects. The spectators and the runners have a symbiotic relationship unlike any I have ever experienced in all my running days.
I have run one marathon (the Marine Corp in Washington, DC) in my life and it nearly broke me as a person. Finishing it step by painful step uphill toward the Iwo Jima Memorial remains one of the most satisfying accomplishments of my life. But the crowd in Washington is restrained and disconnected much like Congress these days. Boston embraces all runners, official or not, on the other side of the ropes.
The attack on the crowd this past Monday prompted me to fondly remember the times I ran with my Dad starting at the 16 mile mark. The final ten miles, as any marathon runner knows, is where physical and psychological limitations create the wall so many hit.
But here is where they mystery began for me. What started as a time to be there for my father during the hardest part of his race turned into so much more. I experienced a journey within a journey that I will never forget.
The first step towards running a marathon in Boston begins early in the morning. Runners and their families board yellow school buses, not far from Copley Square, to make their way to where the race begins — Hopkinton, a small sleepy town 26 miles from Boston. What goes on in the bus is a story all in itself. Runners are drinking their strange elixir’s and telling stories about last year’s race. There is a lot of joking and laughing Then when you get to Hopkinton, even though you have three hours to kill before the race begins, the joking ends and time for serious reflection begins.
I shall never forget seeing the late Johnny A. Kelley (the elder) before the start of the 1988 race when he was 80 years old. He completed that marathon in four hours and twenty-five minutes and kissed Boylston Street at the finish line. He ran his last four years later in 1992, his 61st start and 58th finish. In case you were wondering why I called Kelley the Elder, it is because only Boston could have two Johnny Kelley’s run the race and win it decades apart.
My Dad also had a ritual before the race. One part of it entailed having at beer before the start. He believed that taking in calories and carbs prior helped him, just like his running idol, the late Dr. George Sheehan. He usually had one or two more that the crowd gave him right around mile 20, the last before “Heartbreak Hill.”
Running was a late in life challenge for Dad. Each journey he took changed his life. I saw him grow as a person. He started 26 marathons and finished 24 (no one finishes them all). Roughly half of those were run each April in Boston. He was a member of the American Medical Joggers Association so he never had to qualify. I have no doubt that members who ran this year’s race helped victims injured after the bombs went off.
Boston is truly a race for runners like my Dad. Sure the elite racers get all the press, but the crowd is there for those who finish from three and a half hours or more. Plus, at least back then, you could run the entire race without a number. There was even a shoot for “scab” runners at the end and each gets congratulated.
Once the race began, my Mom and I had to get back on the school bus, return to Boston, and then jump on the T and high tail it out to the 16 mile mark. We barely made it a couple of years. Then I would start running with my Dad. One year it was so hot, I was worried he might collapse from the heat. Another year it was perfect (mid 50’s and no wind) when we started but with about six miles to go, the wind switched, the temperature fell about 20 degrees and then we got hit by a driving cold rain. I thought we were both in trouble. The aluminum foil space blankets we got at the end probably saved us.
The reality is that if you can make it to mile 23 you are going to finish the race. At that point, the love poured out from crowd literally propels you toward the finish line. As you make a right turn onto Hereford Street, the last turn before Boylston, every runner can hear the crowd screaming wildly. When you make left to run the final four blocks you feel like you are running for a touchdown at a Super Bowl. I have never gone so fast at the end of a ten mile run. Even my Dad poured it on.
Beyond the finish line is where pandemonium reigns. The same medical professionals, who saved the lives of many after the bombs went off, are there helping injured runners — from administering IV’s to working out cramps. Family members are trying to find their loved ones. There are scenes of quiet celebration as they are reunited.
Next year, the journey to Hopkinton will begin anew in the same yellow school buses. The runners will drink their brew and talk about last year, but not in the negative. Instead the focus will be on how important this year’s race is to affirm life.
High above the finish line, if one listens very closely, the whispers of Johnny A. Kelley will be heard, asking each runner to kiss the ground as he did some 25 years ago. For as we all know, that spot on the Earth is a blessed place no terrorist can ever spoil.