Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Thoughts on The Boston Marathon

I grew up watching, reading, and listening to news about the Boston Marathon; as a runner and a fan of the competitive part of the sport for nearly 35 years, I've always loved following the stories from races for both the top contenders and the back-of-the-packers.  As a current back-of-the-packer myself, I know that every runner has a story, and, especially for big events like marathons, every finish impacts each participant in many different ways.  

The marathon is the apex of the sport for lots of runners, the quintessential goal, the quest of the most dedicated amongst us.  And the Boston Marathon, or "The Boston" or just "Boston," as it is typically called in the athletic world, is the pinnacle of all marathons.  It's the world's oldest ongoing marathon, with this being its 117th year, and it's probably the world's most well-known road-racing event.  Boston is always run on Patriots' Day, the third Monday in April, which, unlike the majority of other marathons in the U.S., means that it's always held on a Monday.  Because of the many hills along the course and the tendency for the temperatures to soar into the 80-degree range during the event, the race is considered to be one of the more challenging marathons in our country.  The Boston Marathon is the only marathon in the U.S. that has a qualifying time requirement for entry, based on the gender and age of each runner, with the general rules stating that a runner must have completed a "qualifying marathon" within an 18 month period prior to Boston.  As a result of the strict qualifying requirements and the difficulty factor, Boston Marathon runners are generally revered by all other runners, or at least by those of us who have been involved in the sport for awhile. 

A masterpiece about Dad's first Boston by my sister, Jennifer
Growing up, I remember hearing my dad talking about Boston as if it were the Holy Grail of running.  Even before he had run it the first time in 1979 at the age of 35, I remember him telling my sisters and me about the course, which runs through eight different towns and finishes on Copley Square in Boston.  In the months leading up to his Boston debut, I remember him worrying aloud about Heartbreak Hill, the most well-known challenge in the race, even after he'd run up and down the levee alongside the Mississippi River literally hundreds of times as part of the 100+ miles per week he ran for months before the race.  I remember my grandfather, my dad's dad, coming to stay with my sisters and me for a few days while my parents went to Boston that April, and I remember my mom calling us after the race to tell us how Dad had done (his finish time was 2:46:04).  I remember standing in the kitchen of our house with my sisters, cheering through the phone line for my dad and then chanting his finish place over and over, so many times that the number was forever lodged in my brain.  In fact, one day, during the time when my dad was sick, we were talking about the many races he had run over the years, and he was surprised when I told him that I still remembered what place he finished in at his first Boston:  1,196th, which put him in the top 15% of finishers that year.

There are around half a million spectators and usually between 20,000 and 25,000 runners at every Boston Marathon.  The Centennial Boston Marathon, held in 1996, which was my dad's second time to run it, set a record for the most entrants, at around 38,000 runners.  

I remember Dad talking excitedly after he'd gotten back from the race the first time about going to the Bill Rogers Running Store and meeting Bill Rodgers, who had won the marathon for the third time that year, setting a course record in the process.  Dad commented that he especially admired the guy, "Boston Billy" as he was called, because of his modesty and his friendliness, which, ironically, were also two of Dad's strongest qualities.  The women's division was won that year by Joan Benoit, then 21 years old, who, with a time of 2:35, bettered the previously set record for women's finish time by 8 minutes. 

Joan, or "Joanie" as she was called, won Boston again in 1983, this time finishing in 2:22, breaking the women's world record by two minutes, and then she followed up by taking the gold medal in the Olympic marathon in L.A. in 1984, the year the women's marathon was established as an Olympic event.  She, incidentally, still holds the record for the American woman with the fastest finish in both the Olympic marathon and in the Chicago Marathon.  Yesterday, Joan ran Boston again to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her most recent Boston win, as did the men's winner from '83, Greg Meyer, who was in fact the last American to have won the race.  Joan, now age 55, was quoted as saying before the race that she planned to "go out fast," aiming to finish within 30 minutes of her winning time from 30 years ago, a goal that my dad would have absolutely loved hearing about - and one that she achieved with a finish time of 2:50.

To Joanie, from my dad and me: you're still a total badass!

Countless people - even those who have never even cared at all about the Boston Marathon before yesterday - watched the replays and read the recounts of the tragedy that unfolded after the bombings, the vast majority of people whom, I would venture to guess, realized that they could not even imagine the chaos and the terror than ensued on the race course and around the city, nor could they really comprehend the emotions  about the losses suffered by the runners and spectators of so many things: life, safety, trust, faith, and even reward for such dedication and effort on the part of the thousands of runners who trained extensively for the race over the course of the last six months or more.  

"To be a consistent winner means preparing not just one day, one month,
or even one year - but for a lifetime." ~Bill Rodgers, 1979

My brother Lee has qualified for Boston twice and has run it once; he shares in the family's fascination with the marathon's history and with each year's competitive field.  No one in my family was at the Boston Marathon this year; however, on some level, we can imagine the turmoil experienced by those who were there yesterday because of tragic events that have affected us at other races in years past, which is a different story in its own right.  Like everyone else, my family feels so sad for everyone affected by the bombing; there is no understanding the evil that drives such madness.  The term Heartbreak Hill has a whole new meaning for all of the runners there yesterday and for those of us whose hearts go out to those injured and otherwise affected by the malevolence of those responsible.

In memory of Martin Richard 

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