Boston Heartbreak

For far too long, I was under the impression that a marathon was an athletic event.

I still remember my first go-around. The year was 1991, and I was a 19-year-old University of Delaware sophomore who’d just been told he was no longer good enough to be a member of the cross country team. Well, I’d show them. I trained and trained and trained for the New York City Marathon, intent on running a blazing time and proving the doubters wrong (alas, I ran, like, a 3:20 and proved them 100-percent right).

Over the course of the next decade, I signed up for six or seven more. I competed in New York and Huntsville, Philadelphia and Chicago. The routine was always the same: Work my butt off, focus on the task at hand, fight through the 26.2-mile struggle, internalize, internalize, internalize. It was brutal and numbing and exhausting, and even when I’d crack a personal record, a certain fulfillment eluded me.

Then, in 2000, everything about the marathon changed. Catherine, my girlfriend at the time, had never run 26.2 miles. Hell, she’d never jogged so much as one mile. “Let’s do New York,” I told her. “It’ll be fun.” Together, we proceeded to take long, meandering trots across the city, chatting about this and that, that and this, forming a bond that, ultimately, would result in 11 years (and counting) of marriage and two children. On the day of the big event, we woke up early, rode the bus to the Staten Island starting point, found ourselves surrounded by tens of thousands of fellow runners. Catherine’s goal wasn’t to go fast or eclipse a certain time, but simply not to erode into a puddle of rice pudding. “This is amazing,” she told me, taking in the sights and sounds and (ew) smell from 10,001 mobile toilet units. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Indeed, neither had I. These people weren’t our competitors. They weren’t our rivals, our enemies, our combatants. No, they were our partners. Over the next (dear God) five hours and 14 minutes, I saw the New York Marathon—really, all marathons—not as a sporting contest, but as a celebration of, well, being alive. People swapped encouraging words and swigs of water, offered high-fives to the spectators and cried genuine tears of joy. When agony crossed Catherine’s face, a peer would, without fail, yell out, “You can do it!” or “Almost there!” or “Looking great!” There was nary an ounce of selfishness to be found. As Catherine’s legs began to lock in the late miles, I reached out my hand and gently pushed her up a bridge. “Now that’s love,” a runner from Seattle offered. “That’s real love.”

As I sit here, reading the updates about today’s nightmare in Boston, I can’t help but recall those words—real love. The explosions weren’t merely an act of terror (as the White House has termed it), but an act of terror targeted directly into an endeavor of real love. There are few things in the sporting world that are as emotional and fulfilling and draining and communal and beautiful as the marathon. An unspoken universality cocoons the whole experience: One can be young or old, black or white, Christian or Jewish or Muslim or agnostic or whatever—and run a marathon. You can wear $4 thrift store-purchased LA Gears or $200 Nikes; train with U.S. Track and Field or good ol’ Shirley and Kay from the neighborhood canasta club. There is no official language, or political leaning, or pro- or con- position. The marathon welcomes all; embraces all; cherishes all.

That, more than anything, is why this hurts so badly. Coupled with the New York City Marathon’s belated cancellation because of Hurricane Sandy, as well as the tragic 2007 Chicago Marathon, the Boston disaster is the latest blow to an event that, until recently, was only about goodness.

When I arrived home today, I entered the house and saw Catherine. Just a day earlier she had completed a half marathon in New York’s Central Park, and was still high off the buzz.

After a pause of hesitation, I told her about Boston; about the decimation of a marathon. Her face went ashen. It was as if a family member had died.

“Why,” she said, “would anyone do that?”

I could only shrug. I have no idea.

I’m just a marathon runner.