By Zoë Gorman
Anticipation and quiet excitement hung with the air’s petrichor under the overcast skies of Boston Monday morning.
The clouds began to darken as rows of locals and visitors piled towards the finish line of the Boston marathon site, joining 70-somethings who set up lawn chairs on the chill pavement at the 26.1 mile mark, a good three and a half hours before the first elites left Hopkinton, to watch their spouses roll through. The first hints of precipitation fell just as two-time Swiss champion Marcel Hug zoomed across the finish line in a racecar-inspired wheelchair, and light drizzles trickled in with the finest of the women’s and men’s global elites. By the time a steady beat of rugged, young athletes and lissome middle-agers charged towards the finish, the cheering became continuous and the rain was falling steadily.
It was as if the marathoners were creating their own storm.
The race thundered with a proclamation of defiance and camaraderie — the strength to push through the weather, outlast exhaustion, and conquer the painful memories of the tragic bombings just two years prior. The image of the marathon is so powerful, it need not be stated. The message roars through feet pounding down Boylston Street and flits across television screens around the world.
“I was robbed of my finish. That’s why I’m here,” said Melissa Blinkhorn, 31, of Providence, R.I., who was rounding Mile 25 in 2013 when the bombs exploded. “It’s so nice to be back in Boston because it’s such a strong city. Everyone here is Boston Strong. There’s a unity I don’t think you get in any other city.”
The 119th Boston Marathon marked a last breath of fresh air before the sentencing period of the surviving 2013 bomber. A modest memorial of a sign, flower patch and ribbons marked the two bombing sites; taciturn eulogies took a backstage to athleticism. Instead, ubiquitous brandings of “Boston Strong” dotted flags, hoodies and even benches through the streets. The scenery indicated unity and vigor, not remorse.
With a million spectators lining the streets of Boston alone, the image of resilience is a powerful force. When it comes to victory propoganda, the Islamic State has videos of gruesome beheadings. The free world has the Boston Marathon.
In comparison, the memorial sites of 9/11 are little more than ghostly recollections and rubble — statement made through absence and space — passive columns of air stretching past skyline. But the world’s oldest annual marathon is a living, breathing, sweating mass of bodies and hard-beating hearts rushing forward to defy weakness and conquer fear.
Beyond symbolism, the Boston Marathon generates tangible and monumental stepping stones to global prosperity. Boasting some of the highest qualifying standards in the world, the race draws thousands each year who choose to enter by securing charity bibs with a $5,000 fundraising minimum per runner. Boston raised more than $140 million in funds in 2013. According to a representative from the Boston Athletics Association, fundraising amounts for this year will be released this summer.
A Tradition of Running for Peace
The origins of the marathon evoke a unique urgency of peace. According to accounts by Greek historians Plutarch and Lucian, Pheidippidès — a courier who had spent the last two days running messages over 150 miles of Greek turf — was entrusted with a final run from the site of Marathon, where the Greeks had just defeated the Persians in war, to Athens.
The fighting was over, and running a final message to Athens could not be called an emergency by modern standards. Pheidippidès could have stopped for water. Maybe even some olives and a gyro. But instead, he pushed beyond his physical limits and died as he delivered the declaration on his final breath — because announcing peace was that important.
Today, millions all over world embody Pheidippidès’ mild psychosis and highly questionable priorities, as they recreate the run and test their own physical limits. And in Boston, runners stride past a site of terror and tragedy much closer in memory than the fate of the Athenian herald in 490 BC. But for most, finishing the race is not about cheating death, but rather about finding the courage to assert something inside them is stronger.
On Final Recess Day in Bombing Trial, Racers Show Resilience
Monday marked a last day of recess before a difficult next phase of the 2013 bombing trial: the sentencing period. The Tuesday resume date of the trial allowed survivors and families of victims to focus on race day and drew global attention to the triumph of the Boston Strong, not back to an extremist killer.
On April 8, a jury convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 21, of 30 counts including his role in the bombing that murdered three and injured 264 during the 2013 Boston Marathon and the shooting of MIT police officer, Sean Collier. The sentencing period — which will decide if Tsarnaev will face the death penalty — began yesterday, the day after the marathon, and is expected to continue for about two weeks.
A 2015 poll shows 56 percent of Americans support the death penalty, and one of three capital punishment cases sends the convicted to death row. Selected among citizens willing to allow death sentences for the worst criminals, the sentencing jury will be the same as the one that convicted Tsarnaev, but a unanimous agreement is required before he would face death row.
Testifying in court, survivors and families of victims described the horror and agony they experienced on April 19, 2013. But in the weeks leading up the race day, some also urged the jury not to pursue capital punishment. Bill and Denise Richard, whose eight-year-old son were killed in the bombings, wrote in a letter to the Justice Department that sentencing Tsarnaev to life imprisonment without parole or appeal was the best way to help him and his family move forward.
“As long as the defendant is in the spotlight, we have no choice but to live a story told on his terms, not ours,” the letter said. “The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family.”
