The finish line at the Boston Marathon is a mirage – or so it seems at the conclusion of this 26.2-mile trek. It is only three-and-a-half blocks from the left-hand turn off Hereford Street onto Boylston Street. Runners will tell you though, that the finish-line banners appear to move away from them rather than get closer.
“It’s like a horror movie,” is how one marathon finisher described this floating finish line to me as we chatted affably after the 117th running of the prestigious race. We stiffly made our way through the finish area to receive our Mylar blankets, medals, snack sacks and personal bags of clothing.
Oh how I would remember his words as this grand celebration of endurance, camaraderie and tradition turned dramatically and forever into a crime scene.
The scenes from the carnage caused by a cowardly act are now part of our history. No need to recount the dramatic video and photographs we all have viewed through the media. Those who were there were witness to the weakest of what man has to offer society. And the best man could ever hope to attain.
My story dwells on the joy, fellowship and pride – such pride – I felt as I witnessed Boston at its worst and then quickly and even more dramatically – Boston at its best.
A marathon is simply a party. A long one mind you, but a party nonetheless.
Ricky Mitchell is a sub-three-hour marathoner from San Antonio. As I jogged along at about mile 14, I watched the nimble and way-too-energetic Mitchell break from the current of runners, hop the curb and join a group of neighborhood kids as they bounced on a line of a dozen or more mini-trampolines. How can you not love this guy?
I fist bumped the 30-something Ricky as he returned to the race and we jogged on together and talked. Ricky had pounded out a just-over three-hour marathon last year at Boston in the searing 90-degree temps. “So what are you doing back here with us lackeys?” I queried.
Ricky had a rough winter of training. Since he wasn’t nearly as fit as he needed to be once time for Boston arrived, he decided to run the race for entertainment purposes only. In midsentence, Ricky left my right side and bolted over the curb again to dive into the center of a posed photograph of five high-school girls lined up shoulder to shoulder in an arc. I laughed as the spectators cheered when Ricky crouched down in the center of these girls and flash a huge toothy grin – freezing a memory of zany spontaneity they will never forget.
You have to be a bit goofy to run a marathon. Having a little Ricky in you helps you cope with covering 26.2 miles on foot. It is why this act of destruction at the finish line is so out of place – so wrong at a party like Boston.
Ricky Mitchell is what the Boston Marathon is all about.
There are no politics inside the ropes of a marathon. There are only runners.
Language is not a barrier at the marathon. Heavy breathing means you’re hurting. That shuffling shoe sound means you’re probably old but committed. Non-stop laughter and cheering might mean you’re running by Wellesley College just before the halfway point.
Ahhh, Wellesley. How I love your history, your all-female tradition and your commitment to trump each other with the craziest sign or act of indulgence. “Kiss me I’m a farmer,” was a new sign for me this year. “Kiss me I’m barely legal,” brought a smile to my sunburnt face.
One runner in front of me stopped twice to kiss the same girl. What a waste I thought! I view the delectable lineup at Wellesley each Boston similar to how I peruse a gourmet pastry shop. And I know pastry. Would you limit yourself to the two blueberry muffins when a delicate cream puff sat wanting and puckering just astride? With all that talent on display for the kissing, why not sample as many different menu items as you can fit on your…uh, lips?
I missed allowing myself to participate in the Wellesley tradition of kissing the passing hoard of runners by about 20 years. Kissing gramps is just gross. Except for gramps. But the two coeds who strategically placed themselves at the very end of the block-long Wellesley kissing line almost got me to bite.
One a blonde and the other a brunette, they held signs the size of a 4×3-foot placard. Both displayed exposed creamy shoulders and milky-white barefoot gams. Not a stitch of clothing was visible this side of their oversized signs. On the placards in neatly printed text they had written, “Kiss me and I’ll drop my sign.”
Wellesley College is what the Boston Marathon is all about.
I jogged the first dozen miles or so with Greg Heilers, a tall, lanky Kansas City engineer and running buddy of mine, who had lost some training due to an injury. Heiler’s should have been chasing a time in the low three-hour range but his fitness level had him hoping to just break 3:30 – exactly what I was hoping to do.
“It sure is good to see some other fat guys out here running this race,” bellowed a loud voice behind us. A handsome square-shouldered dark-haired man who reminded me of Elaine’s David Putty briskly strode beside us. “I was starting to think I was all alone out here!” he chuckled.
I don’t know if Putty could get away with riffing on a women’s large frame, but Heilers and I took his ribbing in the good-natured way it was intended. The Boston Marathon is the kind of party where no introductions are necessary.
