Now that the second Boston Marathon bombing suspect has been taken into custody, a wave of relief has washed over the greater Boston area after an emotionally draining week. Now that the Boston Marathon is no longer breaking news, I want to show you some scenes you haven’t seen in the national coverage: images of the Boston Marathon I want to remember.
The Marathon you saw in the news was the site of carnage, trauma, and heroism: a series of events set into motion by cowards with pressure cookers. But the Marathon I want to remember is the one that happened earlier in the day and out in the suburbs, before the elite runners and the regular Joes who follow in their footsteps had reached Heartbreak Hill, before anyone other than the fastest wheelchair runners had crossed the finish line, and before everyone’s heart was broken.
This is the fifth year J and I have watched the marathon wend its way through Newton, walking from our house to an intersection on Commonwealth Avenue between Miles 18 and 19. Over the past five years, we’ve established something of a ritual, standing at “our” corner and cheering for the last of the wheelchair runners, the first of the fleet-footed women, the arrival of the elite men, and then the throngs of anonymous runners who come next: a surging sea of pounding footfalls.
Last year, I’ve explained how I always get choked up watching the runners pass on their way to Heartbreak Hill, and this year was no exception. Newton residents take our responsibility as spectators seriously, devoutly believing that if the runners are going to survive the series of elevations that give Chestnut Hills its name, they are going to do so only via the impetus of loud cheering, clapping, drumming, bugling, and cowbell-ringing. It’s as if Marathon Monday is a massive love-fest where the sheer enthusiasm of residents rooting on strangers will push everyone up and over Heartbreak Hill.
New Englanders are renowned for their reserve, but that chilliness melts on Marathon Monday. For this reason, I’ve come to think of the Marathon as being Massachusetts’ high holy day: an event that coincides with the arrival of spring (finally!) after another long winter, and an event that gives the residents of greater Boston an excuse to spend a day outside mixing and mingling with their neighbors.
If you watch the Boston Marathon near the finish line on Boylston Street, as I did when I lived in Beacon Hill, you’ll find yourself in a cosmopolitan mix of locals, tourists, passersby, and passers-through. You’ll hear a babel of languages as friends and family cheer for “their” runners, and you’ll be reminded at all turns that the Boston Marathon is a world-class event that happens in an international city. Everyone around the world, it seems, loves Boston, and everyone around the world, it seems, eventually shows up at the finish line of the Boston Marathon: the whole world in a single, thronging crowd.
Out in the Boston suburbs, however, the scene is much more pastoral and parochial…and I mean that in a good way. Out in the ‘burbs, most of the people watching the Marathon are locals who camp out for extended stretches of time, toting coolers, picnic baskets, and wagons filled with footballs, soccer balls, Frisbees, and ball gloves: the accoutrements of a day in the park.
This year, a child watching the marathon next to us was practicing her pogo-stick skills; across the street, a child was mastering his scooter moves. Viewed from the finish line, the Boston Marathon is a world-class sporting event; viewed from the suburbs, Marathon Monday is a massive, very loud block party that happens to have a road race running through it.
In the days after Monday’s bombing, I’ve experienced the usual emotions that arise in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. I’ve experienced grief and helplessness, fear and anger. The nature of my anger has surprised me because of how primal and territorial it has felt. Once the initial shock and sorrow at the unfolding carnage settled, I felt a sense of violation. Whoever did this doesn’t deserve to be in my city, I remember thinking with fierce resolve. This wasn’t a xenophobic reaction, since initially we didn’t know who the bombers were or where they hailed from; instead, it was the visceral reaction of a person whose home has been invaded or whose sacred space has been desecrated.
As I said above, Marathon Monday is a high holy day in Boston, a day devoted to the secular observance of Good Neighborliness. On Marathon weekend, Boston is inundated with visitors who come to run, cheer on runners, or just watch, and on Marathon Monday, locals turn out in droves to display extreme hospitality.
“Hospitality” might not be the first word you’d associate with the Boston Marathon, but it’s a virtue that’s entirely apt. On Marathon Monday, locals volunteer in droves to hand out water, direct traffic, aid the injured, and cheer until they’re hoarse. On Marathon Monday, locals hand out fruit, wave signs, and offer an infinite number of high-fives, all in the spirit of spurring on strangers.
The Boston Marathon is Massachusetts’ annual holiday of helping, and it’s that willingness to help, I’ve decided, that chokes me up every year. All of us, deep down, have the urge to help others: to feel like we have made a difference. Cheering on a marathon runner—especially the ordinary folks at the back of the pack who need encouragement—makes you feel like you’re somehow contributing. Maybe someone is beginning to tire or cramp; maybe someone’s inner enemy is saying “Quit” or “I can’t.” When you cheer on a marathon runner—when you hold out a cup of water, an orange slice, or a freezer pop, or when you wave your sign or hit your drum or hold out your hand for a high five—you’re holding out hope that we, collectively, can somehow help a stranger. Maybe at a particular moment of need, you can offer exactly what’s needed: the right words, or a heartfelt bit of encouragement.
I believe that deep down, we all want to help—we all want to encourage—we all want to be a part of something bigger and greater and more decent than our own individual egos. This, my gut tells me, is what the marathon bombers simply Did Not Get. Marathon Monday is a celebration of radical inclusion, where everyone cheers for anyone and alongside anyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Turning this 26-mile festival of inclusion into an occasion for injury and trauma is more than criminal: it’s sacrilege. Whatever the bombers’ motivation turns out to be, this much I know: they are already the victims of their own small-mindedness.
There was one photo I almost didn’t take on Monday morning. After J and I had spent a few hours cheering ourselves hoarse at “our” intersection, we did what we always do, which is follow the runners on foot, walking toward Newton City Hall. Along the way, we saw a runner lying on his back in obvious pain, suffering from a leg cramp or other injury. In the past, we’ve seen runners stop on the side of the road to stretch or take a rest, and we’ve passed them quietly, allowing them the privacy of their own pain. But this was the first time we saw a runner lying prone, in obvious need of help, and somehow it seemed wrong to photograph a stranger in a moment of duress. After a split-second of thought, though, I took that photo, but not because it shows a stranger suffering. I took that photo because of what else it shows.
The Boston Marathon is Massachusetts’ high holy day of hospitality because if you fall down in our neighborhood, we will stop and help you. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe, or where you come from. It doesn’t matter if we know or like you. If there is a man or woman down, anonymous spectators will stop and help. By the time J and I reached this runner, a police officer had already arrived, and by the time we’d walked by, a medic was jogging to the scene. Help was on the way, but it almost seemed like a moot point because help had already arrived.
National coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings has shown image after image of people helping the injured and traumatized, and that coverage is true. But don’t think for a minute that this sort of heroism happens in Boston only in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Even before everyone’s broken heart turned toward Boylston Street last Monday, out in the Boston ’burbs people did what they do every year on Patriots’ Day: they showed up and helped.
When we cheer for marathon runners, we get a surge of satisfaction knowing that maybe our encouragement was appreciated. Some have wondered whether the Boston Marathon will happen next year, and my reply is that the Boston Marathon will happen next year even if I have to lace up shoes and walk every last inch from Hopkinton to downtown Boston myself. The Boston Marathon must go on, next year and every year, because as long as there is an inkling of hope and decency in the human heart, that impulse cannot be denied.
Click here for a photo set of happy images from the 2013 Boston Marathon, taken before last week’s heartbreak happened.