Our hearts were broken this past week when we saw the images from the Boston Marathon attack. Senseless, confusing & painful. It’s been a tough week, and I wanted to address it in honor of all those who have suffered. I am no writer, but we have a deep connection to the marathon and I’ve spent more of my life at that finish line than away from it, so it struck me on a very personal level. Thanks for all the love & support. For Boston:
Training “For Boston.” That’s all you have to say and every runner knows exactly what I mean. It’s such an iconic race that the word marathon is rarely uttered by locals or the worldwide endurance community alike. The race is iconic because it has legendary history, because it’s a difficult, undulating course and most significantly, because at Boston… the community turns out by the thousands to support runners along every single step of that 26.2 mile course.
Our family is Boston born and bred. The Marathon is a rite of spring. The school buses that line up along The Commons every April to take runners on their annual migration to Hopkinton are as predictable as the fact that 4 hours later, thousands of Bostonians will emerge from winter hibernation to celebrate the “good” weather in which they will cheer until their voices are hoarse, until they can no longer deny that they are badly sunburned or until exhaustion forces a strategic retreat back to their BBQs (and the second game of the Red Sox doubleheader on TV).
One element that is exceptional about Boston, is the fact that for most fans… we couldn’t care less about the latest Kenyan who broke a world record. Sure we love Johnny Kelley and Bill Rodgers and Joanie… but for us, the Boston Marathon has little, if anything to do with elite runners. The palpable spirit of the Boston Marathon is that it’s really about ordinary people doing something extraordinary. It’s about regular, average people moving through very real fears of failure, very real limitations of fitness, and very real pain. What makes Boston special is that the crowds of Boston understand that; they celebrate that; they show up in droves for you; for me; for the everyday runner who is struggling and finding the strength to keep moving; keep going.
I am not alone in saying The Boston Marathon has changed my life. It changed my life not just because I grew up in Boston; not because I’ve run the marathon; not because I’ve had incredible opportunities to cover many races as a race volunteer and photographer, but Boston has changed my life because I quite literally was once that 8 year old boy who ran into Boylston Street to proudly hug my parent as they went on to complete what at the time seemed an utterly impossible feat. The events of this past week broke my heart, and the death of Martin Richard especially prompted hours of painful reflection.
This is my mum after one of her many Boston’s. She is the reason we returned year after year to the Boston finish line. Many of my earliest memories involved weaving through police barricades, enormous crowds and through the sweaty, salt encrusted legs of hundreds of foil wrapped runners in search of my mother. It was always surreal. It was a giant, thrilling scavenger hunt for an 8 year old like me. I didn’t quite understand why all these people were in my city, but I knew my mum was doing something difficult, something inspirational and along with my sister, we eagerly spent hours alone searching for her while my dad waited with the car (usually illegally parked on Storrow Drive arguing with Boston’s finest).
Over the years though The Marathon became part of who I was. If my mother or sister or I didn’t run, then we always volunteered and universally fought back tears throughout the weekend as the sense of community, humanity and inspiration was always overwhelming. The Boston Marathon finish line is a sacred space, the kind of environment where there is a primal connection to those around you. I’ve been to hundreds of other races, and there’s just nothing that compares.
I was photographing at the finish line 2 years ago with the international press corps all around me. After a world record was set; the elite runners all finished and the journalists all hustled down to the VIP tent to conduct interviews. I was left almost alone high above the finish line on the catwalk with just a single NBC videographer. The cameraman turned to me and said “Well, that’s over… now here come the ‘real’ people.” And sure enough, he was right and come they did. The real people… waves upon waves of real people with horrible limps caused by cramps and strained muscles, bleeding body parts cause by chafing, blisters or falls; People literally crawling to the finish line. Real people crying tears of joy and celebrating with babies; holding names of loved ones high above their heads and waving flags from all over the world. And the best part is that as the ‘real’ people arrived, the crowd roared louder than ever and they continued to celebrate hours after the “official” race was over. It was one of the most beautiful sites to behold.
And that’s what I noticed first when I saw those images of the bombs exploding on Boylston Street. It wasn’t the smoke; it wasn’t the runners hitting the ground… it was the time on the clock: 4:09:43 and the massive size of the crowds that remained. These runners are folks who most likely never “officially” qualified for Boston, but who most likely ran like I did: for a charity; to honor someone else’s struggle and to make a positive difference in this world. That Boylston Street grandstand and sidewalk was just packed with people cheering, hoping, loving and willing those incredible runners to the finish line HOURS after the elite athletes and the VIPS all left.
The beauty of The Boston Marathon is that it breaks through the nonsense of daily life and allows people to confront some of the essential realities of life: fear, pain, comfort, curiosity, self denial, joy, hunger and compassion to name a few. Boston is an event that captures the imagination of the world not because of the prowess of the “elite” athletes on display, but because we relate to the vulnerability of the average runners who connect us back to a common, precious, human experience. It is the beauty of the human spirit that fills our eyes with tears and fills our hearts with hope upon the mere sight of runners finishing a marathon. It is the beauty of the human spirit that fills our stands with supporters hours after the race has ended, and it is the beauty of the human spirit that fills our roads with marathoners every Patriot’s Day in Boston.
Do not give up on the human spirit: it is intact.
Do not give up on that beautiful sense of goodness, wonder, faith and hope you had as an 8 year old: it is still there.
Though the attacks of this past week have highlighted the fragility and sacredness of life, take comfort in knowing that if you ever find yourself in need of inspiration or affirmation… the Boston Marathon Finish Line will always be there.