The Boston Marathon
It hit me hard when I learned of Martin Richard, the eaight-year-old victim of the Boston Marathon Bombings, cheering with his family by the finish line of the race. It reminded me of what an extraordinary event the Boston Marathon is.
And how so many of us know intimately the true spirit of competition and community that the Marathon represents.
My dad ran it twice and our family was a regular fan – whether we knew specific runners or not. But we often did know runners: my dad, Mark. My Aunt Merry a few times. My brother, John. Neighbors. Many.
In recent years when ski racer Bode Miller tried so hard to convince people that he simply wanted to compete, hiking after he missed a gate so he could finish the race, or kept on skiing after he lost one of his skis (they let you use 2). It was understood by all of us who cheered in Boston. At the Marathon we cheered for the throngs of runners. The clear goal was not winning – though that is special, even legendary – but simply finishing and competing is the real thing. Maybe you could improve on your time or enjoy finishing in the top 5,000, but simply finishing – even trying to finish – is what matters.
My dad, who was in the hospital during this year's Marathon with a dangerously slow and irregular heartbeat, ran it first just before he headed to war. He thought there were around a hundred runners in 1943. At the time that was, according to my dad, "Lots of runners."
He was a great athlete and he desperately wanted to run the Marathon. The Marathon was an annual tradition that went through his family's neighborhood in Newton. It was a couple weeks before my Dad's May 1 birthday in April, 1943. He was 17, 2 weeks shy of what would have been his 18th, the age needed to compete. So he falsified a document, crudely erasing the "5" of his 1925 birthdate and making it 1924.
The official getting his form was on to him, but he begged – "I've got to do this!" Maybe it was wartime – he would likely be shipped overseas soon – and she let him in.
On the way out of the house early on April 20, 1943, about to head to Hopkinton, my day was stopped by his dad.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm running. In the Marathon."
"You'll have a heart attack and die!"
"I'm gonna do it. I'll be fine."
And he went and he ran. And ran over Heartbreak Hill, the long, gradual climb out of Newton into Chestnut Hill and towards Boston. Those who have made it over say that what gets most runners is not the excruciating climb, but it's coming back down to BC – Boston College – where your tired legs are now hammered by gravity with every drop of your foot.
But before BC, at the center of the long jog through Newton, my dad saw his dad, one of the many who lined the route.
His dad called out to him, "You're doing great. You're gonna make it!" My dad smiled and waved as he passed. Seeing his dad gave him that boost to get up and over Heartbreak Hill.
As I remember the story from when I grew up, my dad was greeted by his friends as he went past BC. "They had an ice cold Coke and grabbed me, declared victory and put me in the back of their convertible." He was a few miles from the finish but too weak to resist. "But I always wanted to finish."
35 years later ho got his chance.
He worked at it. He trained with friends. He ran. He built his heart and core.
In April of 1978 he headed out to Hopkinton, now one of about 5,000 runners. My mom worried about him.
My dad's father was not there. We lost him in 1953 to a heart attack. But he was there in spirit. And me, my mom and siblings and friends were all there.
As my dad ran through Ashland and Framingham his local buddies went faster and slower, some dropped out, but my dad acquired new friends on the route. As he approached our spot, near Newton Center, we heard that local BC hero, Bill Rodgers, had won the race. It was his second victory after stunning everyone with his victory three years earlier, in 1975.
My dad approached, as I waved, excited, simply thrilled to see him. And he beamed. He said to his acquired companion, "This is my son, Bill Rogers." In her mile-18 delirium, she did a classic double-take of me. "How did you get back here so quickly?"
Too busy to explain quantum entanglement he went towards the hills of Heartbreak, with a deep desire to simply finish. And he made it over the hills and down to the final stretch of Commonwealth Avenue. He was heading to the final turns. And he hit the wall.
I had heard about hitting the wall, but I learned what happened to my dad one day some years later when I rode a bike for 98 miles – my goal being 100 and the Ferry to Block Island. I hit the wall.
It's called hitting the wall because you can feel okay, then done. Like a car running out of gas. It's when you burn through all your energy and reserve energy and begin to go to the core and draw on muscles for desperately needed energy, taking the food from your own tissue. It's like you run out of wood for your wood stove during a severe cold-snap and begin to start taking down strips of the wall to burn and keep yourself alive. In the case of our bodies every step, every muscle contraction, every twitch hurts. Your body says "Don't go another step."
And at mile 25 my dad was done. Dead tired. Defeated and in enough pain that he simply had to listen to his body's scream with each and every step. "Stop!" He kept walking, but barely, the remaining mile or so could just as well be 26 or 100 miles. Impossible. And even the slow, trudging walk would not get there. Defeat.
The crowds cheered. "Come on! You can do it!" The crowds were huge, too, supportive, on his side, laughing and joyful. Not laughing at him, but loving the exertion that brought him there. "You can do it. Keep going!"
But he couldn't.
Wanting to finish is not enough. That will get us up in the morning as sensible people still sleep. That will get us up to train, to raise our fists by the art museum. To eat raw eggs or whatever else you think will build you up. But when your body screams with pain and every step feels like a life and death struggle to survive, then extrinsic cheering and dreams and fantasies of overcoming adversity are just abstract ideas. It kills to take a step.
But out of this stepped a man. "He was in a business suit, wearing a hat, like a Fedora." He came out of the crowd of cheering fans and he walked next to my dad. "You've always wanted to do this. I did, too. I'm going to run with you."
This Boston businessman began to slowly jog with my dad. Step after step. Did the pain go away? Did the man lift my dad's feet?
Step after step my dad began to run again, the man beside him. After a rhythm of foot after foot, clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, he said, "You're good now, it's right around the corner. You're going to make a couple turns then you'll be able to see the finish line. Then you'll run to it, run over it."And he was gone, back into the cheering crowd. A hero. One of the thousands. A community celebrating the long race. Because they are part of that race.
Sure the race is about the runners. Sure it's about the race, but the cheering crowd seeing the life in the competition is part of it.
My dad heard the crowd again. He ran through that cheering. He ran through the pain. He made the turns. He could then see the finish line. My mom used to say that you have to see past the finish. Step by step my dad finished the race. He did what he set out to do. Cheered on by a community.
Cheered on by Hopkinton and Ashland and Framingham and Natick and Wellesley and Newton and Brookline and Boston. He finished the Boston Marathon at age 52 in 1978.
A few days ago doctors in New York City, where my dad had been visiting his brother, installed a pacemaker in his chest. His Doctor there said his heart is strong and that they were just working on an electrical problem.
The crowd at the Marathon says "Yes! We are with you." Clunk, clunk, clunk. Through that cheering. That's what it is: a community cheering the best of what we can do. It might be personal, but it's more than one person's dream. It is a community saying yes. Run. Finish. Compete. Complete.
I think of Martin Richard cheering at that finish line. And how the bombs were designed to destroy community as they killed people. But that community of people locked in their houses for the dark days that followed the Boston Marathon Bombings are still here. That community of supporters is as present and as sure as that man in the crowd said, "You can do this. I'm going to run with you." Yes, you can.
And we can help one another finish this race. It's a community that runs one day to return again the next.
We can – and need to be – that man in the crowd reminding us that we can do this. And we want to go past that finish line.
Thanks, Boston and all the towns and people and communities tied to it today. Martin Richard and his family need you.