By now, across the nation and around the world, the words “Boston Marathon” are synonymous with the bomb explosions yesterday that killed three people – to date – and injured more than 140. Synonymous with this:
Here in Massachusetts, the third Monday in April traditionally is a festive day, one of the most wonderful days of the year. It is Patriots’ Day, a day when we remember the ride of Paul Revere and others, and the battles of Lexington and Concord in which the first shots of the American Revolution were fired. It is a state holiday, and state offices and schools are closed.
As you know by now, it’s also the day on which the Boston Marathon is run. I have long loved the Boston Marathon. At one time I aspired to run in it. A few years ago I ran a half marathon to build up to it, but my knees had other ideas. I still could stand by the side of the race course and cheer on the runners. And every year I have. From 2000 until 2010, I attended the Red Sox game on Patriots’ Day. The game starts in the morning, generally at 11 AM, the only Major League Baseball game to start in the morning all season. That is to allow the crowds to stream down to nearby Kenmore Square, at mile 25 of the marathon route, and support the marathoners. It is a carnival atmosphere.
The name comes from Johnny Kelley, who graduated from Arlington High School (the town of Arlington, then called Menotomy, was the scene of the fiercest fighting on the original Patriots’ Day in 1775, though Lexington got all the press). In 1936 Kelley – the defending champion – tapped fellow runner Tarzan Brown on the back in sympathy as he passed him. The gesture motivated Brown, who overcame Kelley on the last of the Newton hills and won the 1936 race. Boston Globe sports editor Jerry Nason interviewed Kelley, who said that last hill was his “Heartbreak Hill.” The name stuck and the hill, coming at the twenty-mile mark when many runners are hitting the wall, has broken the hearts of many more competitors over the years. It’s not steep but is long, more than half a mile.
I’m sad to say I have been through this before. In 1995, when I was living in Paris, a series of terrorist attacks placed the population near my school on high alert. On September 11, 2001 I stood on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Carmine Street in New York City at 8:46 AM and watched as an airplane flew into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Some two hours later, from about a mile away, I saw that tower fall and I headed for St. Vincent’s Hospital to give blood. And I feel right now the same way I felt on those days. Numb, watching television footage of blocks with which I am intimately familiar, turned into zones of carnage and death. Hearing sirens outside my own window for hours on end.
We always shall remember the 2013 Boston Marathon as the one someone marred with murder. But I intend to remember my personal 2013 Marathon, the good one, as well. The young families cheering and clapping. The beautiful little boy who so enjoyed my bell. The girls handing out water and joking with runners to cheer them up. The awesome strength of mobility-impaired competitors. The concentration on the faces of the soldiers who travel the route with heavy packs on their backs. The thousands of runners living out the day they’d trained for so long. Our friend who ran past us while five months pregnant.
I remember also those who persevered not only across the miles, but across the years. I remember the man who ran by me this morning in a shirt saying this was his not-25th, not-26th, not-27th, but his 28th Boston Marathon. I think of Johnny Kelley, who lost the 1936 Boston Marathon due to his own misstep, but kept going: he won again in 1945 and, in all, he ran 61 Boston Marathons. He was still running the marathon in his 80s. When he couldn't run it anymore, he drove two hours from his Cape Cod home to fire the starting pistol. He is honored by a statue near my City Hall in Newton that shows him as a young man, and as a much older one, clasping hands as they cross the finish line, arms aloft in triumph.
Those words were music to Dick Hoyt’s ears and he never looked back. He began to participate in triathalons, pushing and carrying Rick with him. In 1981 he asked to run the Boston Marathon, pushing Rick in a wheelchair. The organizers said they’d have to meet the very tough qualifying time for Rick’s age group; Dick was 40 then but Rick only 19. Dick Hoyt trained his heart out and they completed the Boston Marathon that year in 2 hours and 45 minutes. Over the years they have run seventy marathons and participated in over 1,000 endurance events in total. Now they have their own bronze statue; it was unveiled just a week ago, near the starting line in Hopkinton, as a testament to the human spirit. Dick is 72 and Rick 51 now, but yesterday they were a mile from completing their 31st Boston Marathon as a team when the unthinkable happened.
I remember the runners who, after the unthinkable happened, added another mile and a half to their day’s work, running all the way to Mass. General Hospital to donate blood. And the Bostonians who opened their hearts – and their homes – to runners wandering cold and confused near the finish line, their day of achievement turned into something entirely different.
Where do we go from here? I am reminded of a man I met several years ago in New York, when I still hoped to run the Boston Marathon myself. He had just completed the annual 3,100 Mile Self-Transcendence Race, a little-known but truly incredible event. Its participants run 3,100 miles – the distance from here to Los Angeles – around a single large city block in the center of Queens. The winner generally runs the equivalent of three marathons a day for forty-plus straight days. Completing the event truly does require self-transcendence. I asked the man how he had managed to complete such an event. He said that, as he ran, a lot of words came into his head. Words like “stop,” “quit,” “pain.” And he pushed through all those words by remembering the only word that mattered: “forward.”
Tomorrow, and in the days that follow, all of us – Bostonians and all Americans and peace-loving people of the world with us – will show the same inner strength that man showed, that Johnny Kelley and Team Hoyt showed, and that all of our wonderful Boston Marathon runners over the years have showed. And we shall go “forward.” The people who did this horrific thing will not steal our race from us. Unless I am hit by a bus in the interim, I plan to be there for the 2014 Boston Marathon, on Heartbreak Hill, remembering those killed and injured yesterday and cheering for those who embody the strength of character and perseverance the day is all about.