Prior to 2:49pm, April 15th, 2013 was one of the best days of my life. The Marathon marked the final miles of the Paddy Runs campaign, which, from its humble inception on a country road in Indiana was now, after 3,331 miles, finishing up in Boston at the most prestigious footrace in the world. That alone would have made the day special, but as an added bonus, I had the greatest run of my life that day too. It was fast, loose, and propelled by crowds of exuberantly cheering people. The morning was a joyous celebration of human goodness and possibility, but it was all thrown into miserable contrast when the bombs went off and people were maimed and killed.
I feel strange writing about the euphoria I felt in the hours before the explosions, like I’m disregarding the gravity of the event. But I also feel that by denying that joy I’m chalking up another casualty for the bad guys, albeit an inconsequential one. So with great sympathy for the victims of the tragedy, I’d like to respectfully share my experiences, both the magnificent elation during the race and the crushing sadness after.
The positive energy began to accumulate Friday afternoon when I rolled into Boston on the Megabus. Despite the rain and ice pelting down from the gray New England sky, I had a brilliant run through Back Bay and spent the evening bringing the blog up to date at the Trident Bookstore café. The next morning, I picked up my race number at the Hines Convention Center. The volunteers were so enthusiastic and encouraging. The guy who gave me my participant’s shirt locked my hand in a vigorous, double-fisted shake and wished me “Good luck on Monday,” like I was his best friend. It felt like whole city was rooting for us.
On Sunday night I went to the Official Marathon pre-race dinner inside Boston’s City Hall. I sat with an adorable couple from Köln, Germany. “Do you run together?” I asked them?
“Of course!” they said, “It’s the only way we could do it!”
An older couple from Hilliard, Ohio joined us and we toasted one another with our beers.
I was awake most of the night, restless with anticipation. At 5am the seagull-call of my phone alarm told me it was time to get moving.
The Paddy Runs for Haiti shirt has ridden my back for four marathons, two ultramarathons, and scores of shorter races. When I wear it, “I” becomes “We” and it feels like everyone who has supported the campaign is running too. I’ve never been prouder to wear a piece of clothing and I got a little misty-eyed when I put it on for what would be the last time.
My parents had flown in Saturday night and I gathered my race things quietly, trying not to wake them up. Mom, of course, was awake already and wished me luck as I slipped out the door.
The bus ride to Hopkinton High School was cramped and stuffy. I stretched out on a baseball diamond. The sun rose and the hours passed quickly. My group was called the starting line at 9:20.
My goal, for the third time trying, was to finish a marathon in less than three hours, but that took a back seat to simply enjoying myself. This was the last run for Paddy Runs for Haiti and I wanted to celebrate the journey.
I stepped into the start corral excited, energized and loose. My body felt ready for the challenge, no nagging aches or pains. I was absorbing the experience this year, taking in the volunteers’ friendly smiles, the music, the buzzing energy. Everyone was so positive and excited. I’d make eye contact with a total stranger and a second later we’d find ourselves shaking hands and hugging. The energy swelled and compounded until-“BOOM!”-the cannon sent a tide of joy-ridden people waving, jumping, whooping and smiling, on their way to the finish line twenty-six miles away.
My shorts fell down immediately. They’d been overloaded with three energy gels, a packet of cookies, my room key, ID, and some money as well as a beaded necklace I’d made for my Mom as a birthday present. I thought it was hilarious. I shuffled over the starting line laughing uproariously; one hand keeping my pants up, the other holding a sleeve of Nutter Butters.
I’ve talked about feeling Kenyan, when the stride is fluid and the breathing comes easy. On that day I found something better. It felt like there was a finely tuned engine inside me turning over flawlessly, my legs pounding out a relentless, unchanging rhythm. I called it the Immortal Stride and if I ever find it again it will be a case of lightning striking twice. It was so efficient, so free, and so elemental, that I felt like I’d tapped the soul of not only the Kenyans, but the Tarahumara, the Hopi, the Ethiopians; every running culture that ever trod the earth. I channeled the spirits of Pheidippides, Dorando Pietri, Ellison Brown, Emil Zátopek, Roberta Gibb, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Abebe Bikila, Haile Gebrselassie, Fauja Singh and anyone else who had a passion in them that could only be expressed by putting one foot in front of the other.
