When I solicited funds as a charity runner in the 2013 Boston Marathon I promised to write a report on the race and my donors’ ‘investment.’ The moment the race started I started to compose my report. The mood was light, the crowd a united force of love, the events and sights all affirming a shared humanity. This would be a report of smiles. The serious counterpoint would be the 26.2 long miles.
At 2.07pm the mood changed. After that the playful response would feel profane. But I did promise a race report.
I slept on the matter. The evil was great and real, certainly. Real too was the goodness. Both demand to be written.
Does any runner sleep well the night before a marathon? I don’t. To prevent dehydration on race day I drink plenty through the previous day and every cupful demands its exit through the night. I am excited, nervous, a kid before his birthday party. Boston, after all, is to marathoners as Wimbledon is to tennis players. An enormous privilege, unearned by any effort of my legs, paid for in thousands of donated dollars.
The playful mind must be carried by legs that are 67 years old. Some prudence surfaces. The sixty-seven year old prepares methodically. The experience of forty past marathons insists I vaseline my second toes (which always blister), my armpits (which chafe), my nipples (which bleed) and my private bits (none of your business).
To prevent my shoelaces untying over the distance I double knot them: a trivial detail? No, not in Boston, for it was at the start line of one Boston Marathon back in the seventies that the favourite, noting his arch rival’s single-knotted shoes, bent down and double-tied them.
That small act is Boston’s marathon epitomized. The marathon and Boston’s people find each other at their best.
There is a verse in my morning prayers that reads: Let me fall, I pray, into the hands of God, for great are His mercies. But into the hands of Man, let me fall not. At the time of my praying on marathon day, I attach no special significance to this short prayer.
Just before setting out there is the traveller’s prayer. This was composed in an age when most travel was hazardous and took place on foot. This is my mode of travel today. I prayed:…let us reach our destination alive, in joy and in peace. Rescue us from any enemy, ambush or danger on the way… Once again, a familiar prayer. Routine.
After praying this sensible runner eats a sensible breakfast, high in complex carbs, not too heavy, not too scant.
Coffee, hot and strong, is taken in calibrated amounts. Caffeine is my performance enhancing drug. It wakes me up, speeds me up, lifts my spirits. Too much and I become imprudently manic.
Before the start in Hopkinton I seek out the Michael Lisnow Respite Centre, the new home of funds from donors in Australia. It is a comfortable, rangy New England residence close to the Start on the main road, chockers this morning with red-clad fundrunners, all topping up their fluids, discharging fluids, filling tummies, emptying tummies. In short, we are nervous.
A blonde lady of middle years catches my eye. I catch hers: Are you Sharon Lisnow?
Sharon embraces me, a good, honest, non-californian, body-to-body, frame-clenching squeeze. She is the co-founder of the Centre. Michael Lisnow was her son. Her squeeze expresses the bond she feels with anyone who supports the Centre. Clients of the Center wander around, beaming. (Is there any sunshine as bright as the smile of an adult with Down Syndrome?)
(Here I need to confess a personal moral error. Until some point early in my adult life I was embarrassed to look upon a disabled person. It wasn’t good manners; it was a queasiness. I saw the disability, I felt the guilt of my own enabled brain and body. Aesthetic panic drove my gaze away. Appalled by the lifelong uphill haul that would be the carer’s lot, I could not look.
I never saw the person, I never knew him as kin.
That has changed.
And had I not yet recognized the change within me, the people at the Michael Lisnow Respite Centre* would make me know. Here the whole human glory of disabled people grins its crooked grins at me, walks its crooked walk alongside me, gives voice and claims me as fellow. The greatness of this small place is its ambient joy. I wear the red shirt of Team Lisnow as naturally as my own skin.)
It was on the day of the 100th running of the Boston Marathon that Michael Lisnow passed away. I tell Sharon I ran that day. Her smile in soft recall signals more pleasure than pain.
“Was Michael your only child Sharon?”
“No, I had another, a little girl. She was born very premature, like Michael. She died, aged seven days – of an overdosage of digoxin. Decimal point in the wrong place.”
A grim look, a longish silence.
