4-15-13 was the 117th running of the Boston Marathon and the first 116 were about accomplishment, determination, and celebration. This race added terror. I won’t go into the details which all of you know, but it was a tragedy that left scars. My wife has run this race three times and I have cheered for her in the bomb “ground zero” area so I, like every other runner or person in the country, took this cowardly act that targeted innocents very personally.
It’s the Saturday following the Monday marathon, 5am and the alarm is going off for the second or third time. As all runners know it is always a mental challenge to actually hop out of bed on a cool morning, fight traffic, navigate long bathroom lines, and shiver while waiting for the race start. But since I had promised my wife to run with her, paid an entry fee of $45, and needed a way to show my support for Boston, I rolled out of bed. My wife and I had signed up to do a challenging 10 mile race through our hometown streets of Chapel Hill, NC. I’m not really in shape to race, recovering from some common runner injuries and a lazy winter of running 15-20 miles/week, but after the events at Boston this was my small way of honoring the victims of the Boston terror. On Friday night we had picked up our race packets at the local mall and were thrilled to see available “BOSTON” stickers to adhere to your race number. I also noticed that my wife had mistakenly registered me on her neighborhood team “Downing Creek Divas” so my bib identified me as a supporter of Boston and the ugliest member of the previously all-female team
We arrived at Kenan Stadium, University of North Carolina’s iconic 60,000 seat football stadium, at 6:15 for the 7:30 race. Although thoughts of the Boston victims were present, fear of another Boston event never crossed my mind, I was just thinking about timing my pre-race bathroom visit and finishing the 10 miles to get home to a few Starbucks and read the paper. We took off our sweats and checked our bags. Everyone had some sort of bag, a necessity for all runners. You need to store your stuff during a race so you can quickly retrieve your bag, shed your wet, sweaty racing gear and get warm. This is the impossible security problem that Boston and all road races face. You can’t ban the bags and there are too many to check so this event like any other public gathering is and always be vulnerable unless we cancel everything-not an option!
As starting time approaches, 4000 runners are lining up on the track surrounding the football field. We squeeze through the crowd to try and get close to our assigned (by pace time) area for the start. This is a unique race with many hills and turns, a challenge for even the most seasoned runner, but since it’s a neighborhood race it attracts runners of all shapes, sizes, ages, and running experience. Do they all know what they are getting into?-NO, but ignorance is bliss. With my limited training this is going to be a fun run with my wife and I’m even going to carry a camera to try and catch some action shots. It doesn’t take long to find my first shot of a barefoot runner lined up next to us who spontaneously defended the barefoot thing claiming to benefit from a more natural stride and showed us his road worn feet. Whatever works for him-but the thought of potentially 8000 other feet stepping on those unprotected babies or him stepping on something nasty commits me to my New Balance. The gun goes off to signal race time, but we are trapped in the sea of runners and it takes us at least two minutes to cross the official start line which really doesn’t matter since each runner has a timing chip in each runner’s number bib to accurately track your actual time. We start/stop in the runners traffic jam and go in circles for the first mile but that lets us hear the live band serenading the runners with rock and roll a couple times, a geezers dream! On to the course and I’m running elbow to elbow with thousands of runners all determined to receive their cherished finishing medals. Many are novice runners who are over their heads but are a gutsy group who will run, walk, or crawl to finish, driven by their own personal reasons. Some push a little too hard and aren’t able to enjoy the course sites like the University of North Carolina’s Old Well. My wife and I were working hard but couldn’t help but enjoy the perfect 55 degree and the beyond beautiful streets of Chapel Hill. The cheering neighborhood crowds, some even shouting out our names, use every conceivable noisemaker, and blare music to motivate us-it works. The eighth mile is the most challenging uphill in the race that is timed by the race organizers to either show what a great hill runner you are or how pathetically tired you are-lots of walkers. I’m not really sure who really likes the hill timing thing? As the hill levels off a gentleman is playing what looks like a 20 foot long trumpet-very cool (wish I knew who he was and what it was). But this sight is missed as a photo op since I’ve just finished 8.5 miles, the last half mile uphill-a little brain dead. We crest the hill with less than a mile to go and run mostly downhill to finish by reentering the stadium like Olympic champions serenaded by that rock band playing songs by one of my favorite bands, Chicago, and are greeted by thousands of cheering spectators including runners who have already finished. We sprint or at least speed up to cross the finish line and as in the runner tradition click our stop watches to record our time and savor the victorious moment of finishing. All finishers receive a finisher medal with ribbon draped around your neck. This one does feel “Boston” special.
Any runner knows that crossing the finish line in any race is reason to celebrate. You ignore the exhaustion, aches and pain, sweat and weather conditions to just savor the moment with friends and family. This is what the runners and spectators at the Boston Marathon missed, an important moment in time stolen. But runners and people in general are “Boston Strong” and resilient. No one will ever forget the senseless terror and people hurt and lost but we will never let it change our lives. Tomorrow brings more races, concerts, ball games, parades, and all sorts of events that are vulnerable but will not be lost because of the actions of a few. I think we honor the memories of all lost and hurt in Boston or anywhere else where there are innocent victims by returning to normalcy as soon as possible. Normalcy came back quickly to me as we were standing around after the race my wife informed me that my aged running attire was aromatic (not her words) beyond the point of being cleaned so I went shopping and spent $200 to replace those old, sweaty shorts and tops-maybe not a reason to celebrate, but will give me a fresh start for the next big race.