Good sports


Nothing is stronger than love

Today is Patriots’ Day–Marathon Monday–so J and I walked to our usual spot on Commonwealth Avenue here in Newton to watch today’s Boston Marathon. The daffodils and crowds of spectators were both out in force, it being a beautifully mild, sunny day.

We run as one for Martin Richard

I took the usual assortment of photos–pictures of runners, wheelchair racers, runners pushing teammates in wheelchairs, cute dogs, clever signs, and people handing things out. Every year, there are spectators who stand on the edge of the course handing out slices of fruit, cups of water, wet paper towels, and handfuls of ice. Even though there are official water stations and medical tents offering pretty much anything a runner could need, bystanders go to great lengths to lend a hand to passing runners, the same folks and families showing up each year to offer handouts.

The ice guy

I normally think of running as a solitary sport: it’s just you, the road, and the sounds of your own two feet as you try to settle into your own stride. But watching the Boston Marathon makes me think that perhaps running–at least long-distance running–is actually a team endeavor. Yes, you and your sneakers might be out there pounding the pavement on your own, your mind providing its own endlessly looping soundtrack of self-encouragement: You can do it! Push through the pain! Pace yourself, pace yourself! But beyond this inner loop is another, louder litany fed by others: the cheering of strangers and the well-wishes of friends.

Orange slices

It can be difficult to remember your training over the long haul: there occasionally are lonely miles when we all yearn for encouragement. Anyone motivated (or crazy) enough could run the Boston Marathon course pretty much any day of the year if they were willing to dodge cars and swerve around pedestrians. On any other day, you’d be just another jogger, just another runner training for that long race in April. Only on Marathon Monday do entire towns (literally) stop traffic on your behalf, closing down schools and businesses so there will be plenty of people on the sidelines, on your team, cheering and pulling for you, some anonymous stranger they’ve never met.

Wet paper towels

After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, security for subsequent races has been tight: you’re always aware at the back of your mind of the state police officers and military police in their black uniforms, watching. While the rest of us clap and cheer, security officials stay on high alert, looking for anything unusual.

Blue and yellow mohawk

This year, after terror attacks in Nice, Berlin, and Stockholm taught us all that hijacked vehicles can be used as weapons, authorities here in Newton beefed up the barricades blocking off roads leading to the marathon route. The giant plow-equipped salt-trucks parked where there used to be sawhorses and parked police cruisers were clearly intended to send a message to anyone thinking they might plow a vehicle into runners and spectators: Not so fast, buster.

Road block

Although it is obviously (and perhaps sadly) necessary to have police, medical personnel, and other official helpers on hand to ensure a safe and smooth race, what I want to remember from today’s Marathon are the unofficial helpers: the folks who decide to hand out water, ice, or fruit simply because they had those things on hand and other folks needed them. We appreciate that people in the helping professions show up and do their jobs, but that doesn’t excuse the rest of us from lending a hand.

Have a drink

Click here for more photos from today’s Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

Daffodils

Monday is Patriots’ Day, also known as Marathon Monday: my favorite day of the year. Boston is a city of champions, and although I love cheering for all our teams, the Boston Marathon is my favorite sporting event because it encompasses the entire range of athletic achievement. On Monday, there will be elite runners from all over the world pushing themselves to compete at the highest level of their sport, and there will also be countless ordinary folks happy simply to drag themselves across the finish line.

Rhododendrons in bloom.

On Marathon Monday, there are no losers. Even if you are the last to cross the finish line, you can brag forevermore that you ran Boston. And even if you don’t finish the race, there is the comfort of having tried your best, along with the camaraderie of being in an exclusive club. The process of earning a Boston Marathon bib is its own kind of accomplishment, and anyone in possession of one earns the right to swagger.

I’ve never run a marathon, and I doubt I ever will: I’m too slow-moving and asthmatic, my stocky legs built for walking, not running. But even sedentary spectators like me “win” on Marathon Monday. Patriots’ Day often falls on one of the first warm-weather days in Boston, and simply being outside after another long winter feels like an eagerly awaited award.

Almost. #signsofspring #daffodils

On Marathon Monday, locals shake off their winter dust and get down to the business of serious spectating. Patriots’ Day celebrates a revolution that gave birth to a union, and Marathon Monday celebrates the ongoing promise of a solemn social contract. You run; we watch. You sweat; we hold out cups of water. You limp; we urge you along with drums and signs, cowbells and kisses.

For one day, anyone in sneakers is a rockstar superhero, and for one day, New Englanders’ famous reserve melts in the spring sunshine as neighbors come outside, unfold like new leaves, and Get Loud, cheering our collective self hoarse. Marathon Monday is my favorite day of the year because in a city of champions, everyone comes together and everyone wins.

Dome and ball

Last week, in the lull between Christmas and New Year’s, J and I took a day-trip to Springfield, Massachusetts, where we visited the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Although many people think of baseball as being America’s pastime, I think basketball more truly deserves that honor. Invented in 1891 by James Naismith, a gym teacher who wanted an indoor game that could keep students at the YMCA Training School in Springfield occupied on rainy days, basketball is played by men and women of all ages across the United States and beyond. With nothing more than a peach basket, soccer ball, and thirteen simple rules, Naismith created a game with a now-global appeal.

