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The Boston Marathon, and Gratitude

April 21, 2013
by

As it happens, I was fortunate enough to be able to run in the 2013 Boston Marathon.

A lot has been written (and is still being written) about the marathon and its aftermath, and in many ways there is no point in me adding my own commentary on top of all that.  But when I think about the day of April 15, 2013, I have very particular way of understanding and feeling about it, which I feel a need to write down.

[As Eugene Wigner (one of my personal favorite figures in 20th century physics) said, “I have a weakness for reflection, and I want to leave some small record of the signal events of my life.”]

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My strongest memory of the Boston Marathon is of being overwhelmed by feelings of gratitude.

At 10:00am on April 15, 2013, right after the starting gun fired for the Boston Marathon, I was nervous.  I had trained quite hard (if I may say so) to get to Boston, and now that I was lined up in that starting corral I was a bit overwhelmed by its undeniable “big league” feel.  If you ever want to meet an impressive, intimidatingly motivated group of people, you should ride the bus to the starting line of the Boston Marathon.

My nervousness lasted as we spurted past the starting line (in that nervous, stuttering start-stop motion that runners who have lined up in a corral understand) and all throughout the tense, overly-fast first five miles of the race.  But somewhere around mile 6, something surprising happened.

The first thing I remember was having no awareness of my own feet.  During a gentle uphill, where I found myself in the middle of a fairly dense pack, I remember looking down and being very aware of all the feet of the people around me going step-step-step against the ground.  And it suddenly seemed strange to me, all this step-step-stepping, because I was completely unaware of the process of lifting and dropping my own feet.  That is, I was running without a conscious awareness of the process of running.

Of course, there’s nothing unusual about this; after all, most of us have been walking around without putting any conscious thought into it since we were toddlers.  But for me, in that moment, to think that I was running (…fast, …in the Boston Marathon!) without having to actually think about the process of running brought an incredibly beautiful and inspiring feeling.  I can’t quite explain it, other than to say that it felt like some kind of magic, like I was being propelled at breakneck speed down the center of a beautiful road on some kind of magic carpet that floated just a few feet off the ground.  Or like I was some kind of animal, a pronghorn antelope maybe, that lives to run without understanding what it’s doing.

And people were cheering for me.  They lined the road on either side, holding signs and noisemaking devices, looking happy and excited for me.

And suddenly I felt an elated and overwhelming gratitude.  Gratitude for my own life, for this moment of being a running animal, and for all the people who, inexplicably, lined the road just to give me the gift of feeling like magic.  I spent the next few miles with a huge smile on my face, feeling happy to the point of laughter, and high-fiving every child who held their hand out (and there were a lot!).

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There were plenty of other good moments in the marathon, but I will remember that moment of gratitude most strongly.

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And now I wish that I could stop writing here.  I wish I could say “I loved the 2013 Boston Marathon” and be done.  I wish I could refuse to acknowledge that someone else altered or tainted the way we feel about that day.  But I’m afraid there is a little more that needs to be said.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, a lot of people (myself included) responded with very real and very personal anger.  For many of my fellow participants, this anger was expressed through sentiments like “you [the perpetrators] don’t understand our resolve, whose demonstration was our very purpose in gathering.  We will continue to run and we will refuse to be cowed.”

My feelings about the bombings were perhaps slightly different.  I saw them not as an attack on runners or on the sport of running. To me, they were something far more heinous: they felt like an attack on those people who had gathered to celebrate and cheer for the accomplishments of a stranger.  All I could think about were those people who had gathered along the road to cheer for me, a random stranger, as I went by: those small children, those college students, those grandmothers and grandfathers who had taken delight in my running, and who had allowed me to feel like magic.

Probably many people felt this way.  I know that many people shared the same boiling anger that came with it.

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Immediately after crossing the finish line, I had imagined that 2013 would be my last and only time running the Boston Marathon.  But now I am convinced that I need to return next year.  Just to show my own gratitude, and to contribute to the city’s demonstration that we will not be scared away from the things and people we love.

My plan is to run dressed in an American Revolution costume (it is Patriot’s Day, after all), complete with tri-cornered hat.

Thank you, Boston.

Thank you, Boston.

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