In Boston, Terror Will Never Destroy a Runner’s High

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Runner’s shoes are laid out in a display titled, ‘Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial’ in the Boston Public Library to commemorate the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, on April 14, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Image: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

When I ran my first Boston Marathon in 2009, I was stunned by the aura. Most marathon crowds pack a part of the course and disappear for the out-of-the-way stretches, but the Boston crowd was at least three-deep nearly the entire time. Everyone picked out something about the runners’ outfits — your singlet, the color of your shorts — and shouted words of encouragement. Drunk college kids from every school in the city lined the course and hollered as only drunk college kids can.

It’s hard to forget that kind of uproarious positivity. That’s why the Boston Marathon is so special. An optimism normally derided as hokey or fake is open and encouraged there. For many, that marathon is the culmination of an achievement that took years to build to, which contributed to why last year’s bombing at the finish line that injured at least 260 and killed three was so vile. Lives were ended and shattered, and it felt like the two suspected bombers had totally marred the positivity on which the Boston Marathon thrives.

During that 2009 race, it was amazing that there could be such a raucous party for a running event, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized the crowd knew something I didn’t: Completing a marathon is worth celebrating.

People start running for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes, each step provides a modicum of control in an otherwise hectic life.

Other times, it’s the easiest way a person knows to lose weight. Maybe it’s just simply that for as long as someone is running, he’s removed from his phone and email.

But every catalyst is for the good of that individual. Not everyone who runs likes doing so, but there’s always some sort of satisfaction there.

That kind of inherent positivity has a way of building on itself. If a person feels good after one run, there’s a good chance he’ll lace up again and again until he’s running road races filled with people who are there for the same reason: because running provides some sort of solace, because it gives them goals and a means to accomplish them.

Boston Marathon Bombing Charity Run

Participants in a cross-country charity relay that began in March in California cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Boston, Sunday, April 13, 2014.

Image: Michael Dwyer/AP Images/Associated Press

That understanding is like an energy at the Boston Marathon that washes from shouting spectators onto runners and flows among competitors. It’s almost like a party rather than a race. Getting to Boston was the hard part and, for many, that marathon is like a long victory lap. The Boston Marathon is the culmination of thousands of runners’ personal goals. Watching tens of thousands of dreams come true within the span of a few hours is nothing short of incredible.

So when those two bombs ripped across the finish line last year, there was something especially obscene about the expressions of awe twisting into faces of shock, seeing tears of sadness where tears of happiness should have been.

Whether they meant to or not, the suspected bombers tried to deface a monument to human accomplishment. They tried to permanently alter the memory of the marathon, to leave an ugly asterisk alongside the goals people accomplish there, to etch a black mark onto something previously unblemished — a mark that would forever undermine the future achievements of marathon runners.

Would the Boston Marathon ever be the same? That worry sprouted in my gut and slowly wound its way through my body. It’s painful to watch something pure reckon with the darker side of the world. So many wonderful memories are tied to that event, but ever since last year, a new nightmarish memory often seems to take over the narrative of the marathon.

Marathons are defined by moments in which the runner wants to quit. Random muscle spasms, unexpected back pain, the sudden burning desire to stop running and devour a dozen pancakes — all of these things can, and often do, happen during a 26.2-mile run. Any can be enough to make a racer shut down.

Yet the vast majority of people run, walk or stumble across the finish line, and in that simple act you can see the folly of the bombers’ actions.

Dance teacher Adrianne Haslet-Davis lost a leg in the bombings, but has already performed on stage before a crowd in the year since. Another victim, Rebekah Gregory, is awaiting her 17th surgery, but is starting a new life with her husband and son, also survivors of the blast. J.P. and Paul Norden both underwent leg amputations shortly after April 15, 2013, and now they hope to start a roofing company.

Did the bombers really think they could kill people’s sense of hope? People, when surrounded by optimism, persevere, and those who take part in the Boston Marathon are about as optimistic as they come. They’re fulfilling a dream.

On April 21, I will line up for my second Boston Marathon, for the first time since 2009. I expect the mood to be a strange mix of somber, joyous, anxious and reflective, but I also expect an aura of hope.

That hope, I think, will feel natural despite the shadow of last year. How could it not? Thousands of dreams will be about to come to fruition.

Bonus: Boston Bombing: A Wedding and a Recovery

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