I have not run the Boston Marathon, but I count myself lucky to have been at the finish line three years ago.
We cheered on Pat’s sister Valerie and our dear friend Christopher as they competed in – and completed – their first Boston Marathon. We joined thousands of friends, family, lovers, cousins, runners, walkers, dignitaries, children, tourists, workers, volunteers and knuckleheads screaming ourselves hoarse, raising more than a few glasses and blinking back a tear or two at the thousands that streamed across that line, ending a 26.2-mile run and a journey that stretched months and maybe years before that.
At the 114th Boston Marathon finish line a single pulse churned through the hearts of the crowd: Anticipation. Little kids wriggled through the barricades to cross the finish line with Mom or Dad while gruff cops looked the other way. Runners burst into tears and dropped to their knees to kiss the pavement and struggled into a volunteer’s arms to stagger down the chute. Whoops of glee echoed through the stands when the dizzying focus of binoculars landed on a familiar gait way down Boylston Street revealing a glimpse of their runners. Our runners.
Lithe and slender and quick as whippets; plodding, blistered and worn down by miles; driven onward by a cause greater than themselves (cancer, AIDS, Wounded Warriors, domestic violence, Sudan, peace, Mom, Dad); racing against the internal measure of a personal challenge – hour after hour after hour they came, each triumph fresh every time their feet touched that line.
Bars opened up at the crack of dawn and hit capacity before the first runners left Hopkinton. Grocery stores and markets ran low on colorful bouquets. Tom cradled tulips in his arms for a good two hours for Valerie. A Babel of languages swirled up between the buildings from the grandstands. It was there that I learned a full bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne can fit in a standard bicycle bottle.
Eleven-deep along the sidewalk, we searched for the handwritten names emblazoned across their shirts – Go Dana! Go Mike! You can do it, Terry! Almost there, Julie! A weak smile, a half-wave, a nod – their eyes on the prize and the Old South Church looming beyond, we pushed them onward with our shouts, cheers and thunderous claps.
“There she is! There she is! It’s them! It’s Christopher! Go Valerie! You can’t do it, sweetie!” We cried for them, like we had cried for so many that had come before.
Late into the afternoon, the party rolled on. We bought beers for triumphant strangers – many of them still clinging to their foil race-wrappers for warmth, absently rubbing their medals between their fingers or staring awestruck at the news coverage of Marathon Monday. They did that! They ran Boston.
And though some may have ended their day in defeat – bested by a competitor, falling just-short of a goal – the achievement would be etched in their hearts and ours, having borne witness to an accomplishment they may not recognize for another day.
I have not run Boston. After my first and only marathon – London 1995 – it wasn’t in these legs to qualify, though I ran the Las Vegas Rock and Roll Half in 2011 and the New Orleans Mardi Gras Half in 2012. Celebrating in Boston at the finish line was enough for me – I marvel still at all of those that streamed across and at the city that encircled them in a great, big, loud, proud hug.
Nothing can take that away from me – nothing will take that away from them.
The finish line will never be the same – not for Boston, not for any marathon, not for any race of any distance of any kind.
The taut tape that spans the finish line will no longer stand stand for getting up off the couch, setting a goal, pushing yourself and achieving something – it will stand against hatred and anger and fear. The third and fourth and fifth and 20th people to cross will not just be vying for the podium or an age-group prize, they will be competing for the dignity of the injured and the memory of the lost. On and on through every runner that charges onward toward the goal, up to the last straggler whose brave effort will sweep up the confetti, they will cross the line for the volunteers, the police officers, the EMTs and paramedics, the spectators that charged onward into the blood and smoke to help.
They will finish for Boston.