Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Thoughts on the Boston Marathon

As a runner and a native New Englander*, I feel very personally affected by the bombings at the Boston Marathon in way that I’ve never felt about similar events and I feel compelled to write something.

I’m crushed that what should have been such an exuberant and happy day, Patriots Day, a day that started with a walk-off win at Fenway, has been tainted by violence. I love Boston deeply. It breaks my heart that runners who worked so hard to reach the finish line had a moment of glory turned into fear and horror. Most of all though, it hurts me very deeply that race supporters, out to cheer on friends, family, and total strangers - who were there only to send their love and support to the runners when they needed it most - were the ones killed and injured. It’s important to say that race spectators are not just passive observers, they give long distance runners the lift they need to fight the emotional battle that comes along with the physical battle of marathon.

Ask any runner and they will tell you exactly how much the crowd at a race means to them. Sometimes it’s that alone that gets you through the toughest part of a race. Knowing your family is waiting for you at the finish line or hearing the voices of strangers cheering you on has a deep heart warming effect on any runner.

In June of last year I finished my first Half-Marathon, it was a very small trail race through the Presido in San Francisco with a few hundred runners total. About 6 miles into the race, after gaining over a thousand feet, my brain started to kick in and fill me with doubt. My legs were already very tired - I had prepared for the miles but not how many steps we had to climb or how much elevation we would be gaining. Suddenly as we rounded the corner at the top of a huge hill there were two people waiting. I have no idea who they were or if they even knew someone in the race.

“You can do it!”
“That was the biggest hill! It’s mostly downhill from here”
“You’re doing great!”

I was so touched by the enthusiasm of these two complete strangers, that they took the time to greet and cheer on each and every runner that passed by, that they were waiting out there even as we returned again, that I welled up with emotion and almost began to cry. I was really tired. What they were out there doing was also amazingly wonderful. I ran really hard for the next mile or so. The jolt those strangers gave me was enormous.

In the last half-mile of the same race, after running strong all day, I was set to record a reasonably good time when my legs cramped up. I was barely able to move. I limped, shuffled, stopped entirely, then limped on again. Knowing that Beylah was waiting for me at the finish line, and had been waiting all day, was my strongest motivation as I watched runners I’d passed up to an hour earlier trotting on past me. It took me nearly half an hour to finish the race after getting cramping up. But, as I closed in on the finish line and I could see all the supporters waiting for us I literally sprinted the final hundred feet, totally forgetting about my cramps carried by the adrenaline of the crowd alone. I gave Beylah a huge hug and collapsed in the grass of Crissy Field. Unable to move my legs at all.

It’s important that we celebrate the impact that supporters have at a marathon and remember what a wonderful thing they are there to do. In addition to the runners who race and the volunteers who make races possible, let’s remember the importance supporters have on the race itself. Cheering on the side of the course is one of the most selfless and powerful things you can use your time to do. If you’ve ever been at a race the cheer someone on, I applaud you. For those that were harmed at the Boston Marathon, I have nothing in my heart but love for you. Race supporters are amazing. Boston is amazing.

* While I’ve lived in the Bay Area for the majority of my life, I have deep ties with New England, which I have always considered a second home. I spent the first five years of my life in New Hampshire, spent countless summers with my cousins and grandparents on Cape Cod (some of whom now live in Boston), and did some of my education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (in Western Mass). In our home we proudly display the championship banners for the 2004 and 2007 Red Sox. My affection for New England, and Boston specifically has been lifelong. If it wasn't so damn beautiful in California I would have moved back long ago and this would be a New England hiking blog.

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