By the time I’d made the final turn onto Boylston Street on Patriot’s Day last year, lactic acid had long since transformed my quads into a pair of concrete slabs. The crowd, 10-deep on both sides, hooted, hollered and cow-belled beneath the warm April sun. Dig, I told myself when I passed the sign that read “26 miles,” dig deep. Two-tenths of a mile, and I’d re-up my membership in that elite running fraternity: Boston Marathon finishers.
I mounted a final, stiff-legged charge and reminded myself of all I’d done to get here. The 20-mile runs. Predawn workouts on the local high school track in Oklahoma. A winter of lung-searing, finger-numbing, leg-wearying training. What, I asked myself as the blue-and-gold finish banner came into focus, could be more fulfilling than this moment?
Similar thoughts no doubt played in the minds of the runners who approached the line two hours later, when a pair of explosions rocked Boylston Street. The bombs left three dead, and more than 100 people were injured. As the message I received the next morning from the Boston Athletic Association said, “What was intended to be a day of joy and celebration quickly became a day in which running a marathon was of little importance.”
After the security at other sporting and mass-participation events became tighter in the wake of 9/11, it seemed — in hindsight — inevitable that marathons would eventually become soft targets for terrorists. In Boston, the Globe reported that more than a half-million people lined the course of the race. Races in New York and Chicago attract at least as many spectators, and many of the nearly 1,000 other 26.2-milers that take place across the country each year routinely draw tens or hundreds of thousands of fans. And then there are the participants themselves, who often number more than 10,000 for marathons and their sister half-marathons, which often take place simultaneously.
Unlike a football stadium or civic center, though, a race affords almost an infinite number of viewing points. By their very nature, their courses snake long distances and take runners on tours of the neighborhoods and landmarks that make a particular city or community unique.
They introduce runners, many who’ve traveled from afar, to the character of a place, and in turn, the place’s characters turn out in full force to celebrate these citizen athletes. For those of us without 38-inch vertical leaps or chart-topping singles, blowing kisses to the coeds of Wellesley at the 12-mile mark of the Boston Marathon is as close as we’ll ever come to knowing the squealing adulation typically reserved for Kevin Durant and Lady Gaga.
Security at marathons has grown more stringent in recent years. At Boston, SWAT teams drove the marathon route ahead of and behind the leaders. The morning of the race, police dogs sniffed the entire finish area for bombs. And when we completed our journey from Hopkinton to Copley Square, the security presence in the cordoned-off finishers’ chute was visible and strong.
In the wake of the bombing, races are taking additional precautions. They’ve become even safer. But they haven’t become perfectly safe. Nor could they.
Marathoning is about embracing risk. We’ve all read the stories about the runners who die midrace. We know this chance (and the possibility of dehydration, heat stroke, heart attack and numerous other risks) exists. Yet we run anyway, choosing the richness of the experience over fear.
Completing a 26.2-mile race represents a pinnacle of self-actualization. There’s a reason it sits at the top of so many bucket lists. That, in turn, is why runners are so eager to share the experience with families, friends and throngs of cheering strangers.
Due to an injury, I won’t be running from Hopkinton to Copley Square today. Nor can I join in the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon on Sunday. But just knowing that these races are taking place breathes life into me. It reminds me of the obstacles so many have overcome just to get to the starting line — and of the joy they’ll experience when they reach the finish.
Today, my body tells me that running a few steps, let alone 26.2 miles, is not realistic. But I know I’ll be back. Because if nothing else, marathons have taught me that we can achieve far more than we ever imagined possible.
Adam Cohen is senior vice president and general counsel of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.