April 18, 2013

26,839 Stories: The Boston Marathon.

photo by Hillary Beasley

For the last year, I’ve been unable to run.

A nasty case of plantar faciitis bound my feet up tighter than a whalebone corset. I could not sprint or walk briskly, let alone run. For months I hobbled, and months after spent brief spurts on the treadmill at a ridiculously low speed, so slow that an elderly woman perusing Reader’s Digest with a magnifying glass once outpaced me. I’d leave the YMCA in tears, and beg my doctor to give me some kind of timeline.

You’ve been running almost every day for eight years, she said. You don’t give your body a break, and this is what happens. Yes, this is what happens: it takes a fucking extended holiday.

I’d long been pushing my body too far, turning a hobby into a full-blown habit. They say that former alcoholics and drug addicts often become addicted to running. They channel all the focus it took to self-destruct and turn it into a will to live, to feel their feet firmly on the ground after floating in oblivion for so long.

I didn’t start running to escape heroin or vodka. Cheesecake was my jones. Cheesecake, greasy bags of potato chips, cookie dough right out of the tub, pizza—not even good pizza, either, but some buck-a-slice crap from a gas station. I came to running, at first, to lose weight. To escape from my adolescent self and her thick mound of shame. To escape being known by my peers as Thunder Thighs. I ran fast. I ran hard. I ran until my feet, literally, broke down. I had a lot to run from, you see.

I fell in love with running for entirely different reasons.

There are people who run, day after cold, rainy day, for the glory of a bikini-bearing Facebook pic. I can’t imagine suffering through blisters and shin splints, knife-sharp winters and the boiling heat index of summer just for that. Running never solved my problems with my body, anyway. I fought for the single digit jeans, but seldom could fit into them for long.

What I found was that it didn’t matter. My thighs were still thunderous, but for those lovely six mile runs my mind was quiet. It didn’t matter what was going on in my life, be it a break-up or a breakdown; once my sneakers were double-tied, and my playlist was chosen, I could shut the door to the outside world. The flux of my own body, all organs and limbs working synergistically, was a silent and mysterious symphony, inducing feelings I’d never felt about my body: awe, respect, even love.

I didn’t run for the size six jeans. I ran to forget that I wanted the size six jeans at all, to feel harmoniously whole. So you can understand that losing the ability to do the one thing that I loved most, that gave me the most solace, was difficult. My mind was accustomed to that habitual psychological release, and now I had nowhere to put all that neurotic energy. I became classically depressed, another teary-eyed person in the physical therapist’s waiting room.

Yoga and meditation were there for me, happy to finally have all my attention and dedication. My practice became stronger, deeper. I found myself being able to do poses that had long eluded me. There were no more tight hamstrings or cinched hips to prevent my from full expressions. But still…I missed running the way you miss an old lover. Even the stench of my abandoned Adidas sneakers rotting in the closet made my heart hurt.

On the darkest of days, there was running porn: the vast array of magazines and online videos and essays and memoirs and Pinterest boards, to pull me through. There was seasoned marathoner Frank Shorter’s story of surviving his father’s physical abuse and Katherine Switzer’s gender-busting bravery at the 1967 Boston Marathon. There was the undeniable beauty of ultra-marathoner Catra Corbett, known as the “Dirt Diva,” running long mountain trails with her faithful dachshund, Truman.

There were all those runners who break records and make it to the covers of Runner’s World. More than those well-known runners, though, it was the YouTube videos from finish lines all over the world. Most of these videos were taken by family members or mates, those waiting eagerly by the sidelines. The footage is shaky, and even more so when the person holding the camera finally hugs the exhausted runner. Though the image isn’t clear, the feeling of that moment is. There are tears and laughter, an orgasmic combination of pride and exhaustion and bear hugs and bananas.

Every marathon runner has a story, one that’s rich with tragedy and triumph, hope and fear. To run 26.2 miles requires more than physical fitness. It demands massive amounts of your time, often in the wee hours of morning when everyone other than God and bartenders, are REMing happily. It interferes with your social life—late night drinking sessions become a distant memory. The physical pain and intense fatigue are enough to deter most people from even trying. Surviving the treacherous road to the marathon is often harder than the race itself. Those who make it to the starting line are determined, strong-willed, magical creatures. And they all have tales to tell.

One of the saddest parts of the Boston Marathon explosion is that all these stories, 26,839 of them, have been reduced to one event at the finish line that day.

That one story. There were people who were running for charities they believed in. There was the daughter who was running for her mother, watching the race from a hospital bed, dying of cancer. There was the mother who was running to make her daughter proud, to show her that she can achieve anything. There were people who had fought heart disease, cancer, H.I.V, and countless other diseases. And a hundred different kinds of injuries. There were people who had lost one hundred pounds and people who had beaten anorexia and found peace. There were people who had lost their legs, but refused to give up, people in wheelchairs and on handcycles. In that crowd there was a novel: the Great American Novel, each footfall, clap, cheer, and tear another powerful word in its story, enough to make you weep and laugh and believe in the power of the human spirit.

For so many runners there that day, with all the perseverance and pain they went through to get there, the explosion was more than terrifying: it was the thief of their hopes and dreams. They didn’t get to have that moment with friends and families at the finish line. They won’t be able to frame their numbers and medals and put them on the living room wall, to remind them, even on their darkest days, that they had that one amazing moment. I fear the 2013 Boston Marathon, the race with the toughest qualifying times and the most experienced runners, will be remembered only for the tragedy. For the thousands of people who were there, giving every ounce of their glucosamine and grit, we can’t let that happen.

For every runner that attended the marathon that day, there were thousands more friends and families, co-workers and gym buddies. Those runners are inspirations to the people in their lives. They are heroes to those around them, real life examples of grace in a world that is all too often dark and malevolent. The runners I’ve known have unknowingly been my gurus; I want to follow them down that path, but they are always a little bit faster than I am, leaving me in awe and admiration of them.

Amidst the footage of the Boston Marathon that day, look for those in the crowd who could not finish.

Look for those holding their daughters with medals held high after having finished. Look for not just the blood on the sidewalk, but the thousand glorious moments that led up to it. And if you happen to know one of these participants, make sure they know how much you love and admire them for all their hard work. As a matter of fact, tell that to anyone you know who runs. It’s something you may not have said before, and there is no time like the present.

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face;

May the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,

and may God hold you in the palm of His hand.


~ Traditional Gaelic Blessing




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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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