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Weakness and Strength in Boston

April 21, 2013

As a two-time Boston Marathoner, it was hard not to take the bombings there last week personally.  I’ve run right by those sites, and my wife has crowded against those same fences with those throngs of people, each waiting with great expectation the arrival of their loved one.  To think that someone would detonate an explosive device in the midst of that hopeful group of people is quite unimaginable.

So like most people, I’ve overdosed on media coverage, and especially on that hypnotizing finish-line video again and again and again, somehow sensitized and desensitized to that violence by sheer repetition.  And still, I can’t help but feel that a lot of the story is getting lost.

People overestimate and underestimate how strong marathon runners are.  Observers seemed surprised to see runners stumble and fall during the blast.  The first thought being that the runners must have been injured by shrapnel or other debris.  But any marathon runner watching immediately remembered that very wobbly gait that all runners have coming down the homestretch. They see the finish line and they expend the last bit of their energy in their stiff legs, hoping against hope that they won’t cramp up or infinitesimally stumble and crash headfirst into the pavement.  They are strong, obviously, but in a different way, they are weak–  a sudden stiff crosswind might topple the whole lot of them.  The runners who fell down were probably so startled that they simply stumbled and fell.

So marathon runners are on the one hand weaker than you might think.  But they are also stronger than what one might imagine. Observers were surprised to see runners give wide berth to the blast sites, keep running to the finish line, and then stoically hit the ‘stop’ button on their watch.  The observers theorized that runners were unconcerned about the carnage and blithe about the horrible acts of violence that had just been perpetrated. That they were, to put it bluntly, selfishly focused on their personal project that should have been suddenly overshadowed by the carnage.  But once again, the observers don’t seem to understand the mindset of marathoners.  By the time they see that finish line, they are seeing the fruition of years, if not decades, of fierce dedication. Certainly, it has been their sole focus for the last 4 hours.  In that time, they have gradually made their peace with the fact that it feels like they are dying, and determined that nothing will stop them.  They are utterly depleted, body, mind, and soul.  And they have probably just run by at least one person who is crawling the last few hundred yards on bare hands and knees down Boylston street.   They glance over at this common sight for just a second, for they don’t want to stumble or cramp up themselves.  And turning again to face the finish line, they have renewed their commitment for the millionth time that they will do this thing.

Anyone running the marathon in Boston has already made a deal with God, the Devil, their spouse, and/or their own self to be a better person/spouse/parent/employee if they can only run this one more race.  They’ve trained like crazy, run other marathons with this one in mind, finally qualified and then set about to training all over again to be able to face the legendary hills of Boston.  So no, even a bomb going off isn’t going to dissuade them from doing the one thing they have let themselves think about for 249 minutes:  FINISH!

All of which is perhaps why I decided– subconsciously, and on a cellular level– on Monday afternoon that I would go running the next day.  Which I did, and which combined with my long absence from running felt like I too was dying.  And on which (very short) run I thought of those who had lost life and limb, yes, but where I also thought of the thousands of marathoners who had been denied their goal.  I have no doubt that Boston will be crowded next year with steely-eyed runners determined that senseless violence will not deter them, or take away their lust for life.  That violence and insanity must and will be met with that particularly American brand of resolve to keep going.  That is what Boston, and the marathon that has happened there since 1897, is all about.

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One Response to “Weakness and Strength in Boston”

  1. Heather says:

    So well said. I was fortunate to finish well before the bombs. But I felt guilty immediately thinking how awful it was for the marathoners nearing the finish during the explosions. Then the marathoners that were told to STOP. WHAT?! Then the realizations that a child died. Another lost her legs. I felt so selfish. This article made me feel a tad better.

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