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No Tragedy at the Boston Marathon

Renee Despres
Monday, February 20, 2017 - 05:02runners at sunset

The blasts at the Boston Marathon are not a tragedy. They are something far worse.

Last Saturday, my four-year-old ran her first race. It was a just-for-kids, 1.2 mile run in the midst of a panopoly of races that I can only call a celebration of running. There was a marathon, a half-marathon, a 10K, a 5K, and then the kids’ race, with 1500 kids and parents all trotting around a soft, grassy Midwestern park. It took half an hour to get to the start line –and almost as long to run the mile.

The day was filled with humanity moving forward, in all our beauty and awkwardness. Elite athletes ran incredibly fast with perfect effort and light-footed strides; the rest of us mere mortals lumbered, trotted, walked, danced, skipped, and otherwise figured out how to move on two feet from start to finish.

For me, the thought of my daughter’s huge smile at that finish line brings Monday's horror at the Boston Marathon finish line into sharper relief. That’s because the marathon – “Boston,” as those in the know refer to it, for being on a first-name basis with the race means you’re really a marathoner – is quintessentially about running as a sport, pure and simple. Above all, like the race my daughter ran on Saturday, it's a celebration of running, of strength, of the human condition. 

And Boston itself is more than a race. It’s an institution. The second-oldest marathon in North America, it was first run in 1897 at a distance of 24.5 miles. In 1924, the course was lengthened to the Olympic marathon distance of 26.2 miles. At times, it’s been a little slow on the uptake – for instance, when race official Jock Semple tried to rip off Katherine Switzer’s race number in 1967, because she was a woman and therefore not allowed to run officially.

Boston is possibly the most venerable, stodgy, respected, 26.2-mile long party in the world. I have fond memories of running the race, both with friends and alone, each time making new friends along the way. The cheering fans are as much a part of the race as the runners. Any Boston runner will remember the enthusiastic canopy of arms and good wishes that envelope them at Wellesley. My personal memories include a well-intentioned 6-year-old who tried to hand me a cup of water and tripped me instead. We both sat and laughed for a long time. It wasn’t good for my finish time, but it was good for my soul.

As the news from Boston continues to emerge, each additional piece of information confirming that someone purposefully set out to cause a lot of harm, it feels discordant to think about such violence in the context of a footrace such as this one, the icon of the most elemental of human sports. Running is a celebration of humanity – and for something this inhumane to happen in the context of that celebration is wrong and jarring.

Where do we go from here? I wish I could say something really, really smart. Something that would help all of us heal, even just a little bit. But I don’t know what that something might be. I’ve seen the tweets and the Facebook posts, offering condolences to victims and families, applause to first responders, and expressing determination, grit, and endurance: “We’ll never stop running….” I’ve seen the posts and reposts of Mr. Rogers’ all-too-fitting words, “Look for the helpers.” They’re gallant, determined, and right.

I’ve seen the  “We’re gonna get ‘em” proclamations by officials. And they’re justified and righteous in the best sense. I’ve seen the troubling rumbles have started about race, religion, and nationality, as we jump to stereotype whoever did this as “other” from whoever we might be. And they’re disturbing and hurtful and worrisome.

But it’s still not enough. Because the events in Boston are not a tragedy. Tragedy has meaning. Tragedy is not senseless – it requires a plot, a tragic flaw in a would-be hero. Most importantly, it gives us insight into some aspect of the human condition. But this is no “Eu tu, Brutus?” It was something far worse: A senseless denial of humanity. There is no meaning in causing harm to innocent children and adults, no matter what the symbolism might be of such an event taking place at the Boston Marathon on Patriot’s Day. That’s not meaningful. That’s simply a forced, ridiculous metaphor. 

When I tucked my daughter into bed last night, she was still wearing her bright yellow finisher’s t-shirt, clasping her finisher’s medal in her little sleepy hand, her arm wrapped around her favorite teddy bear.  As I kissed her a final goodnight and headed back to the computer, I paused to look at the contentment on her face. She had been touched by the joy of running in a race – the freedom of movement, the camaraderie and friendship that comes from shared effort.  And that is something no one will ever take away from her.

That’s when I knew that we must continue to run, collectively. We must reach out with goodness and kindness to our fellows, across gaps of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, political beliefs, and whatever else we can find to fight about. And running is one of the best ways to do that – running alone, running together, finding the common ground beneath our feet.

I’ll strap on my running shoes each morning. She’ll put on her “Cheetah Shoes” and sign up for the next race. But now, I’ll treasure each run just a little more and grieve just a little more for the loss we all suffered on Monday.  

Won’t you join me?


Image credit: andreyuu / 123RF Stock Photo