Between the Lines: Enduring Boston

When I ran my first Boston Marathon in 1986, I’d already run another marathon to qualify for the great race. Athletically speaking, I pretty much knew what to expect. Still, as I piled into a station wagon with a bunch of my running buddies and headed out to the start in Hopkington, I felt tense, overwhelmed.

No wonder: I was about to run Boston. 

Like a lot of runners, I’d set my post-collegiate athletic sights on the lofty goal of qualifying for and then successfully completing Boston. For most of the ‘80s (and to this day), distance running gave my life structure and a dependable sense of purpose when I felt adrift. I was fortunate to live at the time in greater Boston, when American running legends like Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit were in their prime. More than the thrill of racing among legends—although surely the egalitarian opportunities offered average recreational athletes to literally rub elbows with champions separate the marathon from most other sporting contests—the best thing about living in Boston in those days was the chance to train and race with legions of other serious amateur runners.

In the ‘80s, at the height of the so-called “running boom,” Boston was a mecca for runners who, most without any chance of gaining lucre or fame by racing, embraced long-distance running as a physical, philosophical, in some cases even political journey toward…what?… something like like progress. Run more: get fitter, stronger. Endure more: get tougher, learn patience, learn humility. Participate more: embrace community, charity, diversity, humanity. To be a runner, particularly a marathon runner, was to be part of a sport in which there may have been winners, but there were never any losers. To be a runner was to have the chance to be more than a passing participant in a youthful activity; running might occupy a person for his or her whole lifetime.

I was high on all that heady stuff as the guy who carted us out to Hopkington on a cool but gray and humid April morning in 1986 pulled over and dropped us off. We jogged through the woods from the highway to the starting line, unobstructed by security checks of any kind. After ducking behind a tree for a bathroom break, I finished my warmup and settled into position for the starting gun.

When the starter fired his pistol, I knew almost immediately that I was in for a terrible day. By the 10-mile mark, I was so far off my intended pace, I thought of dropping out. I kept running largely because, even in a fog of suffering, it seemed easier than trying to figure out another way to get back to Boston. I finished the race that day, but about a half-hour slower and a lot more physically beat up than I’d hoped for. The ESPN cameras were still rolling at the finish line as I made the long, agonizingly slow journey down Boylston Street, so I have a video of my finish. Good thing, because I have almost no recollection of the last 10 miles of the race.

After last week’s tragic events at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, I pulled out that old video and some of the rest of my marathon memorabilia. While the FBI and the Boston Police, among others, launched a massive, apparently wildly successful investigation into the bombings, I watched the news and talked to other runners, to people with deep connections to the race. We shared stories of all the race days when, at about 3 p.m., at least one of us would have been within a few yards of the blast sites. When I watched the ESPN footage of my nearly unconscious finish in 1986, I noted that I came down the same side of the street as the blasts, almost on the sidewalk.

We also talked about the uncertain future of the Boston Marathon, about the effect the bombings will likely have on on security protocols at the race, changing the quality of the experience for runners and spectators alike. We talked about other acts of terror that have impacted our sport in the past—subjects that came up frequently among runners, even in the days prior to the 9/11 attacks. Runners of my era recalled in particular the 1972 Olympics in Munich, when Palestinian terrorists took nine Israeli athletes, coaches and officials hostage. All the hostages were later killed in a botched rescue effort. We remembered the hard but, to many of us, proper decision by organizers to continue after the tragedy and finish the Games.

In the same way, the Boston Marathon will go on, I have no doubt. Most of those who participated in its 117th running last week will continue to run, to strive, to endure. As inspiring a metaphor as the marathon may be, however, it will never be enough to help us make sense of the carnage we witnessed last week: the horrible incongruity of death at the finish line.

What I experienced in 1986 was as bad as running a marathon should ever get: the feeling of running on empty, stuck to the asphalt in a foggy twilight, being miserable but unwilling to stop. That kind of suffering leads to growth. There should be no greater price than that to pay for running in a foot race.

Author: Tom Vannah

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