Sharon points out her sister, one of the fundrunners. The sister is a ‘real runner’, a veteran. At the veteran’s side is a tall, younger woman, her daughter who will run her first marathon today. Both wear the scarlet livery of the Centre. I will learn that wearing the Lisnow scarlet is a key to the hearts of spectators. These people, beneficiaries of the Centre, or connected to clients, bless us as we pass. We will become the vehicles for their gratitude. Their goodwill will fuel our legs.
“Watch out for the Lisnow support team at ten miles and at the finish line. We’ll give you food and shelter.” Innocent words of cheer from Sharon. None of us can know what lies in wait at the Finish.
A slim young woman applies long lurid elastic strips to her limbs. She notices me noticing: “My trainer says it helps. What do you think – hocus pocus?” I wouldn’t know, but I tell her every bit of hocus helps. This young lady, a professor of something somewhere in the area – professors are thick on the ground around Boston – runs for Retts.
”What is Retts?” I wonder.
“It is a dominant female chromosomal disorder that causes weakness and developmental delay. Cardiac abnormalities too.” Her shirt reads: I run because girls with Retts cannot.
The professor’s girlfriend has twin girls. Both have Retts, both have been clients at Lisnow. The professor, a freckled slim woman who looks about thirty, raised her mandatory $5000 while training for the marathon, caring for her own three kids and – professing her something.
Her kids, three highly competitive boys, will not be watching today because, as her ten year old confides, “Mom, I don’t think you’ll win this.”
The race starts in waves, the first at 10.00. We non-elite fundrunners will not start until 10.50. For some this time differential will create mortal danger; for others, the reverse. The young professor’s projected time will see her at the Finish at 2.05pm.
We Lisnows number ninety-six. In our corral we mix with the Dana Farbers (cancer), the Liver Runners, the Boston Children’s Hospital, the Retts in their purple, the Hoyts (handicapped kids), the Samaritans (suicide prevention), the Eye and Ears (eyes and ears!), Team Stork (Women’s Hospital), Tufts (childhood obesity), and so on and on and on. A rainbow of charity runners, thousands strong.
Alongside us in the corral a contingent of soldiers, big hefty blokes not built for distance running, wear heavy boots and bulky packs, their livery for the trip on foot to Boston.
The forecast promises a cool day, perfect for running. The crowds are out and vocal. Already they proffer drinks (beer!), liquorice sticks, orange segments, bananas, Vaseline (slathered onto wooden tongue depressors). They want so badly to help; waterlogged, bursting with stored glycogen, vaselined to a reptilian slipperiness, I have to disappoint them.
The starting gun fires and the great organism of colour and hope and resolve that is a marathon field moves its thousands of pairs of feet in a slow shuffle. Towards the line, across the line – here a wild waving aloft of thousands of pairs of triumphant hands for the cameras above – now around a wooded bend and down a steep little slope.
The emotionally labile behemoth starts on its long road to Boston. After a few hundred metres the beast finds its many discrete limbs, legs extend, the pace picks up and we are running.
The slope seduces many. So much energy, coiled tense, bursting for release. This particular fundrunner, a sober veteran, recalls the dictum of the great De Castella and holds back. [Deeks wrote that for every single minute that a marathoner goes out too fast in the first half of the marathon – that is, at an unsustainable speed – she will lose ten minutes in the second half of the race.] In many of my forty marathons I have demonstrated the precise truth of the De Castella Dictum. Not today. My recent training on hills points to a ten-minute mile pace and a finishing time of four hours and twenty minutes. As the son of the Professor of Something would say, I am not likely to win.
I hope the reader has access to footage of this race. My leaden lines cannot give you the life, the exuberance of the crowds; the great legion of well-wishing; the teams of volunteers in their primrose jackets, doling out drinks and belief; the comradeship of the runners as we share in this bounty. Even as our bodies tire and hurt and flag, our high spirits deny the messages from our flesh.
It is roses, roses, all the way/ With myrtle mixed in my path like mad…
This sustained elation is truest of the slowest. We have time to see and to know each other, to marvel at ordinary greatness. I have been running for half an hour before I sight ahead of me a lady of fleshy fatness: her frame is no taller than mine, yet she carries twice the burden, and still I struggle to overtake her. She runs and she propels her flesh with all the serious resolve of the great Kenyans.
