runners: a reflection on the boston marathon tragedy

in the immediate aftermath of societal tragedies our first response is to define, shape, and make the suffering fit into our worldview. we take personal ownership of the event, for better or ill. there is no correct response and there is no single owner of the necessary sadness.

the attacks at the boston marathon on monday are just the most recent tragedy the US has had to wrestle with, and we’ve all witnessed every imaginable response. the expected grief. the disbelieving anger. the politically charged. the moving. the selfish. the altruistic. the misguided. the silent.

we all have our own methods, none necessarily more valid than the other, but all part of the same fabric of social ownership of the events. the suffering is ours, or perhaps more honestly, the suffering is “mine”.

i’ve spent the last few days thinking about the cost of this event. there are the horrendous costs: the senseless waste of life, the many wounded (including numerous amputees), the challenge to our sense of safety. there are the more veiled costs: the inevitable speculation on who to blame, the political debates stalemated from the outset, the shock and trauma to a society. the hidden costs: we all now live in a world where we cannot undo what happened.

but the focus of my thought has been on the world of running, an area that perhaps might seem small in the whole scheme of things, but i believe deserves some attention, and i think offers a valuable approach to suffering.

having been a participant in a number of race events, as a runner and as a spectator (most recently watching my wife complete a half marathon), the energy, spirit, and mentality of events such as the boston marathon are very familiar to me. i know someone personally who was running the race that day (thankfully finishing ahead of the explosions), but beyond that also know the mood that is evoked by these events. the attacks speak to such a saddening callous disregard for human goodness. what has been attacked is not simply the literal human lives, the literal city of boston, the literal safety of american culture, but also the intangible but very recognizable spirit surrounding runners and race events.

running is truly a universal sport. anyone can be a participant. stand at any finish line, for any race event, anywhere in the world, and you will see an unmatched diversity of participants. every age, race, social background, all committed to the same journey. overcoming body and mind to simply move from one place to another without stopping. if you haven’t witnessed it, you are missing out, it is an inspiring reflection of a much larger hope. sadly, that was compromised on monday. whoever undertook these heinous attacks chose to sully an event dedicated to camaraderie, human effort, and celebration of dedication.

you are applauded as a runner simply for the effort, fast or slow, people will cheer you throughout the race, and congratulate your efforts at the finish line.

running brings people together. on my training efforts around dc, often when i pass another runner, we will acknowledge one another, with a wave, a nod of the head, a smile, as if saying “i know how you feel, i know how much this costs, and i wish you the best’. it is a language of support, all derived from the simple act of choosing to move your body in a way it is naturally gifted to move and encouraging it to be stronger.

runners help each other. in my few experiences with racing, i have been nearly brought to tears when halfway through the intended journey i have fallen into stride with another participant, a complete stranger, realizing we are traveling at the same pace, and in an effort to help each other, we maintain pace with one another for the next mile. at any race event hundreds of volunteers hand out water, shouting encouraging words to the participants as they pass, aiding strangers in the seemingly pointless goal of moving several miles from one location to another as best as they can. but, i couldn’t imagine a better metaphor on how to live life. help people move through their life, just because they’re trying, and so are you. it’s beautiful.

in other words, running and race events from my perspective, represent something wholly good in terms of human expression. to end human life under that banner, to force amputation on individuals dedicated to personal betterment, to bring fear to such an event, to denigrate something dedicated to the spirit of uniting all people, is truly unconscionable.

but apropos to the spirit of running, that pain seems to be a charge for people to keep going. any runner can tell you stories of reaching that final mile and feeling their body incapable of going a step further, and yet something impossible happens. the mind and body surrender, giving over to the pain, and something takes over. determination? madness? i don’t know, but it happens, and it is real.

with the boston attacks, the pain, the anguish, the confusion, it doesn’t make any sense. people have gone from attending a celebratory event to attempting to rationalize the loss of their loved ones. or preparing for a completely different life without legs. or handling the trauma of being witness to the carnage of the attacks. or simply watching helplessly on the television. it is a seemingly insurmountable pain.

for what it is worth, i know those that can will continue to run, and believe that those that now can’t, will find a way to maintain that spirit, and for those who don’t or have never been able to do so, i can only offer up the spirit of being a runner as my own personal guidance through these events. with miles to go, and a body and mind that refuses to cooperate, all we can do is surrender, know that it’s possible to continue, somehow, and realize we’re all applauding each other along the way, ready to pace each other, if you’re leading the pack or crawling across the finish line, we should and will be there for one another.

a smile as we pass by each other, as if to say, “you’ve got me and i’ve got you.”


4 thoughts on “runners: a reflection on the boston marathon tragedy

  1. Beautifully written. I love this: “If you’re leading the pack or crawling across the finish line, we should and will be there for one another.”

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