I'll start with a flag. Photo: Getty This tricolor flag has three thick horizontal stripes -- black, red, and green. Boldly centered on this flag is a shield placed in front of two spears.
For those of you who don't know, this is the Kenyan flag. I couldn't identify 98.7 percent of African flags, but I know this flag. Every year of elementary school I got a fresh white T-shirt with these three colors crisply silk screened on the front. Because every year of elementary school, elite athletes hailing all the way from Kenya came to visit my little middle-of-nowhere hometown.
Okay, so maybe my use of "middle-of-nowhere" is a bit of an exaggeration. Hopkinton is exactly 26.2 miles west of Boston. This precise distance draws thousands of people from all over the world to town annually to do one of two things: either to cross the starting line of the Boston Marathon, or to cheer on those running the Boston Marathon.
I've cheered on friends, family, neighbors, and teachers from Hopkinton's starting line. I've cheered on complete strangers. But way back in second grade, it was all about cheering on the Kenyans. I can remember piling into Elmwood School's gymnasium with speakers blasting, lights flashing, and smoke machines exhaling. In they marched, waving miniature Kenyan flags in one hand and miniature American flags in the other. Well -- I think I'm making up the part about Elmwood renting smoke machines, but you get the idea; it was an epic day.
The Kenyans were awe-inspiring. Tall, thin, all muscle. Deep, dark, smooth sun-ripened skin. Blinding white smiles. Contagious smiles. Celebrities. These were the first-place winners of the Boston Marathon year after year and there they were, waving at me. I was wide-eyed. They were inspirational. They were heroes.
Smiles. Inspiration. Union of diverse cultures. That's the Boston Marathon.
Some-odd years later I had a new hero to cheer on along the Boston Marathon route. She was running in honor of my baby cousin Charlie, and was raising money for the Children's Floating Hospital. Six-month-old Charlie had just began his battle with stage four brain cancer. Previously, I had cheered on all the anonymous runners as if they were my very own family. This particular year I strained my neck, wide-eyed waiting for my very own mom to run by. I remember finally locating her among the masses. She looked strong. She looked like she could run forever. She probably felt like throwing in the towel and/or throwing up, but everyone around me was cheering her on -- cheering my own mom on. They made up for any of her exhausted strength. It was so inspirational. She was their hero. She was my hero.
Strangers supporting strangers. Family bonds with those struggling alongside you. Family bonds with those cheering you on. That's the Boston Marathon.
This year the Boston Marathon started in Hopkinton just like every other year. Inspirational Kenyans and other elites jogged in place at the starting line. Behind them, thousands of other heroes stretched their hamstrings and shook out their nerves. Alongside them, thousands of bystanders were preparing to exhaust vocal chords, slam on cowbells, and wave thoughtful, homemade signs to keep the marathoners' spirits high.
This year the Boston Marathon ended on Boylston Street in unprecedented tragedy. Words cannot express and will never be able to express. Families, communities, and this nation will never be the same.
The one tradition of the marathon that remained untouched by this travesty is the tradition of everyday heroism.
Volunteers carrying injured survivors to care.
Marathon bystanders running from safety to help the wounded bystanders.
Dehydrated marathoners running straight to the hospitals to give blood.
Boston residents graciously offering up their homes to runners.
For every gruesome image the media showed, we saw three times the heroism of humanity in those very same clips.
Bravery. Courage. Overcoming adversity. That's the Boston Marathon.
One person -- or maybe a small group of people -- committed this horrific act. That is a minute fraction of this world's population. I've only been around for 23 years, and I can remember only about 18 marathons. Yet in those few years and throughout those handful of marathons, I know for a fact I've seen more heroes than villains.
I started with a flag and I'll end with a flag.
This flag also has horizontal stripes, but they are probably more familiar to you -- alternating red and white. Instead of a centered shield, this flag has a blue rectangle speckled with 50 white stars. You know this flag. You might not be able to identify 98.7 percent of the world's flags, but you know this flag.
How uniquely American is the Boston Marathon? Celebrated on Patriot's Day, it opens its arms to those from all over the world, all races, all genders, all physical ability, all mental ability, all ages. Let us stay united -- cheering each other on through the struggle, picking up those who are down, and celebrating the heroes of this world.
Let us stay united. Because next year the cheers will be louder. Next year even more of the world's everyday heroes will come together to overcome those 26.2 miles. And together we can overcome this tragedy. The 2013 Boston Marathon participants ran together, and the heroes of the world will stand together.
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