For my 22nd marathon, I volunteered to guide visually-impaired runner Mike Merino in the Boston Marathon. We were part of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind's "Team With A Vision." Mike and I tethered ourselves together at the start in Hopkinton and then wove our way through crowds of runners to the finish on Boylston Street.
After I guided Mike across the line, we jammed ourselves in with hundreds of other tired, sweaty runners stumbling slowly forward to collect the medals commemorating our victory. We were a scrawny army wrapped in foil blankets – survivors of a war we'd fought in flimsy uniforms and boots padded with lightweight foam, armed only with bodies loaded with pasta, oxygen from a beautiful spring day, and determination. The fight to finish in under four hours had taken all we had.
Then there was an explosion. While we were still trying to convince ourselves that the first blast was just an accident, maybe a short in a power transformer or a gas leak, another one went off. We knew then, though it wouldn't be confirmed until much later, that the real war had intruded, the one with bombs, flying shreds of metal and glass, three tragic deaths, and more than 150 people injured.
My first response, and the first response of many of the people I know, wasn't fear. It was anger. We were mad, and are still mad, because running is our refuge, and it seems like someone is trying to take it away.
Running helps me process my thoughts. It distracts me just enough to let the back of my mind sort out whatever is bothering me. An hour's run is a straightforward task that gives me the comfort of knowing I've accomplished something that day. If I argue with my boss or get in a fight with my spouse, I can work through it by running a little faster. And a nice, long run is a few hours out of the day when I don't have to worry about yard work, bills, politics, crime, or terrorism.
At least until Monday, when someone decided to make a point of some kind at the Boston Marathon.
Non-runners have asked me whether I'll be afraid to return to the marathon next year. They don't understand. If I were afraid, running is what I'd do to work through those feelings.
But running isn't just about escaping the stresses of daily life. We don't run just to get fit, for the competition, or to collect money for charities. Those are wonderful benefits, but they're not why we run. As Mike told me on Tuesday, "I run marathons because of something bigger than all that."
It starts with individual people, getting out on the road regularly, building fitness and training to run farther and faster. As they run, they find others who share their goals and start working together, having fun while encouraging each other to achieve even more. Some of those people organize events, and even more people, many of them non-runners, join in to help. Soon there are 27,000 people running together from Hopkinton to Boston with thousands more in volunteer jackets helping out, hundreds of thousands lining the roads to cheer and enjoy the spectacle, and millions donating to their friend's charity, watching on TV, and maybe even thinking, "Hey, I'll bet I can do that."
It's also about the next day, when the crowds are gone and you're out there by yourself, not for the glory, but because it's who you are, a runner. And it's about getting out there the next day and the next and the one after that.
Usually, distance runners toil on the side of the road, away from any spotlight other than the headlights from an oncoming car. Our sport only gets noticed in the US in passing, when the Summer Olympics are held in a convenient time zone or on the weekend of the Boston Marathon.
Now we're getting worldwide attention, but for all the wrong reasons. And it makes us mad.
Sure, lots of people were disappointed that they didn't get to finish their race, but that's not the real issue. Marathoners are used to the vagaries of the weather or a mid-race injury spoiling six months of training. It's frustrating, but there's always another race. The bombers appear to want to destroy that possibility of redemption.
Marathoners already know running Boston isn't a given. Most people have to qualify by running fast or collecting for a charity. If we aren't able to earn our way in, that's OK. But we are not willing to let someone else take our opportunity away.
Angry people set off the bombs in Boston on Monday. We runners are angry, too, but we're going to use that as fuel to train harder and become better at the sport we love, so when we show up in Hopkinton in 2014, we'll be ready to do our best in memory of those who fell on Monday.