Boston has been my home for five years, but it wasn’t until last April that I experienced the Marathon. Kait had already moved to Austin, but her dad Claude was running and she flew back to cheer him on. For the first time I was working at a job that actually observed Patriot’s Day (/”Marathon Monday”) so I took the holiday as, if nothing else, an excuse to walk around with a friend on what usually feels like the first day of Spring.
So like many it was a simple connection to one person that got me out among the crowds. I expected something like a parade scene, I guess, and while it looked similar it was also something much more. It’s so hard to put in to words the experience of watching the Boston Marathon- this day where the people of what can be a cold, surly city look each other in the face, smile, and line every foot of the 26 mile route to cheer on strangers. “Why are their names written on their shirts?” I naively asked Kait, overwhelmed by the horns, clappers, cheers, and smell of sidewalk BBQs. “So we know them,” she replied.
In Cleveland Circle we caught a glimpse of the leading men and women- the professionals. Their forms were the definition of elegance, legs and arms gliding through the air in practiced arcs. The sight of it was enough to make the crowd hush just a bit. As a group they seemed to make no sound at all. I had never seen anyone move like that- it was captivating. Seconds later they were gone. Not long after came the soldiers, fully uniformed with heavy backpacks. Beads of sweat ran down their foreheads as they marched in tandem. A man in front carried the American flag while a women held a banner that said something about fallen comrades. I couldn’t exactly make it out through tears and mascara sting.
That’s the thing with the Boston Marathon, the thing that I think makes us all at least a little emotional- it’s the pride. Pride for the runners who train and sacrifice and dedicate and push themselves to a place beyond what most of us can comprehend. Pride for the friends and family who stand, like we did, on the sidelines with makeshift signs and scream themselves hoarse until the moment they see the person they came for and then absolutely freaking lose it. Pride for the kids who hold out their hands for high fives. Pride for the volunteers, with their reassuring (knowing) smiles and endless cups of water. Pride for a city that celebrates all of this.
Yesterday I was supposed to meet people in both Brookline and near the finish line. I headed to Brookline first- it’s closer and the crowds are usually more local. It also seemed like a good place to catch my friend Jamie, who was running at a pace of 8 minutes a mile according to the text alerts. She’d run a few marathons before but this year was her first “Boston.” She trained and raised money for months, and watching her process had inspired me to start running. I’d only worked my way up to a 5k, surprised at the peace and focus it brought, but Jamie supported and cheer -leaded me every step of the way. She told me about oranges (apparently running=never getting enough citrus) and I told her about acupuncture. She approached the Marathon the same way she approaches everything: humble, selfless, and determined. “It just matters, you know?” she’d say.
It was a beautiful day- it’s just starting to smell like spring and the light doesn’t have that bluish winter hue anymore. Shiny, happy people were making those familiar sounds of clapping and encouragement punctuated occasionally by the drone of drunk college students.
My favorite people to look for are the individuals, usually women, that stand alone and seem out of place. They smile to themselves. Or the people needing to cross the street- you hold your bag tight and book it, praying that you don’t panic and cause a runner to slam into you. This year a National Guard volunteer had a whole line of people just waiting for her to help them. She scanned the road a block up and could estimate exactly the moment you could cross. I watched her place her hand on each person’s shoulder, point, then gently nudge them across.
Walking up towards Cleveland Circle to meet some friends I passed a small card table with the sign “Jay and Elijah’s Cookies and Lemonade.” The cookies were ten cents and the lemonade fifty. A boy about eight years old sat behind the table, legs tucked under his shirt as he read an Abraham Lincoln biography.
My friends and I scanned the stream of runners for Jamie. We saw barefoot runners, a tattooed runner with a mohawk and jean shorts, runners with huge posses (“That’s Paige, scream for her!”), old men runners, a little girl with pigtails and bright pink tights running with her dad, runners dressed up like hot dogs and bananas, and a guy in briefs with serious butt cleavage. Every few minutes we’d notice someone that made us smile or laugh, or we’d just stand there, in awe. It didn’t get old, the cheering and the clapping.
At 2:42 PM a text message came, Jamie had finished with a time of 3:56:26. We missed her. Bummed out and hungry, we walked down Beacon in search of a BBQ. Minutes later I got another text message from my husband: “There was an explosion at the finish line, where are you?” On Twitter there were just vague reiterations of “explosion at finish” until I clicked on someone’s picture. It was of the Grand Stand area, except the bleachers and barricades were on the ground. People were laying all around, some getting CPR, and there was blood. There were reports of a second explosion and more pictures. I stopped looking and started thinking of everyone I knew who might be down there, including my friend who would have crossed the finish minutes before the blast. Some calls went through, others didn’t.
It was another twenty minutes before most of the people around us started getting word. Slowly everyone took out their phones. The cheering stopped, the clapping died down. People huddled together, texting or calling to find people or get more information. The race was still taking place, and more and more runners started to notice the change . One guy was telling his mom about the explosion just as an older man ran close to the sidewalk. “They are saying people a lot of people are hurt at the finish, people losing limbs…there might be more bombs,” the guy said. “What’s happening?” the runner asked. No one knew what to say or do- how do you tell someone who’s running to that very same finish line, where their families are waiting? Some people kept running, others accepted stranger’s cell phones and stopped.
The next few hours felt eerie and chaotic as everyone texted or called loved ones, trying to both get home and make sure everyone was accounted for as the streets that were only hours ago filled with celebration grew quiet. I got home safe thanks to my friend, who packed as many people as he could into his car and drove us each to our front doors. My husband was able to leave work and drive downtown to pick up Jamie and her friends who waited at the finish right before the bridges closed.
Everyone I know is okay. Many of my friends and coworkers were blocks from the blast site and we all are rattled by what we saw, heard, or feared yesterday. It is bizarre and unsettling, too real and unreal at the very same time. I keep thinking about that National Guard soldier, that girl in pink tights, that boy with the cookie stand and I’m grateful for those moments that took me out of myself to appreciate the world around me before things shifted. I’m still in awe of the runners and what they accomplished, or set out to as many couldn’t make it to the finish, and that awe exists in the same place as deep sadness for those that lost their lives or were injured.
I was in nursing school years ago, where we were trained to see injury and loss and push ahead to focus on helping. Keep the hands moving, go on to the next thing, be helpful. That’s what I’ve tried to do since yesterday, pushing all the what-ifs and anger and sadness somewhere else.
That was until this evening. The sun was setting as I drove into Boston, the sky pink and the clouds large. My drive goes right along the banks of the Charles River, where I spotted a group of about five boys, around eight to thirteen years old, running alongside one another. They wore blue and yellow (Marathon colors) and on the back of their shirts wrote “Boston Pride.”