Here is a young woman whose shirt reads: MELANOMA SURVIVOR. My mind flies to one of my nearest kin who underwent surgery for that disease. An erroneous test report told my wife and me that the disease had recurred, that our loved one was doomed. The worst 36 hours of our lives followed. Locked in silence, unavailable to each other, we sat in a single room and contemplated unbearable loss. The report was false. Our child survived and thrives, cured. I run alongside a second survivor and give thanks.
Then Sharon Lisnow’s words echo: When Michael was born he weighed one pound. His father’s wedding ring could slide along his arm. He could never walk, talk or see but he laughed and lived and thrived and loved his many friends.
Just as we began creating the Respite Centre Michael was admitted to hospital for another routine surgery. Complications occurred and nine months later, Michael died – at home. It hurt me to think that his legacy would be a thing of bricks and mortar, that this material thing would represent his small sweet smile.
I feel so differently now…
I wonder whether all of us humans share Sharon’s ability to transcend our worst of all possible days.
I have passed the ten kilometre mark – nearly quarter way there. I have drunk water at every offer. My legs are not tired. They drive me on at ten-minute mile pace. I am breathing hard. These are all good signs especially the slight breathlessness. When I reach my extremity of fatigue – as assuredly I will – the best speed of my tired legs will not trouble my breathing.
Now the sun reveals itself and I feel sticky. My legs send an unexpected message. My quads, those mighty chunks of meat, feel odd, distinctly uncomfortable. Sore actually.
But not tired, a strange sensation, unexpected at this stage. A little unnerving. Ten kilometres follow of rhythmic perplexity – right thigh, left thigh, right thigh, left…
For much of this first half we have been running downhill. Now as I ascend a small rise the soreness disappears. Downhill running, seducer of legs, has caused the soreness. How fortunate that the long uphills – including Heartbreak Hill – lie ahead.
At the half way mark we encounter the Sirens of Wellesley, the waving, screaming, urging, cheering students of that all-girls college. In the past, these myriads of young beauties have had no screams for me. Rather they saved their breath for the women runners. As I slog up a longish hill, those Sirens make themselves heard. As well as their whooping they wave placards. Every placard shows a text that begins, KISS ME. It would be a fair challenge to kiss every one of these happy hundreds. But they are asking…
The Wellesely maidens are held back from us unpleasantly moist, warm, salty specimens by barriers erected to contain just this ardour. The girls lean forward over the railings in delightful display, beseeching me to kiss them all.
KISS ME, I’M BRAZILIAN
KISS ME, I’M HONDURAN
KISS ME I’M SCOTTISH (Clearly also Chinese)
KISS ME, I’M ILLITERATE
KISS ME, I’M EASY
KISS ME, I’M FLEXIBLE.
KISS ME, I’M CONSENTING
KISS ME, I HAVE A TWIN SISTER
I run on, churlishly rejecting the Brazilian, the Honduran, the twin sisters, the entire legion. I owe them an apology, I am sure, not least because their hilarity and cheer beguile me and send me, unaware of greater effort, up Heartbreak Hill.
Some die of heartbreak. I am reminded of this when I sight ahead of me Sharon Lisnow’s sister and niece. They are walking. I come up behind them, urging them to run: Come on, Lisnows, you can do it!
No they cannot. The veteran – I’ll call her Aunty – says, “My heart is racing.” Abruptly I become a doctor again and give orders: “Stop walking.” I take Aunty’s pulse and find it regular, not particularly fast, only one hundred beats per minute.
“It’s normally forty,” says Aunty.
I walk Aunty and niece to the verge and lie Aunty down.
“Do you have any pain in your chest? Your throat? Your neck?”
Aunty shakes her head – “No” – to each of these.
“What about your upper limbs?”
“Only a tingling – in both arms. It stops when I stop running. I’m OK when I walk.”
“Drop out of the race. Call a medic.”
Aunty shakes her head, rises and walks again, quite strongly, after her little rest.
I urge her daughter: ”Don’t let your mum run. Better to drop out than drop dead.”
