Humanity’s good nature revealed in marathons

It was an impossibly perfect day. The April air was cold against perspiring legs and raw against expiring lungs. The entire city of Boston was in the streets, offering encouragement and orange slices. It was the ideal first marathon.

And then the bombs went off.

I had just spotted a Shell Gas sign, marking mile 25 of the Boston Marathon’s historic course. I was running for the Boston College Campus Schools charity, a special-education day school for students ages 3 to 21. As a bandit runner—a charity participant without a bib number—I was running a marathon for which some had spent their lives training to qualify.

It would be a day I would never forget.

As I willed my body to maintain pace, I noticed several policemen had joined the course. They ran in the same direction as I—toward the finish. I would not cross it that day. At 25.6 miles in, a squad car and a megaphone halted all runners.

We stood for 45 minutes without a word from officials. The runners who had smart phones, however, soon enlightened us. One man said the bomb reportedly detonated near spectator stands. At this news, seven grown women around me began to cry. I turned numb as I thought of my parents who had planned to meet me at the finish. I thought of my twin, farther back on the course, with whom I had paced for the first 10 miles. Had she not asked me stay with her until mile 12, I might have already reached mile 26.2, where chaos now ensued.

And then, someone offered me a cup of water.

A resident of the block had a tray full of them. Another neighbor had garbage bags for makeshift jackets, as runners’ body temperatures had already lowered. Runners and spectators began offering mobile phones to call loved ones.

I was without a phone, money, or any idea of how to get back to my sister’s dorm, but I managed. With the phone of a German man, five dollars from the lady who worked at the subway ticket office, and the smile of a runner, I navigated a half-closed public transportation system.

While the 2013 Boston Marathon was an exceptional year, I believe it serves as crucible to demonstrate the unique nature of marathon running and the possibilities it presents.

A friend once asked me, “If there is no chance for an average person to win, as he or she is unable to compete against a paid elite runner, what is the point of running a marathon?”

To this question, I cannot help but smile, as running a marathon is almost never about beating someone else. It is a race between oneself and will.

Every runner on that Marathon Monday (as Bostonians call it) was every other participant’s biggest fan. We waited together with awful anticipation at the starting corrals. We urged one another on as we crested Heartbreak Hill, an infamous landmark of the Boston course. And we came to each other’s aid as a crisis unfolded at the finish.

Marathon running is not about flaunting athleticism. We do not run for others’ approval or admiration. Veteran spectators, including most residents of Boston, can attest to the glamourless-ness of it all: the blisters and the chaffing.

The marathon, rather, is where the individual plays with the limits between mind and body. A single word from a fan can get a runner through 10 miles seamlessly, while a broken toenail can end a race. With such peculiar phenomena, runners explore pain, its boundaries, and its reality.

Crossing the finish with shaking limbs and aching joints, a runner fully understands the incredible capability of the human body. It is a capacity we often grossly underestimate.

A year passed and April found me back in Hopkinton, Mass. at the start of the 2014 Boston Marathon. After the events of the previous year, I knew I had to return: to stand in solidarity with Boston, to run for a worthy cause, and to be with those who understand the possibilities running can provide.

Marathon running exposes the magnificence of the human body. It unites spectators and participants alike by instilling a respect for human vitality and provoking a contemplation on humanness.

The events of 2013 took this abstract wondering and converted it into a sense of faith in humanity. Both before and after the bombs detonated, I witnessed act after act of selflessness. After Boston 2013, I sincerely believe that humans are good at heart.

For readers who may doubt the veracity of these claims on marathons, go see a race, or better yet, run one. Then tell me what you think.

The concept of marathon running is relatively new, especially outside of the U.S. Studying abroad this semester, I had the unique opportunity to run the Moscow Marathon.

The event was only in its second year, and women were outnumbered six to one. But it was a fantastic race: not only because of a finishing time I am proud of, but because I helped to foster running culture for a community and to further norms of female fitness.

My experience in Moscow only reinforced my belief in the marathon. Standing at the start, as the Russian national anthem blared, I once again felt excitement and fear wrestle in my stomach. I looked about and saw similar emotions play out on the faces of those around me. I smiled encouragingly at the woman next to me, and she smiled encouragingly back. I knew it was going to be a good run.

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This article first appeared in the Georgetown Voice on October 8, 2014. View it here.

Photo credit: Thierry Ilansades via Flickr