You court adversity when you do a marathon. Adversity is part of the warped attraction to running 26.2 miles. According to legend, Pheidippides, who unwittingly started the trend in 490 BC by running from Marathon to Athens to announce victory in battle, died after delivering the news. People continue to die in marathons each year. On a less tragic level, just when you start to feel comfortable in the race, there always seems to be a hill at around somewhere between mile 18 and 22, that forces you to question why you ever thought running a marathon was a good idea. That conflict and pushing through it is what you remember most when you finish. On the Boston course, those hills start just after the "Screech Tunnel" of screaming girls lining the course at Wellsley College -- yes, quickly from very nice to very painful.
The Boston Marathon is different than most city marathons and better. Starting in Hopkinton, you feel like you're in someone's backyard instead in a big city. The race falls on Patriots Day, the third Monday in April. Patriots Day, which celebrates the first battles of the American Revolution in Lexington and Concord, is a civic holiday in Massachusetts and Maine and apparently Wisconsin as well, though I didn't know that until I looked it up. People cheer from Hopkinton to the finish on Boylston Street. Maybe it's because it's a holiday, but I think that it's something more. The Boston Marathon, which commenced its history in 1897, the year after the first Modern Olympics retraced Pheidippides steps and called it a marathon, is part of the fabric of New England. Families make the pilgrimage to cheer from beginning to end. Some years it's cold and rainy or even snowy. Others the sun heats the still emerging from winter course to 80 degrees and the fans cheer, sing and barbecue.
With my family I watched Bill Rogers win from the hills by Boston College. We'd heard updates on the radio along the way. I saw the wheelchair athletes too, never knowing that eventually I'd become one. In later years I watched just past the firehouse, where the athletes make the final turn for the straightaway on Boylston. I've even raced it three times. It was with great pride that I finally took the line in Boston. Timing had always been my biggest problem. I'd qualified numerous times, but the marathon fell right at the end of ski season. In the end, I resigned myself to the biggest race of my year falling at the beginning of my season when I had the least preparation. It hurt but I loved it because of the fans, the atmosphere and the history. As an added bonus, when I traveled with my racing chair to other racers and other travelers asked me if I'd done Boston I could say yes and know that my answer meant that I was part of longest running and greatest marathon in the world, something that in a bizarre way feels patriotic and shared with Paul Revere and William Dawes.
Boston hasn't been without its controversy. Course officials mandandled the first official female entry, Katherine Switzer in 1967. Word swirled at the time that a woman would do damage to her reproductive organs, so they tried to physically remove her to save her from herself. In 1975, when Bob Hall sought to be the first official wheelchair finisher, the race organizer told him that he couldn't be official unless he finished under three and a half hours. The organizers opinion might sound like a barrier, but as a wheelchair athlete I like that Bobby had to earn his way in. He earned the possibility of entry for the rest of us by running a 2:58. Rosie Ruiz stole the victory in 1980 by taking the train to a mile or so from the finish and then running across the line as the first woman. But the race has persisted.
The bombing at last year's finish was a tragedy that attempted to steal from the history of the race, the people and our national identity. They didn't understand the resolve of marathoners, who seek adversity and train through the winter to be ready for Patriot's Day. They underestimated New Englanders, who know heartbreak as well as anyone. We'll make our mistakes, but we'll learn and grow from them. We'll carry the torch of those who created our freedom and we'll continue to run, hoping possibly that the rest of the states in the union might see it fit to make the third Monday in April a civic holiday. And to the survivors, thank you for doing exactly that, surviving and thriving. Keep doing it because sometimes we court adversity and sometimes it just finds us. Either way, we learn from those who move through its shadow.