Daughter shrugs: what can she do?
I have spent about five minutes here, being a doctor. Aunty urges me not to delay myself and ruin my race time. In fact this kerbside bedside has refreshed me.
Feeling fitter I run on and up. Something takes my attention from my groaning thighs. I feel light. Running is not an effort. This is the third quarter of the race when I ought to feel worse, not better, but endorphins, the only legal opiates in sports, are operating. They seduce my weakened brain, singing their own siren song: Pheidipides, superman, run on, run faster, you can catch up to your target. Nothing hurts, you are a champion. The endorphins lie through their molecular teeth, of course, and I am too old to believe their lies, but it is pleasant to run, for the time, with no pain.
The runners and the crowd create an impressionist moving image for my pleasure and entertainment. In my quite mad state a pointillist movie runs before me. Every colour of shirt and hat and banner moves and weaves and dances around, ahead and above me. Lovely, delightful, enchanting, a sublime counterpoint to the plod and trudge of my legs up Heartbreak Hill.
Here is a sign that reads 20 MILES. Here, screaming excitedly, waving placards that read RUN HOWARD RUN and PHEIDIPIDES, are my personal support team, my niece Ziva, her boys Elisha and Akiva, and their Dad, Ezra. This seems like a good time to spend time with family. I sit on the kerb and drink in their love and the diluted Coca Cola they have brought me. I quote some quite inappropriate lines – Now, more than ever, seems it rich to die/ To cease upon the midnight with no pain…
Ziva, who know her poems, looks at me as if I am mad.
Ezra volunteers to run the next kilometre with me. I kiss some kids and we set off into the impressionist vista, running easily. “Ezra, when will I reach Heartbreak Hill?”
“You’re running the last third of it right now, Unc.”
Ezra waves me goodbye and on. “I’ll wait for you at Family Reunion, near the Finish.”
Goodbye Ezra. Hello serious tiredness.
Hello again, to Aunty and the daughter, running ahead of me, apparently fit and happy.
On my right a great sign reads: SHORT CUT. Below it a long arrow points away from the road to the adjacent premises, a pub. Seriously tempting.
I consult my watch. I am slowing, slowing. My body persuades my mind to let it be. It is an old body, ragged, not open to persuasion. Leave me alone, it says. And the mind – I mean the will – collapses and obeys.
I find myself asking what every spent marathoner must ask: Why am I doing this? Then, Is this the last one?
After all, I trained well, felt optimistic, had no injuries. I am probably too old to try this again. Absurd ambition!
I find myself playing a game of tag with a trim old bloke who slides into view on my left and glides ahead. His head of short silver curls and his upright, tidy frame fill me with admiration. I try to keep up. After a while I have gained, now I run ahead of the old veteran. Around the corner and there he is in front of me, now alongside, now behind.
We swap positions a number of times before he opens a gap of ten metres. The gap does not narrow. I possess a surprisingly brisk finishing sprint that might bring me to the line ahead of this beautiful old athlete; but even should I happen to beat him by a yard, he’ll have beaten me by fifteen years: his shirt reads: BOSTON MARATHON
80 YRS +
The crowds thicken, the shouting deepens to a constant roaring, the blaring of instruments, the clatter of helicopters – all deaden and enliven the runners who snuff the finish as with animal instinct. The crowd and the runners share mounting excitement. We are one pulsing organism now. The house roofs seem to heave and sway/ The church spires flame, such flags they have…
We runners know we will finish. Nothing will stop us now. Too numb for pain, too deep in the rhythm and pattern and trance of right leg, left leg, right leg to heed weakness or tiredness. We will go on. Stopping, as Macbeth remarked, were as tedious as go o’er.
A look of shock on the face of a slim, erect man at my right as I run by the kerb. A handsome face, young, it ages as the man listens to his phone. He speaks to the air, to the world, to me: “There have been explosions in Boylston Street, near the finish. People are injured.”
“They are suspending the marathon temporarily.”
It can’t be anything serious. This is a marathon. After running forty of them, I know marathons. These are a celebration of the power of the will. These are the runners’ Ninth Symphony, our Song of Joy.
