Finish Lines

As soon as I walked out of the conference room, a coworker and fellow runner asked if I’d heard about the bombs. I hadn’t. I walked directly to my desk and started checking Twitter and Tumblr. By the relatively low volume of tweets and posts—and by the lack of information they contained, other than announcing some kind of explosions at the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon—I could tell that whatever happened hadn’t happened very long ago.

I soon found a video stream on my laptop. That was a mistake. It was so soon after the actual event that there wasn’t enough film recorded to form an editorial loop. I was watching live, raw footage at the finish line. It was chaos. There were turnstiles and barriers scattered through the street. There were first responders running through frame every few seconds. There were groups of people surrounding the injured. Often, someone in those groups would glance over their shoulder, their eyes pleading for something, anything, anyone to arrive and provide help for the injured in front of them.

Then the camera walked past a man sitting on the sidewalk very close to the finish line. There were a few people around him. He was sitting up with some help. Both of his legs were gone. My brain registered the fact before it registered the horror.

His legs were gone. Fact. Holy shit, his legs are gone. Horror.

I started running because of a finish line.

I went to a Thanksgiving Day 5K in Charleston, South Carolina in 2009. I was the only one in the group who wasn’t a runner. I held everyone’s jackets during the race and waited for them at the finish line. Not knowing how long it would take them to run the 3.1 miles, I stood at the finish line the entire race.

When the first two runners came into view, the kid in second place was about two meters behind the kid in first. No one else was even close. I remember watching the trailing runner’s face as he tried to shift gears and pass the leader with very little distance to go. The leader felt him making his move and spent his last energy reserves to hold the lead. He crossed at 14:46. The runner behind him crossed at 14:47.

Thirty seconds later, the rest of the thousands of runners began to cross. They were a trickle that built to a solid twenty-minute wave. I watched their faces. Most were a mix of pain, exhaustion, relief and accomplishment. I wanted all of that. At the time, I needed it.

Before my friends crossed, I’d already told myself that I would never watch a finish line again.

I haven’t. After that Thanksgiving and over the next couple of years, I ran numerous 5Ks and 10Ks. Last year, I ran my first half-marathon in May. The night of that race, I signed up for a 50K set for mid-October.

That was the last finish line I crossed before the 2013 Boston Marathon.

When I got home after the bombings, the film loops were running. A camera above the finish line shows a bomb going off as a few dozen runners try to run those last tenths of a mile. One runner goes down 25 yards from the finish line. Cut to a handheld camera showing first responders and race volunteers pulling barricades away from the edge of the sidewalk to allow medical help to get to those injured by the blast. Cut to another handheld camera with ground-level footage that begins before the explosion. After the blast, the camera moves across the finish line in the opposite direction of the race. It heads straight into those first moments of horror.

I watched the loop for a long time. After a few minutes, I muted the voice of the newscasters. I knew it would be quite a while before actual information would become available. Until then, they’d just show the finish line over and over.

The finish line is a sacred place to me. I now own the combination of pain, exhaustion, relief and accomplishment I once saw on other runners’ faces. When I look back on a race, I can detail practically every inch—how I was feeling at any given point, how far off or above my intended pace I was, who I passed, who passed me. All of it. Until I see the finish line.

From that moment until a few moments after I cross, everything is a dream. I run a little faster, but my heart beats a little slower. The faces of the spectators lining the course lose detail. There is no sound. It’s the same whether it’s a 5K or a 50K. I don’t know why I lose myself at the finish line. I just do. It’s one of my favorite places on earth.

I can’t imagine that place exploding in shrapnel and chaos. I can’t imagine being thrown to the ground and back into reality. I can’t imagine having it become my least favorite place, whether for a few moments or a lifetime.

Once I got home on Monday night, I wanted to run. I couldn’t, because of stitches from a minor surgery a couple of weeks earlier. Instead of running, I sat down on my couch and watched a blank black TV. I couldn’t turn it on. I didn’t need to. My brain was playing the loop of the finish line.

As I sat there with those images, I realized a couple of things. First, the terror only lasted thirty seconds. Yes, there was fear and anxiety for several days. There will probably be an almost tangible edge at large, televised public events for the foreseeable future. But the terror—those initial moments that seem to echo Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”—didn’t even last a minute.

The bomb goes off. The camera starts over the finish line and finds itself in the chaos. Everyone is running away. You can hear a primal panic. In the street, it takes the form of guttural rumblings and epithets. From the direction of the sidewalk, you can hear a shriek.

Less than half of a minute after the blast, though, you can feel a shift. In one moment, everything is falling apart. But the fear reaches its apex. It floats there, weightless and silent for a couple of heartbeats. Then it comes screaming back in the form of defiance, care and control. Five times as many people who fled after the initial concussion rush through the camera’s frame headed directly for the epicenter of the blast to help the injured.

There could have been more bombs. There could have been an ambush of armed men. There could have been things that none of us could even imagine.

No one cared.

The terror lasted thirty seconds. That’s it. Thirty seconds. Love, help and hope took over from there, and it did so instinctively.

There are millions of people who believe that evil lies at the core of humanity. I don’t think so. To me, it’s simple math. It’s an equation that was caught on tape at the Boston Marathon finish line. All you have to do is take the number of people who rushed into a dangerous situation in order to help save the lives of strangers and subtract the number of people responsible for that situation. There’s your winner.

My second thought? It’s a good thing we run into the center of disaster with the best of intentions, because no matter how hard we try to deter it, fix it or reverse it, tragedy will strike again. The people at the heart of that tragedy will need their neighbors, their friends and the strangers who come to lend a hand.

Two days after that realization, a fertilizer company exploded. More than a dozen people have died. More than 150 people were injured. Some people remain missing.

That explosion blew windows out of homes more than six miles away.

There is no finish line for tragedy. There is no finish line for compassion. That’s what we learned in the week of April 15, 2013. That week didn’t teach us a lesson. It gave us a doctorate-level pop quiz. We passed. But as I sat there that week, I just wished I felt better about it.

On Friday, I got my stitches out and did what I always do when I need to feel better about something. I laced up my shoes. I opened the door. And I ran.

[If you run, please consider joining the Boston 1000 and make the most of your miles. Thanks.]