Participants on race day exhibited a similar, admirable desire to step ahead. More than 30 affected by the bombings raced Monday, including Patrick Downes, who had lost a leg and crossed the finish line in a handcycle. Three-time women’s wheelchair champion, Tatyana McFadden presented her golden victory wreath to Bill Richard as a “symbol of hope.”
For many on the course Monday, it did not matter if Tsarnaev faces death row or not, only that they continue to run.
“I don’t want to see his picture in the paper,” said George Brooks, 33, of Lynnfield, Mass. The significance of running past the site of the bombings only hit him after crossing the finish line, he added. During the marathon, it was all about achieving his personal best and being part of the iconic race.
An Olympics for East Africans… and then Everyone Else
For midwesterners Stephen Rhodes and Scott Hoffman, running alongside others from across the world — even without recalling the violence of 2013 — embodies the spirit of global peace for marathoners the way the Olympics does for professional athletes.
“To me, Boston is the Olympics for the non-super elite athletes. We wouldn’t let the bombing stop us from carrying forward that Olympics vibe.” Hoffman added.
This year, the marathon brought together 26,610 finishers hailing from 89 countries and all 50 states, a Boston Athletics Association representative told CMPI in an email. Kenyan and Ethiopian men and women have claimed 54 of 58 possible Boston victories since 1997.
In the entire history of the summer Olympic Games, only 14 of 47 African countries have brought home gold medals, and only 25 have made appearances. Kenya leads the continent with 75 historic summer medals, but pales to the hundreds earned by most European countries and the United States’ whopping 2,296.
In Boston, American athletic heroes may lead the First World, but they will likely spend most of the race looking at the backs of Kenyans’ and Ethiopians’ sneakers hitting the pavement — if they’re fast enough to see them at all.
For the women this year, Caroline Rotich of Kenya claimed victory, with Ethiopians Mare Dibaba and Buzunesh Deba at her heels, and American Desiree Linden taking fourth. In the men’s race Ethiopians Lelisa Desisa and Yamane Tsegay took the gold and the silver respectively, with Kenyans coming into the next four slots, and American Dathan Ritzenhein crossing seventh. Desisa’s victory fit this year’s mood of recapturing the essence of the marathon after 2013. The 2013 champion had returned his medal in tribute to the people of Boston. As tighter security checkpoints ensured calm, Desisa kept his medal this time.
The victors also serve as vital symbols of peace and hope for citizens back home. Turmoil braces both Kenya and Ethiopia, but that did not stop spectators at Mile 26 from waving a large Kenyan flag proud and high. Earlier this month, Islamist al-Shabab fighters killed 148 at the Kenyan university town of Garissa. Just the day before the marathon, Islamic State militants in Libya released a video of shooting and beheading captured Ethiopian Christians. The marathon provided a chance for the most elite runners to show the world their people are fighters.
The Ethiopian elites ran in a pack for the start of the race and trained to support each other in honor of their country.
“We try to go by four,” Desisa told Runner’s World. “With first and second, and second and third in the women’s race, this result is, for our country, big, big, big.”
Breaking Hearts, Not Spirits
Desisa charged down Boylston to the finish in 2:09:17. But for thousands of runners, the race was far from over.
At 4 hours, 22 minutes, kitchy signs and cheering spectators spurred on a slow slew of puffing charity bib runners at the infamous Heartbreak Hill, Mile 20. The rain thickened for these participants plodding along to inaudible measures on ipods, stretching for the sweet succor of the water stations, or breaking stride to shower family members and friends with hugs. Walking or jogging deliberately at upwards of 12-minute/mile pace, some managed smiles or sarcastic scoffs at the facetious, derailing shouts of “Free beer to the left!” or pounded out enthusiastic high fives to strangers on the sidelines.
The struggle exemplified the collective humanity of the day. More than the aplomb of the elites whizzing past the finish line or the efforts of athlete qualifiers striding through the second wave, the drudgery of this curious mix of 70-year-old friends and first time marathoners wielded, for an excruciating 0.52 miles, a unique power to inspire.
“It’s the closest you can come to being a professional athlete,” Brooks said after the race.
Spectators and runners shared frustration and humour. Encouragement and admiration flowed legato through the incline like violas blooming through a Fauré concerto — a dawning surge of warmth to invigorate the drenched and drained. The downpour didn’t exist. No, they were the downpour.
Rounding the final corner onto Boylston and past the bombing sites, runners fast and slow harnessed a human capacity to conquer tragedy and terror, and the momentum they generate should only pick up each year as the Boston Athletics Association expands.
In those final meters, perhaps runners individually strove to beat the clock or pass in front of a competitor, but the collective mass screamed a more unifying story: a tale of resilience, global brotherhood, and a tireless determination to fly forward and seize the day.
Defiant steps of a thundering army clamoured through the city, and the sea of bodies pulsed together like rain.
Special thanks to Amymarie K. Bartholomew and David Henry Wilkin for lodging the correspondent while in Boston.
All photographs by the author