Commentary: Our Boston Marathon

April 17, 2013, 1:39am

The day after this tragedy, I was reminiscing on the phone from Miami Beach with my mother in Cambridge, MA about all our good memories of the Boston Marathon. We lived on the route on Commonwealth Ave when I was growing up, at about the 20-mile mark, a third of the way up Heartbreak Hill. My mom would throw a marathon party every year, and the house would be full of invited guest and always a number of party-crashers, to whom my mom was known to turn a blind eye. The kids in the neighborhood would gather to oversee the success of the race. The adults would switch from the ball game on TV to the Marathon coverage when the race started, and tell us when it was getting close to time to rush outside and wait for the first runners.

It was with so much excitement and anticipation that we would first see the wheelchair runners come through. It was at the marathon that my seven-year-old self first learned that some people in wheelchairs were athletes, not just people who sat around in a chair all day; wheeling 26 miles seemed to me a much harder job than to run. I was left wordless by their determination. We always knew when the first runners were getting close because the police would come on motorcycles and slowly push back the impatient crowd by running over our toes a little more each time they passed. Then you could hear the ripple of clapping and cheering of the crowd get louder as the runner neared. Our excitement grew as the sound rushed towards us, until we were right in the middle of it, and we fulfilled our sacred duty of cheering the runners on. They seemed to me always like gods, carried to us for a few hours from on high, and would just as quickly return from whence they came. My provincial upbringing must have intuitively absorbed the global significance of the event. I was always ambivalent about whether to root for the person in front, or the second or third place runner close at their heels. Soon the second or third group of runners would follow, and then it was like a dam that had broken, with a rushing surge of runners that flowed like a river of raw spirit right in front of our eyes.

As spectators at that most famous hurdle, Heartbreak Hill, I believe we felt a special obligation to encourage these noble warriors. They had already run 20 miles; they were tired, and now they were facing the most grueling part of the race. They needed us, we felt, and I still like to believe that is true. We held out paper cups of water and slices of oranges, and we would hope that ours would be taken first. Having an offering selected by a running, panting, sweating god or goddess washed over us as the ultimate compliment. We would try to guess whether the runners would drink the water, or dump it on their head if the day was hot. It was both thrilling and terrifying, like standing at the edge of a beautiful cliff, to hold one’s hand out for them to take what they needed. It was surprising how fast they were really moving, the impact of their body pushing their hand forward with jarring force as it connected with your and pushed you backward, off balance, momentarily pulled with the runners on their path. If connecting with them felt like a small miracle, it was in equal measure a small tragedy if their water or orange fell to the ground in the hand-off, wasted; we would console ourselves with the faith that there was another spectator, maybe just a few yards up, ready to fill the gap. We were one giant organism working in unison to power these mystical travelers. And they were all portals to another dimension, if you judged by the expressions on their faces. We kids would buy mini-snap-firecrackers and throw them on the ground at each other, looking for a reaction, but everyone, even the most obnoxious bully in the group, knew to not throw them at the runners, knew that it could scare them, hurt them; we knew to respect the runners. I had walked 20 miles in a day doing the Walk for Hunger when I was 11, and it had taken me all day, so I had some small idea of what these runners were really doing. Seeing a parent running and pushing a child’s wheelchair, I wondered wherever did they get the strength to do that? Where do people find the fortitude for a challenge like that?

Later, we would go in the house for a break from the heat or the cold, depending on what kind of a New England April day Mother Nature had seen fit to deliver. I always preferred the hot days, though I knew that also meant it was a day when no records would be set. Perfect was considered 50 F with a light drizzle. Fortified, we would go back outside with more offerings to the gods, feeling a rare sense of personal power that children usually didn’t usually get to enjoy, at least not in Boston in the 70s and 80s, as we found ourselves in the curious position of having something real and important to offer and adult, and have it be accepted.

Eventually, as an hour, and then two, and then three passed, the crowds would start to thin, the rushing river of spirit would slow to a trickle, the pace of the runners would slow. At four hours, the gods and goddesses started to turn back into humans again. We could see the pain and strain on their face, almost hear them talking to themselves, telling their legs to keep going, to just try and finish. I was always moved most by these fallen deities. I identified with them in that moment, I suppose. Maybe I glimpsed the battle between the human and the divine that is waged inside each of us, every day, and was awed by it. Maybe I just empathized with their effort and struggle and pain. I always liked to stick around and offer water and oranges to the late runners after most people had packed up and left. I enjoyed offering sustenance to those first runners who were succeeding and exceeding their own expectations, but I liked even more to help those who were just trying to finish what they started so they would live with themselves another day. I was equally affected by the straggling runners’ look of tired appreciation as they pressed past, as I was by the unstoppable gale force wind of the frontrunners as they came and went in the blink of an eye.

Finally, the adults’ party would wind down and leave a smell of white wine, brie cheese, and stale break all through the house, and my sister and I would go play on the lawn if it was still warm enough. I fretted about the people still running in the gathering dusk, well after the official race time was over. My sister always recalls a runner coming up to her sometime after five and asking if she might use our bathroom. My mother always likes to tell a colorful story of the runner who allegedly managed to break the toilet during his pit stop.

The marathon was the only time we were allowed to let strangers in the house, no questions asked. We were all there for each other, on the same side, pulling for the same cause. Our greatest betrayal on that day was the year that the female frontrunner was found to have cheated by taking the T for several stops along the route and then cutting through the crowd and diving back into the sea of runners ahead of her competitors. I think she turned out to be ill and we eventually all felt sorry for her. That seemed like the worst thing that could ever happen on Marathon Day. On race day, the spirit that was supposed to flow during other holidays, but in reality rarely made an appearance, could be found a million times over as we stood together at Boston’s stalwart and singular celebration of Patriot’s Day. The gods were always with us. We had no fear on Marathon Day.  –   Pamela Mazza

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