For once, I didn’t need to summon inspiration for myself, it poured in from the crowds of people who picked up my energy and returned it to me with even more power. People crowded along the road in noisy, enthusiastic pockets that grew into steady corridors of enthusiasm, guiding us through the towns and into Boston itself. People shouted my name, shouted, “Keep it up, Paddy Runs for Haiti!” I got lost in the swirling positivity, lulled into nirvana by the outpouring of support, the exuberance of movement. Everything felt so GOOD!
Everyone, everyone that could fit within the bounds of human description had come out to support us; leather and denim-clad bikers in Ashland, Hispanic families in Framingham, yuppies in Brookline, goateed college capheads in Newton, sorority girls in Wellesly. In Natick, I applauded a guy playing drums by his run-down house and he waved a stick in return. People handed us bananas, orange slices, licorice, freez-pops, gummi-bears, sponges, globs of Vaseline and tons and tons of water from coolers and tables set up at the end of their driveways. If there was ever an example of unprovoked human generosity, it was to be found along the marathon course.
The other runners were inspiring, too; blind runners being led by their guides, runners trotting along on prosthetic legs or churning past in wheelchairs, and of course the evergreen father/son duo of Team Hoyt.
I paid a visit to Dick Hoyt at the marathon Expo. Besides being one of the most inspiring people on the planet, the guy is irrepressibly friendly and built like an iron beast. I put my arm around him for a picture and it felt like I was hugging a concrete statue. Not bad for a 73-year old retiree.
At one point, I came upon William Reilly, the guy I’d seen six months earlier doing a 37-mile race in a wheelchair. William has Cerebral Palsy and competes in races by pushing himself backwards with his leg. To me, this dude is the last word on anyone who says they could never do a marathon. He has given me more inspiration than he’ll ever know. When we saw each other, his eyes got wide with excitement and he stretched out an arm in greeting. Of all the handshakes I got that day, that one was my favorite.
At Wellesley College, girls crowded the road two and three deep. As per the tradition, I stopped to kiss one. I picked a willowy blonde whose sign read: “Kiss me! I’m tall!” She was, too, close to six feet. I felt a little bad for her, having to endure my soggy, bearded lips, but she didn’t flinch at all when I leaned in and planted one on her. In fact, she laughed.
Noting the miles became an afterthought. I didn’t care where I was or how much was left. Before I knew it, I was at mile sixteen sailing over the first hill. The sidewalk was packed with people from the city who’d come out on the T and they showered us with support and cheers and love. My hand went numb from all the high-fives. I kept shouting “Thank You!!!” at the top of my lungs.
The hills passed quickly in a loud blur of shouting people and outstretched arms. I realized I was climbing the last one only when I recognized a conspicuous manhole cover that I’d stepped on the year before. I soared over the peak and checked the clock: 2 Hours, 18 Minutes. Barring a catastrophic meltdown, I could easily run the last five miles in forty-two minutes! I was going to do it!
Boston College comes right after Heartbreak Hill. The students use the marathon as a pretext to get obnoxiously drunk and act like idiots. When I came around the bend though, a single cry rose up from the crowd: “Lookit the BEEE-aaaaaaahhhhd!!!!!!!! THE BEEEE-AAAHHHD!” And for a quarter mile that’s all I heard from hundreds of goateed, Hollister-wearing, beer-swilling, frat boys whooping it up on the side of the road, “The BEEEE-AAAAAHHHD!!! The BEEEE-AAAAAHHHD!!! ” On any other day, I’d have rolled my eyes at them, but that morning, they made me feel like I was their king and I loved them in return. I charged down the road, slapping outstretched hands, shouting and hollering back. It was euphoric! “THE BEEEE-AAAAAAAHHHD!!!! THE BEEE-AAAAAHHHHD!!!”
