One foot after another, for miles on end. Not many of us run in this age of technology and global urbanization, but running is written into our DNA, and what happened in Boston will not destroy the marathon spirit.
In Born to Run Christopher McDougall includes beautiful descriptions of the Tarahumara in the northern canyons of Mexico, who run seemingly superhuman distances, 100 miles or more. Even in old age their men and women can really move. Running has helped them survive in the harsh environment, and "Rarámuri," their name for themselves, might mean "runners on foot" or "those who run fast."
It makes sense. Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist from Harvard and himself a marathon runner, has linked endurance running to the very notion of becoming human. Our pre-human ancestors in Africa left the trees for the open savannah and did more than walk the Earth. Before bows and arrows, there was persistence hunting: Early humans chased game for hours until it collapsed. That's likely why we walk upright, why we have no fur, why we sweat efficiently and why some of us can outrun horses in long-distance contests. We have run together for millennia.
Echoes of our shared ancestry are reflected in the modern marathon culture. It's the most democratic sport I know. You can go barefoot, as people did until recently, or in sneakers. That's it. You don't have to have any particular body shape. Watch the finishers in the first hour or so of a major marathon, and you will see people of many ages and body types. It's a mental game, in part. In fact, young people are at a disadvantage.
And we do it for many reasons, not to win, and not to score a goal, but to calm ourselves or meditate, or to find exhilaration, or to be part of a team or club, or to represent our country, or to find a better place in our heart and in society, as exemplified so well by the film Chariots of Fire. In Boston people ran for Newtown, to raise money for charities and to challenge themselves.
It takes trust. As a teenager I discovered by accident that I could run for many miles as long as I went really slowly. I was astonished. Yes, my feet could take me that far. Yes, I could go it alone. And I could run in all sorts of states of mind. Training for a marathon, I later learned, meant venturing out in all kinds of weather. It meant persistence. It meant taking on the impossible yet somehow doable task of going past the wall.
After the tragedy in Boston, trust also means doing everything possible to ensure the safety of participants, their families and the public. However, new security requirements will not alter the spirit of the event. Running with thousands in the New York City Marathon, I witnesses thousands of touching, random acts of kindness. As in Boston, strangers ran together for miles and urged each other on. So many people and children waved along the way. An elderly woman in the cheering crowds saw me struggling down Fifth Avenue and gave me a piece of orange. Her orange. I never got a chance to thank her properly. And at the service for the victims of the Boston bombings, President Obama remarked that "the spirit of this city is undaunted, and the spirit of this country shall remain undimmed. ... You will run again."
Long-distance running is about resilience and hope and fellowship. It's about being human. In Boston an impromptu group of runners took to the streets on Tuesday after a 26.2-second moment of silence. Next year let's turn out in record numbers, from Boston to London and beyond.
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