I run on.
Now at kilometre 37, I have been running for four hours. I have – at my present steady rate of trudge – about 45 minutes to run. Nothing will stop me now.
Around me, some runners have slowed to a walk. They speak to each other in urgent tones. Their faces wrought, they consult phones. Some send text messages. Here is a young woman runner who stands with her back to the finish. Her fine features are torn in a grimace of agony. Is she injured? She weeps, slumps, her body heaves wrenching, silent gasps of grief. Others catch her and hold her hard. More and more of my comrades stop running. Police officers, until now marshalling the crowd behind barriers, spill into our path. They speak to those runners who still run: “The race is abandoned. There is no access to the finish.”
The marathon course is a river of flesh, stalled. Police mingle with runners, spectators enter the course. The barriers are down. We are one and we are halted.
Almost no-one runs. I look ahead for Mister 80-plus, for aunty, for the Retts, for the Women’s Hospitallers, for the Liver Runners, for all my glorious fellows whom I have tailed. None is running. It is over, finished, although we have not finished.
In last October’s Melbourne Marathon I was forced to quit at the seven kilometre mark. My calf muscle tore too painfully for me to go on. I had never previously seen DNF (did not finish), that acronym of disgrace, alongside my name. The calf has long healed but the feeling of dishonor persists.
And now – is this how it all ends – with this whimper?
I run on, threading a narrowing path past thronging people who have seen and have accepted a bigger picture. They have stopped. I run between them. About the 41 kilometre mark I reach the turn into Boylston Street. A police officer sights me and steers me gently, firmly away to my right, away from the line. It is over.
I peer down Boylston Street, down those 800 metres of glory, along that fabled track through crowds that were wont to exult in our achievement. I see no crowds, I hear no roar of cheering. Only the scream and the scream of ambulance sirens, the wail and the cry of police cars speeding, weaving, shrieking to a halt in fabled Boylston Street.
It is over.
But it is never over. Upon completing a marathon the runner is spent. Tissues have suffered damage, energy stores exhausted, muscle cells broken down. For days following the kidneys pump out a meagre gravy.
The body cools and the marathoner seeks warmth and food and drink. And love. Food and drink and a warming blanket normally wait at the finish. But today the finish is a crime scene and I cannot approach.
Love was supposed to wait for me at Family Reunion. “Near the Finish”, Ezra said, near that fatal line. Happily, Ezra is nowhere near Family Reunion.
Who else told me they’d meet us at the finish? The Lisnow support team were going to wait there. Where are they now?
And the professor, the little lady with the lurid elastic strips that are supposed to help. Her finishing time was to be 2.05pm. The bombs exploded at 2.07. Where are you, Professor?
This naked runner meanders, looking for a taxi. The subway has been closed down. Tens of thousands seek transport in those streets that remain open. We find no taxi. Instead we find kindness at every hand.
I approach a young lady sending text messages. Yes, she’ll gladly lend me her phone. NO, she will not accept reimbursement.
I phone Ziva. Wrong number. My brain always melts late in a marathon; today I cannot remember Ziva’s number.
I know where she lives, six miles back along the way I have run, back in Newton, back in those innocent hills. I start to walk. The day cools.
Young people walking at my side, all of Boston is walking, the young carrying phones, search my face, am I alright, can they do anything?
Yes, they can: I accept a phone and call my sister in New York. Margot thanks God I am safe, says yes, she’ll tell Annette and the kids I am ok, she’ll contact everyone. “What else, Howard? How will you get home to Ziva?” Margot will call Ezra and send him to meet me below the Citgo sign.
“Citgo?” The young woman’s voice breaks in: ”It’s close by. I’ll take you there.” In fact, Citgo is a mile away. My guide leads me all the way. I look at the doorway behind me and discover the Boston Uni branch of Barnes and Noble. Inside there are books and warmth and Starbucks.
I stand outside and cool again.
Huddling in an alcove, I watch Boston passing. The many, many people afoot are all either runners or spectators. Most runners wear their finishers’ medals. They have passed through the alley of death and emerged whole. Absent is the look of triumph well earned; in its place a sober knowing. Almost guilty. And a good number of runners, like me, are unmedalled, equally sorrowful.