James Naismith with his peach basket

On the drive to Springfield, J and I listed the reasons why basketball is our favorite sport. Basketball is interesting to watch at every level: whether you’re watching professional athletes in the NBA and WBNA, college amateurs, or schoolkids shooting one-on-one on the local playground, basketball is an engaging game. It’s an accessible sport: most schools and neighborhood playgrounds have basketball hoops, and if you live far from these, it’s easy to put a hoop on your garage or in your driveway. You can play basketball as part of a team, you can play one-on-one, or you can shoot hoops by yourself: all you need, really, is a ball and basket. And whereas other sports privilege particular body types, basketball players come in various shapes and sizes, from tall and skinny centers to short and speedy guards.

Bob Cousey can fly!

When I watch football or hockey, I can’t really imagine what it would be like to play those sports: I’m too small for the former and too klutzy for the latter. But even somebody short like me can learn the rudiments of shooting, passing, and dribbling: one of the pleasures of watching the NBA, in fact, is the glee of knowing even I can shoot free-throws better than some of the pros. Basketball is a team sport that leaves ample room for individual excellence, so there’s a certain joy that comes from watching a player who is on fire and in the zone, their shots tracing perfect trajectories and their footwork transcending the bounds of mere gravity.

In motion

Although the “Hoop Hall” in Springfield preserves objects reflecting the history and evolution of the game and its outstanding players, what I found most endearing was the basketball court on its first floor. While J and I started our visit on the third floor and worked our way down, admiring artifacts such as the game’s first shot clock and lots of enormous shoes worn by the pros, local children played on the court below us, shooting and dribbling and perfecting a game that for them isn’t about history; it’s a piece of the here and now.

Click here for more photos from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. Enjoy!

Watching equestrian jumping on my tablet at my desk

I’ve been watching a lot of Olympic coverage this past week: not just the mainstream events that are shown during primetime but also more obscure events you can live-stream online. I love watching equestrian competitions, so I’ve set an alert on my tablet that lets me know when those events are live, and I watch them with the sound muted while I work on other things.

Olympic jumping

I could spend hours watching Olympic jumping: it’s soothing to watch large, powerful creatures fly over fences. When I was a horse-crazy kid living in a central Ohio neighborhood far from any farms, I loved the classic movie National Velvet, in which a young Elizabeth Taylor dresses as a boy to compete in the Grand National steeplechase, and International Velvet, a modern sequel in which Tatum O’Neal plays a girl who competes in the Olympics.

Midair

Although I don’t remember much of the plot of either movie, the fact that they both centered around horses and horse-crazy girls was enough to grab my attention. In addition to a huge collection of model horses, as a child I had a Barbie-sized International Velvet doll that came dressed in a riding outfit complete with riding boots and helmet, and I would play with that doll for hours, imagining what it was like to soar over fences. As a city girl without a horse of my own, I relied upon books, movies, and toys to quench my horse-hungry appetite, and watching Olympic equestrian events as a grown-up also serves to scratch that long-dormant itch.

Over water

In addition to show jumping, I’ve been watching a lot of Olympic dressage competitions. Folks with an untrained eye often dismiss dressage as “horse dancing” as riders guide their horses through a set routine of carefully orchestrated gaits. When I was a kid, however, I read Marguerite Henry’s White Stallion of Lipizza, in which a boy spends months as an apprentice at the famous Spanish Riding School with their world-renowned royal Lipizzan stallions, and that book taught me how much training both horse and rider undergo to master the moves of classical dressage.

Flying over fences

The royal Lipizzan stallions perform jumps and kicks known as “airs above ground,” but Olympic dressage doesn’t involve that kind of acrobatics. Instead, Olympic dressage horses move through a routine of artificial gaits such as the piaffe, which is a prancing trot where the horse pauses in each step, and the flying change, where the horse alternates his lead hoof while cantering. Whenever I watch riders guide their horses through these or other meticulous moves, I have a single question in mind: How do you get a horse to do that? A good dressage horse looks simultaneously energetic and collected, like a wound spring, and a good dressage rider stays calm and focused, sitting upright and still in the saddle as she guides her mount through his paces without any visible cues.

Throw your heart over the fence

Sometimes when I’m meditating, I imagine myself astride the powerful dressage horse of my own mind, my cushion like a saddle. A seasoned equestrian knows you mustn’t crush your horse’s spirit: a well-trained horse is alert and engaged, marshaling its energy in calm abeyance. When you watch an Olympic jumper or dressage horse, you’re watching a powerful creature that is contained by concentration, his rider literally reining in any exuberance while spurring on an alert and active demeanor. When you watch your mind in meditation, you hold its wandering exuberance in check with the rein of your own breath: easy now, boy. Stay with me, calm and collected.

I shot all of today’s photos from the livestream of Olympic coverage I’ve been watching on my tablet: a blatant violation of broadcast copyright.

