On marathons and more

I am not a runner. Let’s get that out of the way first. I’m pretty much the opposite of a runner. But I’m married to a runner, a man who has completed more than 25 marathons, two of them in Boston. He ran it just last year when the oppressive heat had him considering forfeiting and running this year instead. That is where my mind goes when I think about what happened in Boston yesterday. (Or, it’s one of many places to which my mind races.) Chris could have been there. But then it feels like a stretch, like a manufactured fear. A way to inject myself personally into the tragedy. Or is it a way to feel connected? I don’t know how to tell the difference.


I think about the fact that, over the years, I have been a spectator at a dozen or so of those marathons. I know the madness of trying to navigate your way through the crowds to get from point to point in the hopes of getting a glimpse of your runner and cheering them on. I’ve been with Chris in Hurley, Wisconsin for the relatively tiny Paavo Nurmi marathon, where the trees outnumbered spectators the entire way. I’ve been with him for Chicago, DC, St. Louis and, yes, Boston – all packed to the gills with people milling around, bands playing, runners in crazy costumes.

In other words, I also think: I could have been there. I could have easily been a spectator. It could have been me. Is this the most selfish line of thinking? Or is it just human nature to personalize tragedy? I don’t know how to tell the difference.

Marathons are curious events. There really isn’t anything like them. You know that if you’ve run one, or if you’ve shown up on the sidelines or if you’ve even groaned at the inconvenience of giant crowds shutting down the streets in your town. I’m aware that the tendency at this moment is to glorify, but there is a spirit to marathons, something really tangible.

Runners train for marathons with a dedication I simply can’t fathom, no matter how many times I’ve watched Chris go through the process. It is, to a bystander, nothing short of insane. On race day, friends, families and loved ones of runners come out to support them, along with total strangers to form a crazy community that feels strangely titillating and invigorating. These are, for the most part, not professional athletes. They are normal human beings, pushing themselves to the limits. The struggle and the victory shows on their faces. It is, at times, unspeakably moving.

And Boston is not just any marathon. It is the marathon. Legendary. The holy grail for many runners. It is the world's oldest annual marathon, dating back to 1897, attracting amateur and professional runners from across the globe. About half a million people come out every year to cheer on the runners. Half a million. Winning Boston is like winning no other race.

All marathons, though, have a little bit of Boston in them.

In Cincinnati a couple of years ago, we showed up to watch Chris and my brother-in-law Bill. Bill had only started running that year. The fact that he was finishing a marathon was inconceivable, the absolute embodiment of that thing we’re told all the time: you can do whatever you put your mind to.

As we waited for our runners around mile eleven, my sister and I were calling out to others, reading their names off their bibs and t-shirts, shouting encouragement. My youngest niece asked why we were cheering for those people. “Do you know them?” she asked. And I thought: no. And yes. And I told her that this was just what we do along the course – provide encouragement for everyone, not just the people we know.

Think about that, for a moment. When was the last time you found yourself cheering on a total stranger, an individual who might meet your eyes and light up a little? It doesn’t happen often in my life.

The fact that Chris has twice run Boston isn't the only reason I feel somehow connected to that marathon, either. When my family moved to the U.S. from Scotland in 1978, it was to Boston. It was my first American city, rife with history like perhaps no other. It holds a special place in my heart.

During that first year we joined some neighbors to pass out Dixie Cups full of water to runners along the route. It was crazy. I’d never seen so many people in my life – except, perhaps, the time the Queen came to Glasgow. All the color and the crowds and the cheering. All the camaraderie. To me, at the risk of sounding over-the-top, this was a foreign thing, something that became, in my mind, intrinsically linked with the very idea of America.

So I’m tempted to say that, for these reasons, yesterday’s bombings near the Boston marathon finish line feel personal. Then I look around and realize that what happened feels personal to everyone I know. Some more than others, but everyone’s heart is breaking a little. Everyone’s feeling raw at yet another act of senseless violence. We feel the way we feel. Our brains take our thoughts down dark corridors. I have to believe it’s just part of the process of making sense of the senseless.

I have no grand words of conclusion. I don’t have an upbeat message or a rallying cry to leave you with. I just have some thoughts, muddled and painful, racing through my brain. I’m probably a lot like you that way.