04/17/2013 03:10 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2013

Looking Forward In Angst: The Boston Marathon And Other Tests Of Endurance


I really don't know where to start with Boston. The truth is, the world needs another potentially terrible piece of writing, meditating on an emergency like it needs an outbreak of avian flu.

On the other hand, when you are presented with the opportunity to write about whatever you want, and receive compensation for it, you have a responsibility to grapple with recent tragic events. So, I find myself caught between the concern that taking a pass on the tragedy that transpired at this week's Boston Marathon will mark me as gutless, and the worry that all this typing will lead to something that's at best mawkish, at worst not helpful.

But having come this far, I guess the die is cast. As always, I'll remind you that what you are about to read is not oxygen, you do not need it to live, and I respect your decision to close the tab and get on with your lives. Maybe check out Charlie Pierce's piece on this, it's a home run.

I suppose I'll begin with the obvious. I'm sorry that this happened. My best wishes go out to everyone who is mourning and who is mending, which I suppose includes the entire city of Boston. From what I gather, the running of the Boston Marathon, and Patriots Day in general, is a peak moment for the citizens of one of America's most legendary cities. I wish that I could sympathize in a more feeling and intimate way with everyone who is now pondering the black hole in the shadow of the Pru, where a celebration was supposed to transpire.

The thing about running a marathon is that while it's properly recognized as an astounding athletic feat and a test of human endurance, it's also something that's steeped in ancient history and legend. Historical accounts differ, but the semi-apocryphal story of the first marathon that we all learn in school involves a guy named Pheidippides. Pheidippides was a courier attached to the Greek army during the first Persian invasion of Greece. When the Greeks defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon, Pheidippides was sent on a 25-mile run from the battleground to Athens to deliver the message that the Persians had been beaten, and sent into retreat.

So, whether we know it or not, what we are celebrating every time we run a marathon is the end of war. The runners who carve their way through the streets of cities all over the world are participating in an incantation for peace. The spectators who fill the streets to cheer them on are cheering on an end to strife and anxiety. In Boston, Patriots Day celebrates the courage of the men who courageously took up arms for our nation's independence, and the acts of endurance that ended the fighting and secured our freedom.

But that's not all we celebrate when we run a marathon. It is also a demonstration of our belief that we as a race are capable of being better tomorrow than we were yesterday. See, Pheidippides, according to legend, dropped dead from exhaustion upon the delivery of his message. That means that the next person to run a marathon was making a bet: This time I won't die. And the next made a bet that they could run faster than those who ran before. At the elite level of marathon runners, athletes are making a bet that no matter what simple physiology says about the limitations of the human body, they can run the race faster than they have before -- perhaps faster than anyone ever has. The top marathon runners in the world are literally driving the evolution of the human species, measured in hard-fought fractions of seconds.

So there is a lot of holy stuff knit up in every marathon. But the glorious thing about these races is that what's simple shines just as brightly as what's sacred. For instance, as breathtaking as the achievements of the best athletes are, the wonderful thing about a marathon is that it's one of the only athletic competitions where the runner who finishes long after all but the most dedicated spectators have gone home, might have a more interesting story to tell about the challenges they've faced and overcome than the winner.

For most of the people who run these races, the desire is only to finish. Ezra Klein, writing from the point of view of a spectator, says that the "finish line at a marathon is a small marvel of fellowship." Alana Horowitz, who writes from the perspective of a runner, says, "crossing the finish line is supposed to be purely euphoric." As she notes, simply, about the tragedy in Boston, "someone turned a symbol of human achievement into one of terror and loss."

Many lives were interrupted, some ceased. On a day where people gathered to celebrate both the immortal hopes of humanity and the joys of discrete accomplishment, we were instead reminded that the end of our lives can come at an all-too-arbitrary moment, and that the euphoria we experience at the end of a race is not what we experience at the end of a life. Very few of us are trying to race toward that finish line. Most of us, when we arrive there, will wish we had more time.

What's especially sad about this is the fact that if we live a long enough, we will have to live through experiences much like Boston again and again. It seems like in a very short period of time, we've witnessed cities on fire and college campuses torn apart by violence and children gunned down and lives wrecked by disaster. Sooner or later, life is going to dial up another painful experience to endure, whether it's one we face together or suffer through privately. In the meantime, there are still wars that never seem to end and crises that never seem to abate and much to be cynical about.

But at the same time, if you live long enough, all those bets we are making that we can be better will nevertheless continue to pay off, even if the dividends seem small. No matter what you've already been amazed by, there are more amazing things coming. Just when you think that Lionel Messi has done every dazzling thing that can be done with a soccer ball, he will do something that once again takes your breath away. Just when you think Maru has done the most adorable thing a cat can do on YouTube, he will find a way to outpace his previous achievements in adorableness.

No matter how good the last movie you saw was, or the last book you read, or the last joke you heard, someone right now is working on something more exciting, more gripping, much funnier, and they will succeed. No matter how well you are living right now, someday you are going to do something that surprises you. If you live long enough, you might even find yourself in the right place, at the right time, the only person in the world capable of doing the right thing, helping someone else right when they need your help the most. I don't bet against that, because it keeps on happening. So maybe next time no one dies. Maybe the next time the war ends.

If you've made it this far without closing the tab, I'll just tell you that I sincerely hope it happens for you. I hope that you live long enough to finish whatever it is you're doing. I hope that along the way, you help someone else finish whatever task they've taken up as well.

Like I said from the outset, I really don't know where to start. But start anyway.

This story appears in Issue 45 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, April 19.

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GRAPHIC WARNING: Boston Marathon explosion