I Am A Marathon Runner
I’m not one to speculate about the cause of human tragedies until actual facts are known. There will be time to sort out who did it and why. For me, those questions are almost secondary. Not that they’re unimportant, but the answers will come. And even so, the dead will still be dead, those who were wounded, physically or mentally, will still carry the scars.
To me, what happened today in Boston is personal. Not because I could ever qualify for the Boston Marathon. Not in a million years. No, I wear my status as Old, Fat, and Slow like a badge of honor. But I am a runner, goddamn it, and a runner I’ll always be.
I started running in May 1995, not long after I turned 33, and, more to the point, about a year after my old man died of a heart attack. I didn’t start running to become a marathoner. I started running to stave off the icy hand of death for as long as humanly possible, given that both my father and his father had died of heart attacks at unreasonably young ages.
But running is a thing that sort of gets in you, takes over your life, and before long you need a challenge to conquer; and then another; and then another. And so it goes. You run a few shorter races, but then you want to do more. After a few 10-Ks – a respectable distance, by the way – you want to run a 20-K. Then a half-marathon. Then a full. And then you’re hooked.
It took me a little over six years from the time I started running (and a number of false starts along the way) to build up to my first marathon, but I finally managed to toe the starting line at the 2001 Chicago Marathon. And, perhaps more importantly, to drag my sorry ass across the finish line.
It’s that race – the 2001 Chicago Marathon–-that makes what happened today seem all the more tragic. Because we ran the Chicago Marathon on October 7 that year, not quite four weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Aside from the resumption of the NFL and Major League Baseball seasons after a brief hiatus, the Chicago Marathon was one of the first major public events to take place after those attacks, and certainly one of the largest post-9/11 sporting events up to that time. Moreover, unlike baseball and football games, major marathons like Chicago are huge international events. Tens of thousands of runners from all over the world came to Chicago to run, and hundreds of thousands of spectators lined the course.
Speaking of the course, from a security point of view, it was a logistical nightmare: Twenty-six miles – no, forgive me: twenty-six point two miles; we get credit for every damn footstep, thank you very much–of city streets. The course rambles through every neighborhood of the city from the Loop north past Belmont Avenue and back, then West past Malcolm X College and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and south again through Pilsen, Taylor Street, China Town and down to The Cell, through Bronzeville and the IIT campus, and then back north toward the Loop.
And so, needless to say, everyone associated with the 2001 race felt some apprehension leading up to it.
But it happened. Just a few weeks after the worst terrorist attack on American soil, thousands of people flew into Chicago from all over the country, and from all over the world, to run our little race. There was, as you might expect, a fair amount of flag-waving and so forth; but more than that: There was goodwill. Those runners who came here from Europe, Asia, Africa, South and Central America wanted to show support for their fellow human beings who just happened to be Americans. It was an extraordinarily uplifting experience, running through parts of the city most native Chicagoans don’t see on a regular basis, if at all, crowds cheering runners, runners cheering each other. Applause rang out when fire trucks drove past. Runners thanked cops on the street corners who were holding up traffic for us.
Then there was one particular incident that, perhaps more than anything else that happened that day, made me think maybe people really aren’t beyond hope after all. I saw a small group of women who were running together, dressed in heavy sweatshirts and sweatpants despite the late morning heat. They were wearing head scarves, too, so that they were mostly covered. It was apparent from the way they were dressed that they were Muslim. And when they rounded the corner toward a group of spectators, the spectators began cheering wildly for them. The runners around them shouted out encouragement too, as if to say: You are welcome here; everybody’s welcome here.
That day, we were just better people than we are in our everyday lives. I liked who we were. I wished we could always be that way.
So what happened in Boston today is personal to me. In 2001, not only did we refuse to be scared away from running the first major post-9/11 marathon here in Chicago, we used the experience to be better people. We didn’t just reject terror, we rejected hate.
Today, I’m at a loss. I still believe what I saw at the 2001 Chicago Marathon represents the real us. I still believe that we’re always capable of being better people, like we were that day. But sometimes it’s hard to cleave to that belief when some of our fellow humans also have the capacity to set of bombs to kill for no conceivable reason.