Boston Thoughts for Nonrunners

Boston Marathon runner Virginia Beard pauses in shock just after the bombs went off. She was half a mile from the finish line. Photo from CNN iReport.

I woke up early Monday morning to watch the Boston Marathon, mainly to watch two of my favorite distance runners, training partners Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher. They ran a great race and finished 4th and 6th, respectively. Happy for them, I ate lunch with the family and lay down for a nap.

Shortly thereafter, two bombs exploded near the Boston finish line, and distance running might never be the same.

You’ve probably read and seen many of the ugly details: at least three dead, over 130 injured. Let others discuss the terrorism angle and implications for national security. I want to share some perspective on what this means to me as a runner.

The Greatness of the Boston Marathon

Many runners view Boston as the Mecca of distance running. It’s the oldest annual marathon on the planet and probably the best known. It’s also one of the six major marathons each year that attract the world’s best runners, offer the most prestige, and award the most prize money to the winners. Even nonrunners have heard of Heartbreak Hill, the nasty climb at mile 20 that comes right about the time many runners are already hitting The Wall. Olympic runner Shalane Flanagan, a native of Massachusetts, said that if she could win Boston this year, it would be the highlight of her career. With a challenging and beautiful course, great support from the locals, and over a century of history, it’s a celebration of everything good about the sport.

You can’t just sign up for the Boston Marathon; you must qualify for it by running a very strong time in a prior event. To run Boston this year, I would have needed a time of 3 hours and 5 minutes in a previous marathon, a pace of 7:03 min/mile. At my best, I could barely hold that pace for 2 miles, much less 26.2. Many distance runners view making and finishing Boston as the crowning achievement of their running lives. Some work for years just trying to improve enough to qualify and never make it.

If you wanted to terrorize the running community, bombing the Boston Marathon would be a great way to do it.

Impact on This Year’s Runners

The bombs detonated at 2:45pm local time, over four hours after the last wave started. All the elites were done, so the bombs affected the more mortal runners. If I had the legs to run Boston and had been there, I could have been near the finish line when the bombs went off. I can only imagine what went through those runners’ minds at that moment. One man, a 78-year-old you’ve probably seen in the main video, fell over after the initial blast not far from the finish line. (If you’ve seen the video, he’s the guy in the reddish-orange tank top) Once he realized he was okay, he picked himself up and continued, finishing second in his division. That’s resilience, folks. But other runners weren’t so lucky and suffered serious injuries.

My friend’s sister was still on the course approaching the end when the bombs went off. She wasn’t harmed, but my friend was naturally quite worried until she finally heard that her sister was okay. Apparently, the race organizers let the remaining runners finish if they wanted to but diverted them to a slightly different course. So while they might have finished, they might not get an official finish time. I’m sure some runners simply chose to leave the course and head to safety without approaching the blast zone where other devices could be waiting.

A Dark Cloud at the Finish Line

At the end of a long race, many feelings can swirl around inside a runner: pain from pushing one’s body so hard for so long, relief and hope that the pain will end soon, joy and pride at having completed such an amazing feat, camaraderie with the nearby runners, sadness that the event that’s been so important for so long is about to end. At the end of my first half marathon, I was in severe pain and had nothing left, but I let out a war cry once I crossed the line. Approaching the end of my second, I teared up, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the experience.

For many, another source of hope awaits: seeing loved ones who are cheering at the finish line. I still remember my first organized race, the 2002 Cowtown 10k. Jenny and I had just started dating, but she came with me and waited for me at the end. My knee was killing me at the end, but knowing she was there waiting for me, cheering for me, helped me push through.

Yesterday’s bombing forever changed how runners will look at the finish line, especially when it comes to spectators. Many of the injured people were spectators, good people who had come out to cheer for someone they loved who was accomplishing a major life goal. From now on, we’ll get to wonder whether our loved ones at the finish line will still be alive when we get there.

The bombing also threw a major wrinkle into the plans for all large races to come, perhaps all races of any size. The London Marathon, another major, is this Sunday. Every person there will be on edge, wondering whether another bomb will explode. Race directors throughout the sport will be reevaluating security plans, debating how best to protect the runners, volunteers, and spectators. The larger races will probably add security, which will cost money and increase entry fees. Everyone involved will know, like with airport security or any other location with large crowds, that no situation can be made completely safe. Each of us will need to decide what level of risk we will accept.

Refusing to Cower

After the bombs went off, rather than fleeing, the first responders rushed in through the smoke to help. Hordes of Bostonians and visiting runners rushed to local hospitals to donate blood, so many that the hospitals finally had to start turning donors away. Locals opened their homes to runners who couldn’t return to their hotels. People around the world are sending support, prayer, and goodwill toward Boston. Like we did after September 11, we are refusing to cower in the presence of senseless evil. Good is flourishing in the midst of hatred and violence.

I’m not a soldier, police officer, paramedic, or politician. There isn’t much I can do to directly help the victims of yesterday’s attack. Yet I can do a few small things to push back against the darkness. I wore a race shirt to work last night, as many runners are planning to do today. I’m trying to focus on the upwelling of good that appeared in Boston to overwhelm the evil that appeared. And I’m going to run this afternoon. I haven’t really run in about 2 1/2 months due to my bum knee, but I’m going to give it a try in honor of the Boston victims, even if it’s only half a mile.

Pockets of darkness remain in our world and always will. I no longer bother trying to understand why evil exists or why God allowed such a horrible thing to happen. Ultimately, the whys don’t matter. What matters is how we respond. I refuse to live my life hiding behind a barricade and wondering what the terrorists will do next.

I hope to see you on the trail.