My beard got a lot of attention that day. I can’t count how many times someone shouted “Dude! That beahd is sick!”, New Englander for “Sir, I greatly admire your facial hair.”
My folks were waiting in Kenmore Square and I stopped briefly to give Mom her birthday present. “I got it!” I shouted, “Happy Birthday!” Mom started to cry but there was no time for tears.
Every foot of road from Kenmore Square to the finish line was filled with people. My legs were getting heavy, but there was just a mile to go. I turned onto Hereford Street. Last year, I’d cramped up badly here but now I surged through with a wave and an ecstatic smile. Making the final turn onto Boyleston street, I saw the blue and yellow arches of the finish line and a shout rolled up through my belly, exploded from my throat and bounced off the walls of the buildings: “YeeeeeeAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!!!!!!”
I ran the last hundred yards sobbing tears of joy, shouting “Thank You” out into the air. It was a thank you to the people cheering us on to the finish, to the love shown to us by a welcoming city, to the Paddy Runs supporters, to Jean Cadet, and generally to the goodness of a Universe that allows this kind of communal joy to exist.
I took the final step onto the blue line, raised my arms and bellowed, “THANK YOU, BOSTON!” Then the tears started. I shuffled forward slowly, trying to get my sobs in check lest it worry the medical personnel.
When I saw my time, I was flat out amazed. I’d hoped to beat three hours by maybe a minute or two but I’d finished in 2 Hours, 52 Minutes, and 46 Seconds, the 1,043rd person to cross the line.
I thanked everyone in sight, congratulated any runner that happened to wobble near. I got my finisher’s medal from the woman with the red, white, and blue tiara that’d given it to me last year. She also gave me a big, welcoming hug.
There was a strange calm to the finish area. Fewer than 1,100 of the 27,000 runners had finished at this point. The streets felt quiet and empty after the miles of noise and hoopla during the race. The volunteers outnumbered the finishers and they stood around expectantly, waiting for one of us to keel over so they could spring into action.
I couldn’t stop thanking people, from the police to the baggage handlers to the medical volunteers standing by with their wheelchairs. I wanted to linger and hang on to the moment, but they kept us moving towards the exit. With a plastic blanket wrapped around my shoulders, I walked out of the finish area leaving my marathon and Paddy Runs for Haiti behind.
I was back at my hotel when the bombs went off. Early on, the news simply reported “Explosions” and I held onto the foolish hope that miraculously, no one had been hurt. Gas lines and manhole covers explode in New York with frightening regularity, but no one ever seems to be injured by them. As the reports came in however, things proved to be otherwise. Scores of people had been hurt, many of them very seriously. There was at least one confirmed death. Suddenly my medal meant nothing. I took it off. I took off the Paddy Runs shirt too and threw it in a corner, where it stayed until I went home. There was no celebration that night, just a quiet, sober dinner punctuated by dozens of texts and calls from loved ones asking if I was okay.
My folks flew out the next morning. Once they were gone, I went to the café and read the awful news on the Internet. In the space of thirteen seconds, two bombs had injured 264 people and taken the lives of three others. I spent the next hour doing my best not to cry openly in a public place.
I recalled looking to my left as I neared the finish line and being cheered on by the people behind the scaffold. Now some of them were dead. I guess I consider everyone running a marathon to be my brothers and sisters and when the people on the side of the road send a kind word out to us, they join our family, too. I always tell my parents to cheer for everyone. My heart broke for the people who’d been hurt and killed, and for the people who loved them. No one should be taken like that; randomly, senselessly.
But my grief was selfish, too. Over the past three years, I’d experienced so many unprovoked kindnesses that I got a bit lost in an airy-fairy running Utopia. I’d gone a bit world-blind. Part of me was mourning the loss of my own ideal.
I got sick of being the bald, bearded, crying man in the café, so I went for a walk. Boyleston Street was blocked off with barricades that had been hastily dragged over from the finish area. One still had undistributed heat blankets woven through its bars. Boston Common looked like a military camp. There were rows of armored personnel carriers parked on the grass and police in helmets and body armor patrolled the paths. I spent the afternoon in an old bar watching the news replay the same footage over and over: runners finishing, a puff of gray smoke, then flags and scaffolding being yanked out into the street.
