Marathon day strengthens hearts

by Beacon Staff • April 19, 2006

The Boston Marathon, an annual event that draws tens of thousands of runners from around the world, brings a benevolence to this normally tourist-wary New England town.,On Beacon Street near Coolidge Corner in Brookline, a few miles from the finish line in Copley Square where the sidewalks were still teeming with race-day revelers, a young man with a wide grin held a big yellow sign reading "Go You."

The Boston Marathon, an annual event that draws tens of thousands of runners from around the world, brings a benevolence to this normally tourist-wary New England town. There is a vicarious thrill in the air, a feeling of big-ness that silences some and prompts others to cheer at the top of their lungs for "Stacy," "Moose" or "Dana Farber," whichever name is emblazoned on the shirts, foreheads or limbs of the runners whose euphoric and exhausted faces bob past.

This race is not about highly paid pros and flashy clothing-try short-shorts and gorilla suits. The players are everyday people who have been training as early as 4 a.m. before work and in the dark hours of the night, in the freezing rain and the dank of basements.

In the days before the race, few talked of "winning." This was seen as decidedly beside the point. Simply entering the race was enough for many.

A great number came in droves from mild-mannered places like western Pennsylvania and Ottawa, Canada. With them they have brought entire families for moral support, and in a group, it is often difficult to pick out the runner among them.

"Not me," said one woman, motioning to the wheelchair-bound man at her hip. "He'll be racing." The man said that at his last marathon, he had clocked in at one hour and 30 minutes.

"Not me," said another downtown visitor, a fit-looking young woman. She pointed to a gray-haired older woman perusing the souvenir T-shirts nearby. "My mom's running."

One tanned man in his 40s leaned in confidentially as he gave his theory on why so many of his fellow runners, whom life had declared over the hill, decide to go up against a few more-namely the deadly "Heartbreak Hill" part of the course in Newton, which has seen many a marathoner break down at the halfway point.

"You get to having a midlife crisis, and you look at the accomplishments in your life," he said. "A marathon is something you can say you did." As he left, he said over his shoulder, "Maybe it's something you'll do someday."

The first wave of participants crested over the hill around noon, runners whose long-legged prowess was already legendary, who were heralded to the finish line by pickup trucks with cameramen perched on the tailgates. I saw the famous Kenyan as he passed beneath the trees and I wondered, with so many eyes fixed on him, if he even saw the cameras.

The second wave of runners, the fit but not full-time athletes, were greeted on Heartbreak Hill by another phalanx of media men, waiting to see them collapse, beg for water, drop to their knees. But as one meterologist-turned-commentator noted, the weather this year had affected the outcome of the race. While high-80s temps had them "dropping like flies" in previous years, according to one long-time marathon viewer, this year's low-50s overcast skies helped many of the second wave through this final travail.

The final stage of the race, which saw the last runners cross the line between 4 and 6 p.m., was the most interesting to watch. These runners were encumbered by the totems they had brought along. They were the costume-wearers, the flag-bearers, the pledge-carriers. They wore Hulk hands and Superman capes. These were the Dana Farber cancer survivors, who wore their vitality on their sleeves and carried the invisible weight of promised funds, friends lost to the disease, prayers of parents and children.

Families ran together, like Dick and Rick Hoyt, with Dad pushing his 45-year-old son in a wheelchair for their 25th marathon together. Countless marathoners were joined by barefoot friends who ran along the road with them, offering breathless words of encouragement.

These were the spindly-legged lopers completing their last marathon with aplomb and grace as they slowed to a walk. It was easy to cheer for them, for while packing light is admirable, carrying a load like theirs is the height of nobility. Those who came last, kicking the empty water cups of those who preceded them with a melancholy pluckiness, exemplified the idea of victory in a more poignant way than did the front-runners.

Once a year, those of us in Boston who are mired in the rigidity of a winter survived, a political season bemoaned, perhaps a semester wasted or a body besought with cold or extra flab, take a break from comparing ourselves to an invisible ideal. We take a day off work and we come to observe real humanity. We come to look at ourselves, and we can't help but cheer.

As one CBS4 anchor observed without irony, the Marathon "brings out the best in people," spectators included. It is special to a number of people because of the way Boston responds to its message-with an openness of heart which prompts a stranger to scrawl "Go You" on a bright yellow poster, and a willingness to cheer all day long under a cloudy sky until the last winner has crossed the finish line.

When the humble Pennsylvanians and Canadians trickle away to their homes, they will hopefully leave the parable of this race behind for this supposedly enlightened city of spectators to soak in. It doesn't take perfection, youth, wealth or spare time to complete a goal, to have an accomplishment, to surmount the odds. It just takes the courage to go from the sidelines to the finish, no matter how long it takes.