The years I don’t go, it feels like I’m missing a party. I get texts and emails and photos in the weeks and days before the race. I get invitations to gatherings and receptions. I feel left out. And then, on race day, I sit at the computer and look up bib numbers. I read the split times to see who started out at a pace I know he can’t hold, who’s slowing in the second half, and who surprised herself by doing better than she expected to. I read updates on the elite racers from my many writer friends and hear about all the fun I missed.
I’ve run the Boston Marathon five times. I was entered last year, but had to bail because work got in the way. Instead, I waited at my computer for emails from the people who slogged through the heat. I hoped my speedy buddies wouldn’t put themselves in danger by running too hard when the conditions for running were dangerous. Though a few friends ended up in the medical tents for IV fluids, everyone was fine and everyone was happy. For many people, getting to Boston is the achievement.
There are only two US marathons for which you need a qualifying time: The Olympic Trials and the Boston Marathon. While Boston lets in a number of charity runners, most of us must log a fast marathon before we can pay our entry fee. You don’t just have to be able to cover the distance; you have to do it a good clip. There are no joggers at Boston, no first-timers. It’s a race for serious marathoners. It’s the race for serious marathoners.
And unlike other big city 26.2 milers, the third Monday in April is Boston’s big day. In New York and Chicago and London, the marathon is just another event in cities with lots of events. Boston is different. The people of Boston love their race and beam with pride when you say you love it too. Families tailgate every year at the same spots on the course. The spectators never tell you, “You’re almost there” at mile eight. They’ll say your stride looks strong, or that you have quick turnover, or that there’s another small hill coming up. They’re more than just enthusiastic; they’re the most astute runner-watchers in the world.
Getting into the Boston Marathon is a meritocracy; running it feels like America. We linger for hours in the schoolyard in Hopkinton, waiting for the start. We make friends in the Porta-Potty line and offer each other bananas. We share a common language: Where did you qualify? What pace are you going to run? We come from all over the world but we share this thing, this commitment to strength and endurance, and we recognize each other. We are each other’s people.
Then we run through towns poor and rich. We run past bikers and Wellesley students and suburbanites who start tailgating early and offer us beer along the course. With a few miles to go, we see the Citgo sign. Everyone who’s done the race has seen the Citgo sign. It feels like you can see it for miles, and it tells you that you’re almost there. We run from rural to urban, into a city that waits with outstretched arms, hands extended for high fives, hands clapping so loud and voices cheering so boisterous you no longer hear your own body telling you it’s in pain.
And we run into the arms of those who came to support us. One year, a friend who lived in upstate New York but had grown up in Boston, had gone to college at Harvard, who could be cynical and hard, accompanied me to the marathon. After the race he told me how, standing at the finish line, engulfed by the crowd, he had seen a different Boston. He hadn’t known that his reserved city could be so friendly, so warm.
In the years after 9/11, when I stood on the starting line at the New York City Marathon, I often had a fleeting thought about how vulnerable we were. Fifty thousand people huddled together on two stories of a bridge felt like a target. I’d lived in New York long enough not to be frightened, and long enough to know paranoia is sometimes warranted.
Boston, to me, always felt small and safe. The race felt like a small town.
This year I’d kept a lazy watch on the results through Twitter updates and Facebook post from my friends in the press booth, rooting silently for the American women, Shalane and Kara, and relieved that the weather was perfect.
When the news got out, the calls and emails and texts streamed in. Even people who knew I was home in Spokane, Washington, as far away as you can get from the Hub, checked in because they needed to know that I was okay.
When I visited friends in New York in November 2011, a decade after I had left the City, I mentioned to one of them how surprised I was to see so many American flags flying in his left-of-center neighborhood. He said, “It was our town they bombed.”
For serious runners, Boston is our town.
We didn’t need this to be reminded how small and tight—and huge and expansive—the running community is. We know how to help each other, how to cheer for each other’s successes, and how to bring in those who are hurting. This is what we do and what we have, this sense of being in it together, this understanding of what it takes to endure pain and to keep going. The world has shifted again.
Each of us, in our way, will keep at it, keep running, keep helping those in need, keep celebrating small victories and overcoming big troubles. There will still be marathons and cities and spectators and volunteers and cops and personal bests and expected injuries. Of course we will keep going. But it feels different now. It feels like the party’s over.