Friday, April 18, 2014

The Spirit of Boston, An NC Runner's Perspective

When spring hits North Carolina, it leaves no subtle hints of its arrival.  The Carolina winter is dull and modest in contrast, with its grey but ever lengthening days.  Spring is anything but quiet here, in April it comes in full force.  April in Carolina the air is full with the sudden haze of spores and procreation.  April in Carolina is disorienting, everything appears to change, but our lives go on at an accelerating pace.  May is a time of celebration - the gateway to the summer with its graduation parties and first beach vacations - but before then, we must cross the precarious fourth month of the year and let our minds adjust to the change in season.

It is April 15th, 2013.

The middle of April.  The third Monday in April - another Monday filled with meetings, emails to respond to and figures to review.  A coworker, Jim, crosses my path in the hallway.

"Thank God you are here."

I am puzzled.  Why would I not be?

"I thought maybe you were running Boston."  

I had almost forgotten about the race, always on the third Monday in April.  I was still recovering from a cycle of injuries precipitated by my last marathon, in a holding pattern, waiting to see if my time would get me into Boston for 2014.  On that day, April 2014 seemed forever far away and running was far from top of mind.

"No, that is next year."  I pause and scan the look on Jim's face and I read the expressions that something has gone gravely wrong.

"Did you hear what happened at the marathon?"

The news is rushing through social and media networks like a tsunami, wave after compounding wave.  The last time I felt something like this was on a Tuesday in mid-September my junior year of college.  Only in those days it was somewhat possible to remain disconnected for an hour or two from such an event.  Today it happens in real time.  We are immersed in a cloud of perpetual information.  It happens through Facebook, through Twitter, through text messages.  I wait in a state of anxiety to hear from friends, both those running the race or those who live in Boston - all are accounted for.  All are safe.

Not everyone was.  

The events of the week turned into a spectacle of media frenzy, culminating in a surreal Friday evening where Megan and I sat in our living room our eyes fixated on the television screen while the whole Boston area remained in virtual lockdown mode.  Authorities caught the suspects in the postmodern equivalent to a Wild-West shootout.  We watch shows like Scandal or movies modeled after comic book heroes in a detached state - we expect these scenes to unfold in our sitcoms and at the theatre.  When they happen in reality, they leave us cold and ponderous.  No one felt better that Friday.  There are no victors in these events.

This is the history of our time.

Oklahoma City, April 19 1995.
  
Columbine, April 20 1999.  

Virginia Tech, April 16 2007.  

Boston, April 15 2013.  




I grew up with these images.  I matured as a person as these events unfolded successively over the course of many springs.  All have an unspoken connotation of innocent lives lost going about a normal day - or in the case of Boston - a day of celebration.  All have the eerie parallel of falling around the same time each year.  Spring comes around and something goes awry, a reminder of the vulnerable nature of human ecology, a blip of terror, a disruption in the fabric of our system.

The flowers bloom and the trees reveal hidden shades of green in April.  Spring arrives, but not all that awakens from a long winter's slumber is joyful.

It is a disrespect to the victims to attempt to rank order any of these.  

But I do admit - Boston hit particularly close to me, as a runner, as a competitor, as a human.  When I read about the family members of runners who died, the ones who were hospitalized and lost limbs - the ones who keep fighting but will never be the same, I cannot help but think that it some parallel universe that could have been Megan, that could have been someone close to me standing on the sidelines watching - only there because of me and my self-focused pursuit.  Had the circumstance of training or timing been any different - 2013 could have been the year.  Easily.

It could have been.  

I refuse to live my life constrained by what could have been.

How many times after did I tell someone I was running Boston and elicit the reaction of "I hope it is safe" or the skeptical look followed by either the implicit or explicit phrase "are you sure you want to run that one?"

I started training for the Boston Marathon in 2002.  Not continuously, but Boston has been on the short list of things I was committed to doing at some point in my life.  I accepted certain premises - that with my flawed form and limits of aerobic capacity, I could never run fast enough or put in the training to run Division I track.  I could never be an Olympian or make an Olympic Trials in running.  Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is for me or for many of us, the ultimate achievement or marker for athletic success as an adult.  A chance to participate in an event that gets public attention, that draws in the best endurance athletes in the world, that has a history and aura about it, combined with the physical achievement of doing something that is inherently difficult no matter what shape you are in - running 26.2 miles - and running it fast.  A nihilist or terrorist with the senseless motive of death or destruction was not going to put even a shadow of doubt in mind that this was something I was going to do if afforded the opportunity.

I was clearly not alone.

The part of the world oblivious to the spirit of the running community scratched its head with confusion when Boston expanded its field by 9,000 and still hit capacity before everyone who qualified on time could get in.   I barely qualified with a time a full 9 minutes faster than the qualifying time from just a few years ago.  That was how popular 2014 was in response to what happened last year.

Why?

The running spirit is as alive as ever.  The running spirit refuses to back away from an impediment out of fear.  We, as runners, live for this opportunity.

36,000

I put in my headphones and plow down the American Tobacco Trail listening to a song like this:




This is my first Boston Marathon experience, but I can see the vision in my mind 72 hours before I take the line.  I played it like a highlight reel in my imagination on every long run this winter - it was the magnetic field carrying me on the sub-freezing mornings, the wind behind my sails at mile 20 going up Cemetery Hill in Umstead Park. 

I can see it and live in this extended experience, in a parade of 36,000 from Hopkinton to Boyslton Street...




I can hear the deafening noise through the tunnel of screaming college girls at Wellesley... 




And up and down the undulating hills in Newton, like a forcefield, a mass of humanity slicing through crowds of spectators, standing shoulder to shoulder rows deep.  




Running beside other young competitors in racing singlets and along with the wizened and experienced - the ones who have run Boston year after year, carried by the mystique of the nation's oldest continuous race.  Running with my training partners and friends, representing Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.

Up Heartbreak and down the backside into the city itself.  Each of the 36,000 carrying a unique story.  36,000 training plans.  36,000 times countless hours of training mentally.  Preparing physically.




Right foot followed by the left foot, a simple natural motion learned in the first year of our life embellished over forty-seven-thousand times per runner.  Over 1.6 billion strides in lockstep from start to glorious finish - runners from one corner of the earth to the next.  With the East Africans floating above the pavement at a pace faster than most people can sprint, with their flawless form and air thin bodies.

With Ryan Hall and Shalane Flanagan - the elite of my generation of US runners, the best hopes for the elusive American victory.  



36,000 sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, co-workers, friends, all people just like you and I.  36,000 dreams coming into reality.  36,000 doing something we love.  Doing something that makes us feel alive.  Fighting against our sedentary, complacent tendencies to live an extraordinary life.

Pushing toward the Back Bay, toward the finish line.




36,000 with a common bond - strangers yet a common flock with a common goal.  A common spirit.  The spirit of the runner, the spirit passed down from generation to generation from before man could fly, drive, or sail - man could run.  

Just try to stop us.

Ready, set, go...

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