That awkward period of an early bro-on-bro friendship where you pretend to be politely pleasant and politically correct to each other gets tossed into the trash between male runners at Boston. There isn’t time to allow your immature relationship to mature. You simply go Putty on each other and rip a guy’s saddle bags, Dunlop disease and pigeon-toed gate as you cruise past. Putty hailed from Sacramento. He didn’t come across three time zones to play nice. He came to play.
Sacramento’s David Putty is what the Boston Marathon is all about.
Shortly after Putty passed Heilers and me, Patty and Mary replaced his barbs with their butts.
I ran my first road race in 1981. The last place you went looking for an attractive woman in the early ‘80’s was at a 10K race. Female runners at that time were few in number. Those who did show up to run owned fewer curves than Popeye’s Olive Oyl…and were not nearly as animated.
But cross-training, Title 9, cosmetic surgery and the imagination of lululemon has transformed the female runner of today into the fantasy character, Wonder Woman of my youth come to life. Patty and Mary were full of charms and dressed to advertise those many attributes. They ran stride for stride in butt-hugging mini shorts and crisscross bikini tops. Their first names handwritten in magic marker on their outer arms.
Running 26 miles can be an incredibly boring venture without the Patties and Marys of the marathon. At least for me. I am old but I am not dead. Man cannot live by cream puffs alone. These two were just stunning examples of a reason to live…if only to run behind.
The Boston Marathon is about scenic views – some which appear to be too good to be true. A quirk of nature I have never viewed as a problem.
A father and his two sons have greeted runners each Patriots Day I’ve visited their burg from their simple driveway perch just outside Ashland. The father appears to be of Pakistani descent and while his two elementary age sons mimic his dark skin and even darker bushy brows, they are 100% American made. The youngest son rose from his flimsy lawn chair to stand on its seat as we passed. He dramatically gesture to the runners as we aproached.
Like a carnival barker he made a sweeping circular gesture with his arms and hands – slowing the motion of his limbs to attain maximum theatrical impact. In a voice he dug from deep within his diaphragm, the young lad shouted, “The city of Boston awaits you!” All done in a Boston brogue that would make Matt Damon proud.
A family in Hopkinton hang a banner on their front windows each Marathon Monday, welcoming runners to their small rural town. They sit on their front steps and take in the view of the parade of different waves as they make their slow walk to the point-to-point start.
Across the street their neighbors set up a makeshift supply tent that has the phrase, “All Free” written on banners and signs that adorn this small tent on their front curb. Runners clog the small area to reach for free Vaseline, Band-Aids, water, drinks, etc. “We’ll be back here next year too!” shouts the friendly husband of this generous clan.
The Boston Marathon is about fathers and sons and mothers and daughters and families. The Boston Marathon is about sharing, giving and helping.
The Kansas City runners who traveled to Boston experienced sights, sounds and heart-wrenching real-life drama that we may never be able to resolve. Life is hard sometimes. But it gets better. The cowards never win. It is our job to see to that.
I stood on a park bench near an endless line of ambulances hours after the two blasts, talking on my cell phone as a small brown man approached. He pointed to my medal – struggling with his English. I looked down at him and wondered why he was curious about my finisher’s medal. He was obviously a runner just as I. But his eyes told me everything I needed to know. He did not have a medal. He was unable to finish the race.
“Here,” I said as I doffed my ribbon and medal. “Take mine.” I extended my medal to where he stood below. He backed away with his arms outstretched, waving off my gesture. He thought my gift too high a price for me to pay a stranger. What he did not understand is that at the Boston Marathon there are no strangers. He turned quickly and was gone.
The city of Boston was magnificent in how it reacted to the explosions. The police were professional yet passionate. The medical personnel did their jobs as they have been trained – and so many people are alive today because they are so darn good at that job. The residents of Boston became immediate surrogate family members to any and all runners who were left without a hotel, transportation, a shower, a meal or simply a friend.
I love the Boston Marathon. I love it with its scars, with its stains and with its creeping old age. Most of all I love it for its people.
The New York Yankees paid a touching tribute to the hated Boston Red Sox the day after the Boston Marathon by playing the Sox’s much-loved theme song, Sweet Caroline in Yankee Stadium.
New York knows pain. New York knows pain is temporary. New York knows sports is merely a game. New York knows they will hate the BoSox again tomorrow and the feeling will be mutual.
Boston wouldn’t have it any other way.
[email protected] & Twitter / greghall24