Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Finish Line? Reflections from the Scene of the Boston Marathon Bombing

Tax Dash

When you hear "April 15th"in the USA, your first thought is probably: ugh, Tax Day. In 2013, this annual "Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Appreciation Day" happened to land on the third Monday of April, which in New England is also known as Patriots' Day in honor of the Battles at Lexington and Concorde.

Patriots' Day in New England should not be confused with the National Patriot Day commemoration held annually on 9/11. The more recent Patriot Day (9/11) marks another moment that changed the arc of history. But that has been, is, and will be a story for a different blog post....

As it happened in 2013, this auspicious mid-April day was also the day for the running of the now infamous 116th annual Boston Marathon--the one that was marred by an inhuman tragedy.

"At 2:49 pm EDT, two pressure cooker bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon about 12 seconds and 210 yards apart, near the finish line on Boylston Street. Three people were killed and an estimated 264 other runners and onlookers were injured. 
"The bombing victims were identified as 29-year-old Krystle Campbell, 8-year-old Martin Richard, and 23-year-old Lu Lingzi. Additionally at approximately 10:30 pm on April 18, MIT officer Sean Collier was killed in a related incident, for a total of four fatalities." 
--various Internet resources including Wikipedia

Recently, I made a pilgrimage to the scene of the carnage, and this is my report in words and pictures.

Make-shift memorial honors Sean, Krystle, Lu Lingzi, and Martin. 
The new addition to the Boston Library appears in the background.

The Finish Line? 
Reflections from the Scene of the Boston Marathon Bombing

When news of the bombing hit the airwaves, my reaction was intense.

  • I wanted the perpetrators caught and harshly punished to dissuade copycats. Medieval torture techniques such as the withdrawal of entrails or boiling in oil seemed perfectly appropriate.
  • I wanted the victims and first responders honored and healed, no expenses spared. 
  • I wanted the families and friends of the dead and injured consoled through the application of healing care, swift justice, and fair compensation. 
  • And, more than anything else, I wanted to promote a National sense of unity--through defiance. Defiance in the form of a giant bony finger thrust in the chest of every would-be terrorist. Defiance that states clearly and unambiguously, "this shall not stand!"

The best way to express unity through defiance, I argued, would be for Boston to come back stronger than ever for the 2014 race, and beyond that, for every able-bodied American to get out and run. I wanted the 2014 Boston Marathon to be the biggest and the best ever. Moreover, I wanted to flood the streets of every town in the Nation with pissed-off runners--not afraid, not really angry, but determined and defiant.

Run for personal health and fitness. 
Run for those who are not able. 
Run to honor those who fell. 
Run to teach the terrorists 
that they cannot prevail. 
Run to conquer fear. 
Run with purpose. 
Run for America.
Run, Forrest
R-u-n !

In May, I signed up for my first-ever marathon, and, with the help of Team in Training I did something I now consider quite remarkable: a mere 6 months after the Boston Marathon Bombing, I crossed the start line of the Marine Corps Marathon.

A view of the Finish Line with the library in the background
Yes, a few hours later I also crossed the finish line, but to my way of thinking, I became a marathoner when, after months of training and preparation, I actually planted my personal footprint on the race course. Not everyone finishes every race  (lots of things can go wrong), but everyone who starts a 40 km race is a marathoner. Even if I failed in my attempt to complete the marathon, I knew that the act of starting the race validated the commitment I made.

Interesting word cloud map of Boston found in the Boston Library
Would I finish? Would I finish pain-free? Would I finish pain-free and immediately sign up for another marathon? What about all the people who had generously pledged support to LLS on my behalf? How could I ever face them again if I failed? Those questions were eating away at me during my training. I had serious doubts all the way up to the pre-race dinner.  I was thinking about me, about my trials and my concerns. Worry consumed me.

A mix of architectural styles along the marathon route

At the pre-race dinner, I had an epiphany. The speaker talked about all the money we raised for LLS, and how that money was going directly to cancer research and care for cancer patients and their families.  This realization took me out of myself, out of "me" world and into "we" world.

