8:16 PM ET, April 15, 2013
A few yards away from me right now there’s a television playing a persistent, yelling broadcast in the manner of cable news after a shocking disaster: Yelling. Yelling over yelling. Posturing. Speculation. In the wake of the double bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon earlier today, no one still knows what’s happened, or the full extent of the casualties, or even whether everything they’ve been reporting all evening has been fully true. Somewhere in there, desperate to fill the airwaves with new ideas, they have peppered the programming with some new commentators, one of whom is right now speculating that the Boston Marathon will never be the same, that security will be through-the-roof next year, and that perhaps the race’s historically packed attendance levels may see a precipitous drop in the wake of the attacks.
Oh, you don’t go there.
I don’t know why anyone, or any group of people, had the twisted motivation to commit this attack. Maybe we’ll know by the morning, when I wake up and quickly check the news before lacing up my sneakers for five miles around the local waterfront park. Maybe we won’t know for days or even weeks, and cable news will be yelling louder and more confusedly because they’ve run out of things to speculate. But one thing, for those of us who run, is clear: Whoever chose one of the world’s greatest distance running events for both amateurs and professionals as the target of a terrorist attack will most certainly not convince a single one of us to stop running.
Running is a religion, and it’s our religion, and it’s a religion from which none of us back down easily. There’s a reason why runners get so up-in-arms when a new doctrine of our beloved sport comes along (barefoot? is this Reform Running or Ultra-Orthodox?), why we have a propensity for forms of devotion that seem to go far beyond speaking in tongues on the weirdness scale (cf. Zombie Mud Runs) and why we’re as indignantly offended as we are when One Of Us commits an egregious heresy in the manner of a certain congressman with a propensity for subtracting an hour from his marathon time. Like any religion, our relationship with it is as complex as it can get: Sometimes it’s the greatest source of elation in your life. Sometimes, amid the IT band injuries and the ice baths, you hate it more than anything else and you think it’s some kind of obsessive curse that you just can’t shake off. Sometimes you stray far away from it and swear you’ll never come back, but you’ll still always have that common ground with other members of “the tribe.” We’ll still all be able to talk about the missing toenails and the bloody nipples.
This isn’t a personal essay. Today, there are more important people than myself to think about and dwell upon. But I can’t really omit the reason why I really started running, the moment when it went from something I did for cross-training or beer-gut-reduction to a ritual that I need in my life. In the fall of 2007, shortly after I turned 23, I lost my mother to cancer, and in the days following her death I could feel nothing other than numbness. I couldn’t find any solace in church, in prayer, or in the idea that there is a world beyond our own. But I could put on a pair of sneakers and, for the first time in years, run eight miles around the tip of lower Manhattan. I’m not entirely sure why I decided to do this. It was chilly. It was raining. But my feet were alive. My lungs were alive. Five years, one marathon, one half-marathon, and countless other races later (including two overnight relays but, as of yet, no Zombie Mud Runs), this aliveness remains something that I cannot take for granted, a million nerves and muscle fibers to be thankful for and to regard as tiny miracles in themselves.
Many runners, of course, follow paths of faith that we think of as “religion” in the traditional sense, and those of us who don’t share their beliefs generally don’t mind and don’t care. We find it beautiful when One Of Us can profess to running for something more. We run alongside them, and they alongside us. We cheer them on, even if this is the only road that we can claim to run together. Political affiliations, too, fall to the wayside. What’s vital — or, shall I say, sacred — to all of us is the spirit of human endurance, the celebration of a feat as dedicated and unnatural as spending 26.2 miles on our feet running against a clock for no good reason other than that we have reason to believe in ourselves and in the thousands of people running around us.
Sometimes when I am running I think about my mother, who was never a runner but who would have loved the culture that it is, the camaraderie that makes it a lifelong devotion for so many rather than a sport that’s watched on TV. More than any sport (or religion) I’ve ever seen, runners have an immense sense of dignity, respect, and acceptance for one another. We are not about rivalries, but about what we share in the experience. It’s not about running a marathon in three hours or five hours, it’s about running it at all, and about celebrating the accomplishment together regardless of who we are or where we came from or what else we believe. This is running. This is love.
Whoever set off those bombs in Boston set them off in the faces — and the feet — of our fellow marathoners, our compatriots in endurance, whether they intended to target runners intentionally or not. And this hits all of us. But it won’t stop us from running, and it won’t stop the entries for next year’s Boston Marathon from soaring. Maybe even higher than ever.
We don’t live in fear. If we did, we’d never run. We run knowing that we’re challenging ourselves at every second, and we love one another for it. We put ourselves at constant risk of broken bones, of cardiac arrest, of frostbite, of mountain lion attacks. We do this to challenge ourselves, to support and remember those less fortunate than ourselves, to celebrate that aliveness that today’s events taught us we really, truly, can never take for granted. Tomorrow morning, those of us who wake up and put on a pair of sneakers for anything from two miles to ten miles will be running in honor and in memory of those who lost their lives today, who were traumatized for senseless reasons, and who have seen their worldviews shattered. We are part of this.
I had four friends running the Boston Marathon today, all of whom thankfully are now safe with their families and friends. They were all running for a cause: one for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and three for CampInteractive, a nonprofit for high schoolers in the Bronx that gives them opportunities to get involved in the distance-running and outdoors activities that all too often don’t reach their underprivileged neighborhoods but which could potentially change their lives forever. (I ran the New York Marathon for CampInteractive in 2010.) One of those CampInteractive runners, Joe Marchese, posted to Twitter this afternoon that he’d spoken to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal who’d asked him whether he’d ever run the Boston Marathon again.
“Hell yes!” was his reply. “Because fuck whoever did this.”
That’s the spirit.