A marathon’s meaning

Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2014
It is Patriots’ Day, the holiday that honors those who fought battles in Lexington and Concord in 1775 that helped end British colonial rule. It is also Marathon day. In Hopkinton, 36,000 runners will line up for a race that has always tested participants. This is the 118th running of this storied marathon, but the first since two deliberately set explosions killed three innocent people, including a child, and injured more than 250 others.

When finishers come down Boylston Street in Boston today, 26.2 miles of struggle and pavement behind them, they will know, at the cellular level, who they are. That is the meaning of a marathon.

We think something similar can be said for everyone in Massachusetts. Even before this race starts, amid great anticipation and some nervousness, people who call the Bay State home know their communities are stronger than terror.

Today, in Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline and Boston, people along the marathon course will celebrate the grit of runners — these people who are willing to put their bodies on the line. They’ll applaud the courage it takes to prepare for this race and then undergo its rigors. People will clap and cheer for runners they’ll never see again. Runners will shout support to one another, within miles becoming friends.

Along the course, separate towns become one community. No other sport unifies a region quite like a marathon. And now this marathon, because of last year’s horror, will draw people across the country into this story of perseverance.

The names of victims Krystle Campbell, 29, Lu Lingzi, 23, and Martin Richard, 8, will be spoken today, along with that of Sean Collier, the MIT police officer who died on duty in a later encounter with the two Tsarnaev brothers, who are believed to have placed the bombs. Tamarlan Tsarnaev died in a shootout with police. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is in jail awaiting trial.

His legal team may claim he fell under the influence of a violent older brother. One year ago, it was Boston that was virtually imprisoned, as authorities searched for the Tsarnaevs.

In training, runners talk (or think) to themselves, because this is a lonely sport. They set up goals and incentives. They make promises. They position rewards. This race comes at the start of spring, which means runners prepare through late winter, forcing themselves into the cold so they can build the strength to climb hills today.

Apart from physical readiness, a marathon demands that a runner be able to find reservoirs of energy that go beyond the physical. They have to find the alchemy that can convert willpower into strides.

Why do they run? Radio station WBUR asked that on a blog this spring. Scott Schaeffer-Duffy posted: “I finished last year minutes before the blast. My wife Claire & I are running this year to proclaim Dorothy Day’s belief that love is stronger than violence.” A woman said she is running because 5-year-olds “shouldn’t lose their moms.”

I run for those who can’t, another WBUR listener wrote. Lisa C. Wick said she ran in 2012 then watched in 2013 near the bombing site. “Unsure why I walked away with only punctured eardrums … I run for victims & survivors.” A runner named Poyee Oster posted, “I run because I am not afraid.”

For thousands of reasons, people will run today. A million will watch from the course. Expanded live coverage will reach 175 countries.

The field for the Boston Marathon is larger this year than any except its 100th anniversary. The story of the marathon has always been as diverse as its runners. But this year, as perhaps never before, Boston runs for what is right.