Marathon bombing memorial

This morning on my way to meet friends in Harvard Square, I stopped at Copley Square to visit the Boston Marathon finish line. Yesterday was One Boston Day–the anniversary of the 2013 Marathon bombing–and on Monday, I’ll watch this year’s race here in Newton, cheering the runners before they face Heartbreak Hill. Today, I wanted to visit the two spots on Boylston Street where three people died and hundreds were injured: a chance to pay my respects at a place simultaneously festive and somber.

Four crosses

There is no permanent memorial commemorating the Marathon bombing; instead, impromptu offerings of flowers, handwritten notes, and homemade crosses mark the two spots where pressure cooker bombs turned a festive event into a scene of mayhem. If you didn’t know that lives and limbs were lost in front of Marathon Sports and the former Forum Restaurant, you’d notice nothing remarkable about these two stretches of sidewalk. But if you know the hidden history of these sites, you recognize them as invisible portals between the Here and the Hereafter: two otherwise ordinary places where souls prematurely crossed to the other side.

Remember Martin Richard

Today when I arrived on Boylston Street, a 5K race had just finished, and throngs of people were watching an awards ceremony for the winners. Boylston Street was closed to vehicular traffic, and tourists posed for pictures at the finish line: a festive scene. This is the disconnect that will forever mark the Boston Marathon finish line: a site of both triumph and tragedy, the sidewalk here holds a hidden history of heartbreak.

Johnny Kelley - Young at Heart

The statue of Boston Marathon legend Johnny Kelley at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Walnut Street here in Newton serves as a kind of shrine for long-distance runners, many of whom leave medals or race bibs from the races they’ve completed: an offering left to honor a man who still inspires.

Shoe offerings

I always wonder about the people who leave these mementos. Why not keep the keepsakes they trained so hard to earn, and why give them to a statue rather than a flesh-and-blood person?

But in asking these questions, I reveal how little I understand of a marathoner’s mind. In the the course of training and then running a marathon, there must be many times when runners hearken to their inner pantheon of heroes, reminding themselves that if Johnny Kelley could run the Boston Marathon 61 times, win it twice, and complete his final race at the age of 84, they can finish their own marathon, too.

Johnny Kelley - Young at Heart

The title of Johnny Kelley’s statue is “Young at Heart,” and it shows a youthful Kelley running his first marathon hand-in-hand with his older self. I can only assume that the runners who leave well-worn shoes at Johnny Kelley’s feet do so because they feel he somehow ran alongside them during their marathons, too.

2015 Boston Marathon

After the winter we weathered here in Boston, it would have taken a lot more than rain to keep us from watching this year’s Boston Marathon. Today was cold, rainy, and windy–as miserable as this past weekend was lovely–so the crowds were smaller than usual but as enthusiastic as ever: diehard fans undaunted by a little damp.

2015 Boston Marathon

Today’s weather was the kind that looks wretched from inside but isn’t that bad when you’re actually out in it. Somehow being in and among other cheering fans distracts you from your own discomfort. There weren’t as many families with pets and children as there have been in fair-weather years, but there were still some hearty souls who weren’t scared away by the forecast.

2015 Boston Marathon

The families with children and bundled babies between Miles 18 and 19 in Newton all looked like old pros when it comes to New England weather. Both their rain gear and general nonchalance suggested they’d been to other soggy Marathons, or had sat through rain delays at Fenway Park, or had weathered rain, sleet, and snow at Gillette Stadium.

2015 Boston Marathon

J and I have been to more than our share of foul-weather sporting events, including New England Revolution games that continued despite pouring rain and one infamous Patriots’ game where we had to dig out our seats from a half-foot of snow. From these events, I’ve learned that cheering vociferously really does keep you warm, as does hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and other kinds of movement.

2015 Boston Marathon

At the Marathon, at least, you aren’t tethered to a single assigned seat, so when you get cold, you can pull up stakes and walk, cheering the nonstop stream of runners from a new and moving vantage point.

2015 Boston Marathon

In past years, J and I have established a routine where we initially watch the race from the corner of Chestnut Street and Commonwealth Avenue, then we walk toward the massive block party at Newton City Hall, walking alongside the runners as they pass large houses on one side of the road and the backside of Newton Cemetery on the other.

2015 Boston Marathon

This is my favorite segment of the Marathon route, as the crowds thin and the sidewalk peters out into a dirt path. As you walk alongside the runners, you can hear the hypnotic rhythm of their footfalls along with the sotto voce conversations between running partners as they prepare to face Heartbreak Hill. “This is where the race gets interesting, isn’t it,” I overhear one runner ask another. “Yes, it is,” the second responds.

2015 Boston Marathon

Today there was a lone man standing along this segment of the route quietly uttering encouragements: “Great Job!” “You’re looking good!” “That’s a good, steady stride!” His observations were the kind a running coach might tell his charges, but none of them were shouted, merely spoken as if the man were addressing a person right beside him, or himself.

2015 Boston Marathon

After the noisy hoopla of drums, cowbells, and clapping spectators the runners had just passed through, and given the festive music and upbeat DJ they’d hear over a loudspeaker at City Hall, this man’s encouragements seemed as subtle and subliminal as one’s own heartbeat pulsing a litany of encouragement from within.

2015 Boston Marathon

Click here to see more photos from today’s soggy Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

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