I spent most of Marathon Monday on Beacon Street in Brookline, at around mile 23, cheering on throngs of sweat-glazed runners. It was a clear spring day. I'd been in a running rut and was looking forward to soaking up some marathon mojo, to remind myself what it's all about and relive my own memories of a race that played an important role in my journey in sobriety.
I yelled out every name I saw scrawled on an arm or across a salt-stained T-shirt. "You got this, Andrea! Piece of cake, Rudolfo!" Costumed runners -- Raggedy Ann, the Monopoly taxman, a hamburger -- got extra love. I gave out high-fives, the brief flesh-on-flesh exchange an electric charge. Everyone was having a good time, even the ones clutching their hamstrings. Little did we know what we were waving them on toward Boylston Street.
At around 2:30, my wife, Chris, and I packed it in, voices worn a little thin. I'm running that sucker again, I thought. On the way home to Cambridge across the river, seven or eight police motorcycles screamed past us, a cluster of blue lights usually only seen escorting dignitaries -- but there was no limousine. Our phones began lighting up. Our daughter texted to say her bus driver's radio had just crackled something about a bombing near the finish line. We walked into our condo and threw on the news. What we saw -- a deserted VIP grandstand, bloody sidewalks, smoke, mangled barricades, stunned runners and onlookers -- so clashed with this sport, this way of life, it screeched. The images were sickening. I slumped into my armchair. "This is unreal," Chris said. Then neither of us spoke for a while, pinned in place. I stopped hearing the sirens.
There are few events more celebratory and communal than a marathon. And few marathons more resonant than Boston. And not just for the runners on the storied course that echoes with such names as John Kelley, Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, and Joan Benoit Samuelson. The event is a part of the fabric of this big-hearted city, the surest sign of spring. People mark the day on their calendars and hundreds of thousands line the route, forming an unbroken vein of humanity that stretches across seven towns. When Red Sox fans pour from Fenway Park into Kenmore Square in the early afternoon, the wild cheering is juiced to a froth. Many a runner has credited the bubbling crowds with turning anvil legs into balloons.
My Boston, in 2009, changed my life. I signed up with a charity and most of us fundraisers were corralled together at the start. From my first steps, I was caught up in the stories of my fellow participants. They were ironed on their shirts: portraits of afflicted loved ones, of deceased relatives in whose memory the runner had undertaken the 26.2-mile challenge, of children stilled by leukemia. It was like reading chapters of a communal book of prayer, a sad but triumphant narrative. There were blind runners tethered to guides and men without legs. By mile five, I felt part of a collective transformative experience. Lourdes in running shoes. People tackle the Boston Marathon for any number of reasons, but it almost always ends up being about conquering one thing -- yourself. When I crossed that finish line and heard my name announced over the PA, I was covered in goosebumps. I was transformed, in love with the world after years of seething at it.
I know I'm not alone when I say that running is a healing agent. After 15 years of drinking and drug abuse, I found my way into a pair of running shoes and onto a dirt road outside the small Vermont town where I'd holed up after wiping the last bits of beer foam from my lips. In the pre-dawn hours, I started the work of sobriety at six miles per hour. I drilled deep and met myself, nasty bits and all. Against a soundtrack of greedy lungs and the occasional coydog, I puzzled through ways to reach out to those I'd harmed. And slowly, after years of anger and cynicism, I began to feel affection for other people, and later even the stirrings of joy, something I believed former drunks had no claim on.
When I moved back to Boston, I was pulled inevitably into the tractor beam of the iconic race. The city was an old sinning ground. As I submitted my registration fee, I wondered about the alchemy of multiplying my regular run by five and setting it against the landscape of my past. With its symbolism, the Boston Marathon rebooted the courage not only to face my demons, but to dislodge the shame and move forward. For four hours, I owned the roads, blowing through red lights at will. Nursing home orderlies wheeled swaddled residents to the curb and they anointed us with the wave of tiny American flags. Despite the gripping pain and exhaustion, I felt capable. At last. Within hours of crossing that blue and yellow stripe in front of the Boston Public Library, I signed up for another marathon. Five more races against five old backdrops would follow over the next 18 months. Starting with Boston, the marathon became an indelible part of my recovery.
There is talk already that the Boston event was irrevocably changed on Monday. On the surface, that may be true. Surely security will be even tighter and anxieties will remain high. Obviously, many individuals and families will never get over this violence. But what makes Boston Boston is an intangible quality that can't be disturbed. At its core, the race is about overcoming limitations, redefining the possible, evolving. As horrific as Monday was, when the smoke clears, I have no doubt the marathon's healing touch will remain intact. There will certainly be a lot of pain to lay hands on. The Boston Marathon can only move forward. That is its essential nature. And I, for one, will be there to cheer it on.
This piece originally appeared in The Fix.
Caleb Daniloff is a Cambridge, Mass.-based writer and author of Running Ransom Road: Confronting the Past One Marathon at a Time.