Nearly every day I read some runner’s thoughts –often interesting and inspiring– in the form of an article. Every year I read at least one book written by a runner. Rarely do I read the non-runner’s perspective. Even rarer is what my friend Chris has done: truly capture what it’s like on the marathon course and inside the long-distance runner’s mind.
He is married to the great runner and writer Cécile, so he has a court-side seat. Still, I’m amazed by his powers of observation and empathy. With his permission, here’s his text. Especially for those trying to live with –and understand– the fanatical among us.
There’s an old superstition in theater during the run of a show: You don’t cross the curtain line. If you need to go from the stage out into the house, as the audience seating is called, you go around that fourth wall created by the stage opening and through an exit off to the side.
While a loose analogy, it resonates when contemplating those tens of thousands who have summoned the courage to train for this year’s Boston Marathon, some of them on the very streets of the racecourse leading up to — BUT NOT OVER — the finish line. Too sacred, especially this year.
Without getting into too much background, we have some experience with marathon training. Although we’ve never run one, we’re close to someone who has. The broken bones, torn muscles and ligaments, concussions, exhaustion and delirium we suffered in the various sports we played in our younger days were nothing, nothing at all, compared to what marathon runners face. Because this is an unnatural act.
First, and ironically — considering that, at the big marathons, you’re surrounded by thousands of other runners and thousands more spectators — in every minute leading to that moment, you are alone. If you’re training for Boston: cold, dark and alone.
You’re training in winter, which is fine if you live in Phoenix and different, and more cruel, if you live in Philadelphia. If you’re aiming for the New York Marathon in November, you’re training in the summer. Which is fine if you live in Newfoundland, not so much if you’re in Atlanta.
Wiped out after a long day? Suck it up. You have miles to log. Either you log them before work or after work, but there’s no escaping them. They haunt you like hungry children. It’s 10 degrees Fahrenheit outside, it snowed again overnight, the roads are caked with ice, it’s dark at 4:30 in the morning and at 4:30 in the afternoon, and the wind seems to know which direction to blow against. Too bad. To sleep in is to fail.
You screw your courage to the sticking place. All the doubts, all the fear, all the nagging aches and pains — especially those that will inevitably arise about a week or two before the marathon — these must be ignored, or at least reasoned with.
Want to hire someone, or go into business with them? Choose a marathon runner. Because short of something like landing at Omaha Beach, you don’t know courage or determination until you’re at mile 16 with spasms in your ribcage, you’re pretty sure a second toenail detached around mile 14, you should have gulped down more water back at mile 13, your legs are starting to use curse words you haven’t even learned yet, and there’s a large hill coming up ahead and a larger one after that one.
Now, imagine you have done all this preparation only to arrive for the event at the site of a terrorist attack, a known crime scene where, last year, you were the intended target.
Police can’t be everywhere, the cameras can’t see everything, the window of opportunity to get you where you escaped last year stretches for 26.2 miles, and this is already the hardest day of your life. Or, your year, for those idiotic enough to run one of these things more than once.
Where does this courage come from in us? Not just in those running, but those men and women in blue who will place themselves right in last year’s blast zone and dare someone, anyone, to try it again. Or those long-suffering members of the support crew — wives and husbands, children and colleagues — who also will turn their back on fear and place themselves in harm’s way just for the sake of love?
How is it that we fight, and try and fail and fight some more, for those things that make us human and, on days like this one, a little more than human?
We shall see for ourselves at about 9:30 a.m. in Boston, where once upon a time, not too far from the starting line, a courageous city looked tyranny in the eye and, just like today, punched it in its [EXPLETIVE DELETED] throat.