Two men were having a conversation a few seats away. “How many people ran yesterday?”
“I don’t know,” said his friend. “Forty Thousand?”
“Next year, I bet it’s gonna be a few thousand less.” There was a sardonic tone in his voice, an implied sneer that made my blood boil.
“I’ll be back.” I said a little too loudly, my voice simmering with emotion. The bar got uncomfortably silent.
I left the bar and headed up Tremont street, crying again as I had throughout the day. There was a sign outside of King’s Chapel, “We are open for prayer and meditation to those affected by yesterday’s tragedy.” It seemed pretty clear that I fit that description so I went in and sat down in one of the old, white, pew boxes. I’m not a religious man, but I figured I could at least cry in here without people thinking I was crazy. And cry I did. Grief poured out of me in thick, teary sobs. A church lady came over and shut the door of my high-sided pew.
I had a long, heaving cry then took a break to look around the simple, white sanctuary. King’s is older than the country itself, having been built in 1754. The church’s bell was cast by Paul Revere. I was overtaken by a second, less intense crying session, but then sat quietly for a while. The old church reminded me just how insignificant one person’s grief is in the grand scheme of things and I found that oddly comforting. I felt better. I thanked the church lady and left. I guess I just needed one good, cleansing cry to get myself back on an even keel.
There was something besides the sadness that made me so emotional and it was the fact that among the danger and confusion, so many people had chosen to do good. As many others have pointed out, two men committed a horrifying crime, but hundreds more committed acts of bravery and kindness; from first responders running towards the bombs to protect people and save lives, down to what seem like trivial gestures, such as the taqueria that handed out free meals to runners without money or a way home. There were finish line volunteers who heroically took up the mantle of combat medics and the much-publicized case of people who’d run 25 miles and, unable to reach the finish line, ran instead to the hospital to donate blood.
People found ways to help. Humanity won that day, despite the horror perpetrated by two fucked up individuals.
Humans, as a population, lean towards the good. That’s evident from the amount of sympathy directed at Boston from around the world. A week later in England, despite the possibility of more terrorism, a record 700,000 people came out to watch the London marathon whose participants donated thousands of dollars in support of the bombing victims. Later that same weekend, 650 people took part in the inaugural Palestinian marathon, run in the ancient town of Bethlehem. The race started with a moment of silence, one runner standing solemnly in his bright green Celtics jersey. A PLO spokesman decried the bombings, calling them, “an attack against the whole humanity.” Even the New York Yankees set aside their animosity for Boston, blasting Sweet Caroline, the Red Sox unofficial anthem, the next day during the seventh inning stretch.
In the following weeks, runners in every American city and in cities around the world organized informal events to raise money for the Boston victims. The following Monday, I joined one in Central Park and, along with two hundred other people, ran a few laps around the lower loop. My body was still sore but after the first mile, I went out hard. My knees were swollen and my legs threatened to cramp, but I kept blazing around the drive as fast as I could. I wanted to run out of my grief.
I guess we all did. In late May when Boyleston street was reopened, 3,000 runners who’d been stopped in Back Bay were given the chance to run the Marathon’s final mile. Many of them had already received their finisher’s medals, but there was still a need to cross the finish line and get some closure.
They can try to beat us, but they won’t. Runners are too determined, too stubborn, and in ways, too stupid to be intimidated. We’ll run it again next year. And the people who love us; the ones who get up at 5am and stand in the rain for hours to watch us run by for ten seconds, will come out and make us feel like family again. Humanity will get the race back.
I’d like to finish this post by drawing a parallel between the good done by the people in the wake of Boston and the good that you all did after the tragedy in Haiti. We found a way to help. If horrible events do nothing else, they at least remind us how many good people there are in the world. That for every person that perpetrates something awful, the knee-jerk reaction for many hundreds of other people will always be kindness, bravery and compassion. Thank you.