Then an experienced marathoner addressed the first-timers. And I was not alone, not by a long shot. There were several hundred of first-time marathoners in the MCM, and dozens in the banquet hall  that night. This speaker said that we could let go of our pre-race anxiety because all we had to do was show up for the starting gun and put a footprint on the race track and we'd be marathoners.

Just hours before the race, I realized that all those questions which had plagued me were immaterial. I was not running for me. I was running for them. The starting gun sounded. I was on the course. One foot was steadily going in front of the other. Nothing else mattered. I was in a sea of runners, ans we had made it!

As I floated, plodded, and waddled my way over 26.2 miles, I thought about the shock and horror experienced at 2:49 EDT on Boylston Street six months earlier. I thought of all the people who had supported me and Team in Training to raise needed funds for cancer research. And mostly I thought about my brother, fighting cancer, to whom I had dedicated my run. I often chanted his name in rhythm with my footfalls. These thoughts of others kept me in the "we" world, and helped me ignore any discomfort.

At the Finish Line, where--for me--it all began.


  • I felt so happy and so relieved when I charged up the hill to the finish line at the Iwo Jima Memorial. 
  • In December, I re-lived that sense of hard-fought victory when my brother survived his second cancer surgery. 
  • And then in April, I was overjoyed when American Meb Keflezighi, a three-time Olympian who ran at UCLA, won the men's race in 2:08:37 and became the first American male runner to win the Boston Marathon since 1983.

Meb has his name and winning time inscribed at this Copley Square monument

While the Boston Marathon would certainly be a stretch goal for me personally, I know that with the right motivation and sufficient time, I could accomplish that or any other goal I put my mind to achieving. As the saying goes, there is nothing that one cannot do, given sufficient quantities of coffee.

Java IV, stat!

Fear and anger got me off the couch, into my running togs, and onto the training track. Defiance motivated me to action and helped me motivate others to join the just cause. But there was an emotion even more powerful than my hatred for the despicable Tsarnaev brothers who carried out the attack against us. That more powerful emotion was the love I felt for the fallen and the wounded and for people who, like my brother, are fighting cancer. I ran not to win or avoid defeat, but simply to show care and concern for those unable to run.

Fear got me moving, but everything changed in the moment when I realized the night before the race that the marathon was not about "me." Had I focused on me and my goals and fears, I may not have finished. Instead, I focused on what I could do for others. That is the moment that love took over from fear--and that feeling of love is what enabled me to finish.

That, and plenty of coffee.

So it was no small event for me, my recent pilgrimage to Boylston Street. And it has been a pleasure to share my reflections in words and pictures. What happened at the Finish line in 2013 was really more of a beginning in many ways--for me, at least, and maybe for many others.

Street art found at the scene: In Pursuit of Magic


In addition to my photos and personal reflections, I have a thought challenge to share with you. What is your motivation? What is your equivalent Boston Marathon Bombing moment? What ignites your passion? If a person close to you is fighting for survival, what are you doing to channel your fears, concerns, hopes, and prayers into something positive, something helpful, maybe even something "unifyingly defiant"?  How do you poke a bony finger in death's chest? How do you express the opposite of fear, darkness, grief, and death? How do you express love?

I suppose every marathoner considers running in the grand-daddy of all marathons. Begun in 1897, inspired by the success of the first modern-day marathon competition in the 1896 Summer Olympics, the Boston Marathon is the world's oldest annual marathon and ranks as one of the world's best-known road racing events. It is one of six World Marathon Majors. Amateur and professional runners from all over the world compete in the Boston Marathon each year, braving the hilly New England terrain and varying weather to take part in the race.

The qualifying standards to earn a runner's bib are quite high. To qualify, one must have a certified run time faster than the age- and gender-adjusted standard. For men my age, that maximum allowed marathon finish time is 3:30--quite a bit better then my current PR. I am going to have to have a serious chat with my knees and ankles before committing to the goal of qualifying for Boston!