The Boston Marathon is special. I’ve never run it. But I watched it with great intensity all of my undergrad years at Tufts. I would wake up early on Patriots Day, pack myself a lunch, hop on the T, and settle myself roadside right around mile 22, at the top of the infamous Heartbreak Hill. And I would stand there hour after hour, often with tears streaming down my cheeks, cheering til my voice was gone and my hands hurt from clapping. This event is truly unlike any marathon I’ve seen, as either a runner or a spectator. I’ve run in awesome marathons, including twice in Chicago which is a total party from start to finish. But it is nothing like Boston. Boston is special.
It’s starts at least a week before with daily human interest stories on the local news and in the Boston Globe. These are your typical tug-at-your-heartstrings,-look-at-all-the-obstacles-this-runner-has-overcome-to-be-here kind of stories. The oldest runner, the youngest runner, the disabled one, the one running for his/her dying parents/sibling/spouse/child/friend, all tinged with an Olympic hero quality, except that this is Every Man and Every Woman, strapping on their running shoes and finding glory. I love that shit.
The day itself is filled with moments, both public and personal, large and small, stories of immense personal sacrifice and triumph, all embodying the strength of the human body and the strength of the human spirit. I once saw a young man running with the words “Will You Marry Me?” scrawled on his t-shirt dropping to his knees right at mile 22 to propose to his girlfriend on the sidelines. He’d been carrying her ring in his sweaty hands for twenty-two miles. Numerous times, I’ve seen Dick and Rick Hoyt, the now famous father pushing his grown son in a wheelchair the entire length of the race. And I’ve seen thousands of ordinary men and women who have dedicated months to training and are literally on the road to their life’s greatest accomplishment.
What is most special about that day is the overwhelming feeling of camaraderie that pervades the city. People don’t come out to root for the stars like at most sporting events; this is not about cheering on overpaid professionals, who may be perfectly good at what they do but do not always earn the hero moniker. Every one is there rooting for people they don’t even know, people they’ll never know. It’s not like that at all marathons. I can tell you from experience that there are long stretches of the Cleveland Marathon where fans silently line the streets and crane their necks looking down the road for that single particular person they know, completely ignoring all the struggling runners right in front of them. The last time I ran it, in fact, I found myself shouting at the spectators, “Cheer for everyone! Cheer for everyone!” thinking, “Who raised these people?” It obviously wasn’t my mom, who instilled in us a don’t-stop-cheering-until-the-last-person-crosses-the-finish-line mentality. She had her own Boston Marathon moment, running it in 1979 when there were still relatively few women on the road. She said that as she neared the halfway mark, a veritable scream arouse from the women of Wellesley College and it was a few seconds before she realized they were screaming for her. There she was, in her early thirties, with that trademark long white hair blowing in the wind behind her, keeping up with the big dogs, running with mostly men as she let the feminists of Wellesley carry her forward to her best ever finish of 3 hours and 4 minutes.
Boston is part of my lore, the state in which I was born and city in which I was educated. As it is for so many runners, it remains the single marathon I would ever allow to lure me back on the road for that kind of distance. It is special. And it will continue to be so, even when we feel helpless and vulnerable, sad and angry. Braedan and I are running in a 5K next week, his first ever road race. I like to imagine that someday he might decide to run the Boston Marathon. And if he does, I’ll be right there at the finish line, cheering him — and everyone else — on. Because that’s what we do.