The Boston Marathon is the oldest and most celebrated of the mass marathons. You need to qualify. Twice I qualified and ran. in 2005 I ran again, this time as fundraising runner. I never won the race: hometown decisions, I guess.
Today’s Boston was to be my fourth. I was running as a fundraiser, this time for the Michael Lisnow Respite Centre. This morning I visited their HQ in Hopkinton, near the starting line. I met people who face their colossally difficult lives with genuine joy. I met the fundraisers who punctuate their serious marathon training by devoting themselves for months to help fund this small enterprise.
Why am I going on at this length about these small matters in the face of the bombings?
You need to be in Boston on Patriots Day to appreciate the celebration that is the Marathon. A city of less than one million comes to a stop; people take their chairs, their picnic rugs, the treats they will give to the runners; they line the 26.2 miles and stay all day, cheering on every runner; they hold banners – everything from “You are all Kenyans” to “Kiss me, I’m flexible”.
Picture Melbourne on Cup Day or Grand Final day without the booze.
Boston is high on its marathon and the runners. Patriots Day is the time to enjoy the embrace of the people of Boston.
If you have the good fortune to be a charity runner, you run at the tail of the field, feeling that embrace, the surges of love for the people – usually young – who are supporting local causes. Often the fundrunner commemorates one lost or saved or suffering the disease she runs for.
One young woman survived melanoma; another is in remission from her leukaemia. I have close relatives saved from those diseases. So, apparently, do hundreds in the crowd who roar their gratitude.
One, a spoonerist, runs with the words: Cuck Fancer. The crowd echo her sentiment.
Someone else came to the Marathon today with a different purpose than to celebrate. Someone whose malignity exceeds his knowledge: his bombs exploded near the finish around the four-hour mark; in an elite marathon like this, the ‘bulge’ – the greatest concentration of finishers – occurs 30 to 60 minutes earlier. The terrible toll might have been much heavier.
I plodded to the 22 mile mark, when a spectator offered me a slice of orange. His kindly young face looked troubled. “There have been explosions near the finish line. The marathon has been temporarily suspended.”
Naively I ran on. Perhaps they’d resume the event.
A mile further on, I was one of very few still running. Police and runners were mingling on the course, faces troubled. Hands held mobiles, sending text messages; local phone coverage was out. Some wept wrenchingly, their features distorted in grief or shock or anxiety for others ahead on the course. Many had relatives waiting near the Line.
My progress from mile 22 to 25 was slow. The crowds fell quiet. Overhead, helicopters gathered and clattered. Police vehicles racing everywhere, ambulances, sirens shrieking, tore between barriers as the crowds melted out of their path. Not for the first time, the matter of placing one foot in front of another felt slight. Here was immediate danger and evident bloodshed.
Police turned back those of us who were running into danger. I needed to contact family – in Boston, in New York, in Israel, in Australia (where I had bled my friends to donate to the Respite Centre). I had no phone. Strangers handed me theirs, refusing my offers to pay. I asked a teenager for directions to the Citgo sign, a local landmark, where my relatives would collect me; the teen insisted on escorting me the mile distance to make sure I found it.
As I waited, strangers seeing this stranded runner, stopped to offer help. One bloke, himself a (non-marathon) runner, wanted to give me his jacket so I wouldn’t get cold. Passers by touched me, or took my hand to shake. One stopped, gazed at me, shaking his head. He said, “I am sorry.”
Boston silenced, in shock, in grief. Its citizens reaching out to each other in spontaneous solidarity,as we see repeatedly in Israel following such atrocities. More than that, people felt implicated in a wrong, embarrassed: their guests had been hurt, frightened, frustrated. They turn their goodness upon me and I feel like crying.
A terrible beauty born.