The sorrowing many of Boston approach us runners, reaching out with long looks of compassion. Some touch us, shake their heads, actually say, “I’m sorry.” One man extends a hand and clasps my own. Others pause and pat me on the shoulder. One man, young, well made, walks right into my alcove. He asks, “Are you alright?”
I tell him I am and I thank him.
“What can I do for you?”
“There is nothing I need, thank you.”
“Where do you need to go? Let me drive you.”
Finally, “Take my jacket. You’ll get cold.”
Instead I warm myself with frequent trips into Barnes and Noble, where a notice informs me it is Poetry Month. Of course, April, the cruellest month. I’ll read some poetry.
A poem of Emily Dickenson ambushes me, Emily of the hilly verses and abruptive dashes:
I felt a funeral in my brain
And mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through
Emily, did you foreknow how a world, your world, of bucolic quiet, of trust, could rupture? How this running of the fools, this ceremony of innocence, might disintegrate?
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every Plunge,
And Finished – knowing then –
As if a distant witness to my own being, I note an obscure lack of alarm within me for my own safety. This is not bravery but a form of dumb stupidity, an adolescent refusal to countenance my own destruction. A failure of imagination. And some deeper sense that our universe is not malign, that there operates a providence. Lacking tremors or tears for myself my eyes rain tears for the victims, for my fellow runners, for the Lisnow people.
By the time I arrive home, emails are pouring in. One, from the Lisnows, informs me that every one of their ninety-four, as well as all their support people, have been accounted for and are safe.
Tears in abundance; they fall whenever the people of Boston show tenderness towards me. They gather and fall whenever I witness their kindness towards other strangers.
And the emails and the phone calls and the messages from my ‘investors’, from blogfollowers, from my friends and my kin, from every corner of my life, all these choke my voice and wet my eyes.
Love that gathers and swells like this to breaking is normal at a death. Have I foretasted the sweetness of my own funeral?
But. The newspaper image of a man wearing a baseball cap with a backpack at his feet and an eight-year old child standing a metre or two before him will not leave me. I see him, I see the child, I see the bomb. I see what the man must see, a child, a sister, a mother.
The bomber’s thin face looks little older. He could be the child’s teenage brother. Instead he is younger brother to his co-bomber, apparently a satellite, lacking independent moral compass.
Back in Australia I decide I will taste running again. I pass a newsagency and pause at an arresting headline: GET REAL. I read the article, written by Andrew Bolt. Beneath a huge and horrifying colour photograph of terror in Boylston Street, he warns readers about the Muslim threat. Not ‘Islamist’ but ‘Muslim’, a blanket for one billion humans. A sadness overwhelms me. Whereas in Boston people brought down the barriers, coming together to find their own image in the face of their fellow, here is the xenophobia that sees only difference, that seeks barriers and sows division.
I run on. Running will not again be the same.
Dalia, an ancient friend, sends me a poem by an unread poet that resounds with obscure relevance.
They bring us crushed fingers,
mend it doctor.
they bring us burn-out eyes,
Hounded owls of hearts,
They bring us a hundred white bodies,
a hundred red bodies,
a hundred black bodies
mend it doctor.
on the dishes of ambulance they bring
the madness of blood, the scream of flesh,
the silence of charring
mend it doctor.
And while we are suturing
inch after inch,
night after night,
nerve to nerve,
muscle to muscle,
eyes to sight ,
they bring in
even longer daggers,
even more thunderous bombs,
even more glorious victories
This report is dedicated to the memory of Krystle Campbell, Lun Lingzi and Martin Richard; and of Sean Collier, MIT police Officer, dead at 26 years.
Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 30 April, 2013
This piece is excerpted from ‘Burned Man’, a collection of non-fiction work by Howard Goldenberg, to be published early 2015.
Howard’s novel Carrots and Jaffas is widely available in bookstores, including (but not only) the following excellent establishments:
Readings (Carlton/Hawthorn/Malvern/St Kilda), Avenue Bookstore (Albert Park/Elsternwick), selected Dymocks and Gleebooks. Also available online from Booktopia and The Nile.