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.

2016 Boston Marathon

This coming week is the last week of classes, and I’ve been buried in student essay drafts. My first-year writing students have been writing essay drafts all semester, and I need to comment on those drafts before my students revise them for inclusion in their final portfolios. My students are always shocked to see in retrospect how much they’ve written over the course of the semester: when you write one paper (and one page) at a time, it’s easy to lose track of how many words you’ve produced.

2016 Boston Marathon

A college semester is a marathon, not a sprint. The only way to write a college essay is word by word, and that’s also the only way to read and comment on student essay drafts. For most of the semester, I drag my feet and do anything in my power to avoid my paper-piles, but during the last few weeks of the term, I turn into a paper-reading machine. Every year, I wonder why I assign so much writing; every year, I wonder why I went into English, a field where assigning and reading student papers is unavoidable. Whereas my students are shocked to realize how much writing they’ve done, the cumulative weight of their words comes as no surprise to me. The marathon that is a college semester is a course I’ve run many times before.

Click here for my complete photo set from this year’s Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

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.

Remembered

Yesterday when I heard that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had received the death penalty for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, I knew I’d have to visit the newly dedicated memorial to slain MIT police officer Sean Collier. Whenever I’m at MIT, I stop by the spot outside the Stata Center where Collier was killed by the Tsarnaev brothers while sitting in his police cruiser, and since I had plans to be at MIT today, paying my respects at the newly dedicated memorial seemed fitting.

Ellipses

When I heard yesterday afternoon that the jury in the Tsarnaev case had reached a decision on his sentence, I stopped what I was doing and turned on the TV to watch. Just as I’d wanted to hear the verdict in the case as soon as it came in, I wanted to hear the sentence as it was announced. But as soon as CNN reported that Tsarnaev had been given the death penalty for placing the bomb that killed Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu, I turned off the news coverage. Although I wanted to hear the sentence that would determine Tsarnaev’s fate, I didn’t want to hear endless editorializing about that sentence.

Big heart; big smile; big service; all love.

Instead of listening to opinions and arguments about the wisdom or appropriateness of the sentence—what do you, I, or anyone else think should be done with Dzhokhar—I wanted simply to sit with the solemnity of the decision. What is it like to kill anonymous strangers—innocent bystanders you somehow think have wronged you—and what is it like to hear a sentence of death in return: an official legal pronouncement that he who lives by the sword shall die by it?

Ovoid

Tsarnaev will have ample opportunity to contemplate his own death as his lawyers file appeal after appeal, but neither Collier nor the other Marathon dead had that luxury. Two years ago on a beautiful April day, the Tsarnaev brothers irrevocably changed their own and countless others’ lives with the flip of a switch. Neither the death penalty nor life in prison can change that fact: the dead are still dead, severed limbs are still lost, and the grief-stricken still grieve. “Closure” is a word uttered by optimistic and well-intentioned folks who dare open their mouths in the face of irredeemable heartache. It doesn’t matter whether you, I, or anyone else supports the death penalty: before the jury decided anything, Tsarnaev and his brother made their own irrevocable choice.

Arching

The memorial erected to Sean Collier is a graceful and expansive thing, constructed of slabs of smooth gray granite that arch elegantly overhead. The five upright slabs, I read, radiate outwards like the fingers of a hand, but the point where they intersect is empty and ovoid, evoking the empty-handedness that is the human condition. The monument draws you in and invites you to circumnavigate it, and as I walked around taking pictures from this angle and that, several passersby stopped to look at and walk through the monument, touching the stone and reading its inscriptions.

In the line of duty

Nobody seemed to be talking about Tsarnaev and his sentence; nobody seemed to be talking at all. When you stand on the spot where a promising life was cut short, it’s difficult to find anything at all to say.

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!