The measurements of sports are etched in our memories so deeply and clearly, we don't need to look them up.
In football, there are three feet to a yard and ten yards for a first down. In basketball, it's ten feet to the rim and a 15-foot shot for a free throw. The best numbers are the basics of the baseball field where they measure sixty feet, six inches from the pitcher's mound to the back of the plate and 90 feet between the bases.
We just love to measure and compare and the basic concept of "sixty feet, six inches" seems so perfect, it would be unimaginable to suggest a change.
However, let us behold the metric system, far older and far wiser than we care to admit. So, as the screwed up Americans we truly are, we tend to split the differences and try to make it up as we go along.
If we're at the Pub, we're a-okay with a pint of Guinness. That's 16 ounces of cool suds. Hey, that's still "our way." Grab that quart, half-gallon or gallon of milk at the local Tedeschi's and you are all set, but ask for a liter of Coca-Cola or seek directions from the barkeeper or counterman north of the border and you'll hear about a few meters of kilometers of distance instead of a country mile and be baffled to the point when out comes the calculator with our smart phone conversion tables.
So with that in mind, today, I present to you -- the Marathon.
You see, in 490 BC or before, good old Philippides took off with a message in his hand. He traveled on foot, we believe, from Marathon to Athens and, as fate would have it, old Philly was a very dependable courier and in pretty good shape as he swiftly covered some 42 kilometers of rough, rocky terrain to convey a message that would now be delivered in an e-mail instant. To pay tribute to the noble feat many years later, in 1896, Baron Pierre de Coubertin and the founding fathers of the Modern Olympic games memorialized the great run when they staged the very first "marathon" where runners would travel the full 42 km to win a race.
It beats bobbing for apples, I guess?
As fans of sporting events and the Olympics, we brought out our calculators and did the math, figuring the distance to be a hefty sum of twenty-six miles, three hundred eighty-five yards.
About a year later, in 1897, our forefathers in the great city of Boston took out their maps and drew a line out to the small town of Hopkinton, then turned around and ran to Boston. In doing so, they created The Boston Marathon, what is now the oldest, most famous and most prestigious athletic competition in American sport. The race is a test of an athlete's training, determination and endurance. It is run on the third Monday in April, so the conditions can vary greatly from one year or one minute to another. It is a glorious and wonderful event where everyday runners compete on the same playing field as the elite. That is the beauty of the marathon -- any marathon, yes -- but Boston is special.
If Madison Square Garden is the "Mecca" for hoops, then the streets of Boston are paradise for the long-distance runner. The great Amby Burfoot, the 1968 winner of Boston, called it "the Carnegie Hall" of races, mainly because of the people who line the streets, the legions of fans, the knowledgeable spectators, the enthusiastic collegians, the families who gather all along the fifty-two plus miles of sidewalk to cheer and encourage the runners. That is what makes the Boston Marathon just a little bit different than any other road race of rodeo.
It's the people. The difference between Boston and all the other races is in the crowds of fans and volunteers at the starting line way out past I495, it's the small-town New England charm of Ashland, Framingham and Natick where families dust-off the patio furniture and cart it to the curbsides, or the co-eds at Wellesley College, celebrating another Patriots' Day holiday with their better-than-Bill-Raftery kiss and signs that light up the faces and spirits of the runners, even though they're only 20 km or barely halfway through the race. It's the front yard and backyard parties all along Commonwealth Ave. in Newton where the down slope from Wellesley turns into a series of four gradual elevations that are truly heartbreaking. It's the hope gained by the runners when they see Boston College in Chestnut Hill and begin the quad-pounding downhill to bucolic Brookline towards Kenmore Square. The big city is a small community.
How do the runners endure?
One example is a 54-year old runner, John Caron, the proprietor of West End Johnnie's of Boston who was running and raising money for the Boston Bruins foundation. He felt he needed to do something for his community for his city. So, Monday he found a way to endure a little more pain as a friend of some 20-plus years took out his calculator and figured the miles and kilometers from Hopkinton, past the 5K-mark, then the 10K mark, then consulted the tracker online, calculated the average splits per mile (rather than per kilometer) tossed them all into the old brain, then bee-lined it up to Commonwealth. He intersected and met Johnnie with five minutes to spare, just as his buddy neared the statue of Olympian Johnny Kelley who once ran a record 61 Boston marathons. To see the smile on my friend's face was priceless, the hug of encouragement passed from one to another worth even more.
"Do you need some sun lotion," I asked?
"Nahh, I'm alright."
"How's the calf muscle," noting the strained leg muscle I learned about when John was fiddling around with a downed tree just last week in his backyard.
Silence. Then. "We're gonna need to shoot it up tomorrow."
Then, he was off.
"Take it nice and easy, man. You're doing great and you're going to finish. You've got this."
He vanished, first with a few steps walking, then into a nice trot.
A little ways further up Heartbreak Hill, the crowds were out on their front yards, shouting more and more encouragement.
Calling out to Johnny, one fan simply shouted, "You can do it Bruins!"
To a fund-raising runner, "Hey there Children's Hospital, you're going to finish the Boston marathon! How does that sound?"
If there were 36,000 runners, this one fan had to connect with 10,000 athletes just by her self. That's pretty strong.
Then, I stopped in my tracks and did the math. There were over a million spectators lining the course, so every runner in the race had an average of 27.7 fans. Or maybe, like Johnny, they had connected directly with somewhere between one and a million fans.
That is what the Boston marathon was all about in 2014.
It wasn't about a slogan that makes some people feel a little uneasy. It wasn't about justice being served up to two crazed idiots who victimized our town a year ago. It was about coming to terms with the fact they killed a little 8-year old boy, a son and brother. It was about mourning, still, for a wonderful Boston-bred friend and colleague to many. It was remembering that they killed a promising young student who hailed from China and came to our democracy and our schools to study. It was realizing once again, they murdered a brave MIT security man and loyal first responder, on duty as he put in his time and trained to be a police officer in Somerville. The criminals fled to our neighboring town and hid cowardly in our backyards, bringing the crime from our favorite sporting event right into our driveways as we were told to shelter in place.
A million spectators and 36,000 runners Monday turned the page and brought some closure to this terrible tragedy which lives on in our hearts and souls and comes forth through our tears and broken voices.
Today, little Jane Richard will fasten prosthesis to the portion of her leg not lost to the shrapnel of the bomb. Jane, and hundreds of other survivors of a cowardly and senseless act of a year ago will start fresh when the sun rises again.
We'll mark the dates and measure the progress as the survivors carry on as we count another 365 days in a year.
Is it possible to heal?
Yes. It's time to move on, carry-on and continue to support our neighbors and fellow Bostonians, all lifetime residents of a wonderful city we love. It's a small-town community and you're all are welcome to participate in any way you choose.
We proudly call this movement, this gradual and important healing process, "Boston Strong."
You are more than welcome to join us as long as you can add it up.