Thursday, April 18, 2013

Home - A love note

I think it goes without saying that it has been a crazy week around here. Everyone is a little bit on edge, there is still a big part of the city shut down, there are periodic blasts of sirens and then explosive waves of rumors that seem to sweep, almost physically, across the city. I hope to never get used to seeing security forces carrying machine guns around town regularly.

And still many more questions than answers.

It is all pretty jarring. I was nowhere near the finish line; I was at work, about a mile and a half away. Like most people in Boston, I know people who were very, very close to the blasts, both as runners and spectators. At least one casual acquaintance was hurt - not seriously - by the second bomb. It's just all a lot to take in, and I find myself unusually emotional over small things as a result.

Mostly, I am angry. There are a lot of people who have spent more time here than I have...people who are much more Bostonian than I am. My closest friends, my husband and his family, most of my coworkers - they are all lifelong Bostonians. But this is home to me, it's home to my Sister, and it's home to my daughters. Technically, I grew up in Chicago, and then in Phoenix...but I've really grown up here.  Eight years now...eight wonderful, fulfilling, rewarding years stuffed with people I love and memories that anyone would be lucky to have. And now someone has gone and made that home seem like a much, much scarier place.

Boston is small, and provincial, and dirty, and expensive and cold and snowy. The people can be mean, and trying to find a parking space is impossible. Nightlife is severely lacking and curtailed by a ridiculously early curfew. But that, as they say, is all part of it's charm. And all of those flaws? Well, they are our flaws, and we take communal pride in them.

There has been a lot written about the marathon, and what the marathon means to the city, and for the most part, it is all accurate. The marathon, and Patriot's Day, with its 10:00am Red Sox game, is an integral piece of civic identity. A holiday that we have all to ourselves (and Mainers, I think:-)). It's hard, though, just through reading, to get an appreciation for what the marathon means to the city.

There are six official "Major" Marathons, all of which are in huge cities or international importance. London, New York, Berlin, Tokyo. Even Chicago, a relative baby in the midst of the other cities, is America's third largest city, and nearly four times Boston's size. And then, there is Boston. A regional capital of less than 50 square miles, and barely 600,000 people. A city with no cultural connection to track and field, to distance running, or to the people who compete in those sports.

It's a hard course...runners will tell you it is the hardest of the Majors. That is made harder by the process required just to get to the starting line - it is a straight line course, starting way out in the Western suburbs. Runners show up at the finish, drop their stuff, and then take buses the entire 26 mile length of the course to the starting line. It is also made harder by the incredibly unpredictable weather in mid-April. This year it was 50 degrees and sunny. Last year it was near 90 and dangerously oppressive. In 2007, it poured all day. In 1967, it snowed. SNOWED!

For all of our Revolutionary war history, world-famous education and leading hospitals, there is nothing that brings more outsiders into Boston than the marathon. For the weekend before the race, a beautiful cacophony of accents coming from people in brightly colored race clothes fills the city. The T bustles with runners and their families, restaurants are packed, and strangely, the locals appreciate the influx. If the weather is really nice, there is...and I mean this sincerely...No. Better. Place. On. Earth.

The race itself is huge...25,000 runners or so. It draws many of the very best runners on the planet, respected by all, and considered by Kenyans to be the most prestigious race of the year. Maybe that is the single salient point about the race itself: a country in East Africa which dominates distance running like no other and turns out more elite distance runners than most other nations combined, reveres above all else a race not from a world capital or financial center, but from our tiny, regional hub.

Many of the runners, though, are charity runners...running with numbers that they were given in exchange for raising $5,000 or more for a charity that applied for and was awarded some of these very coveted numbers. The Dana Farber Institute, which is as close to being the "Official Charity of Boston" as possible, was the first organization to be given entries, and now there are about 35 official charities every year, and some other unofficial ones. These are regular people, running in memory or in tribute to those loved and lost, and completing a physical endeavor of almost unimaginable difficulty. It is a major professional athletic event, but it is very much a people's race.

To the million or so spectators who line the course from beginning to end, it is a celebration of the city, of the region, and of the spirit of the runners. We go to watch because it is a nice thing to do, but also because we consider it to be part of our responsibility as Greater Bostonians...all of those visiting runners have to finish and remember the nonstop cheering and support, or else we didn't do a very good job cheering. They inspire us, and we encourage them.

And it is very much a regional event. The other big marathons are all contested within the city limits of the host. In New York, the course is constructed specifically to touch all five Boroughs, and most of the others are designed to cover as much of the city-proper as possible. The Boston Marathon doesn't even enter the city of Boston until the runners near Mile #25. Over 90% of the race is contested outside of the city, which makes the entire event a race to get to Boston. A race to get home.

Students at Boston College, located along the route near mile 21, at the top of Heartbreak Hill, have a well-earned reputation for providing late race encouragement to exhausted runners (or a beer, if you feel like stopping:-)). About halfway through, students at Wellesley College perpetuate the "Scream Tunnel" a near-mile long stretch of top-of-their-lungs cheering for the duration of the race. They all take their responsibilities very seriously.

The Marathon then, is a quintessentially Boston event. It doesn't entirely make sense (Why do we care so much? Why do we run it in April with such unpredictable weather? Why is it at mid-day, instead of early in the morning?) but it is inseparable from our civic fabric. It's not a part of us, it is us.

This is my home, and I care for it deeply. This race, this day, stands for everything that makes me love my home. As attack on that race, and on that day, and on people that I share this wonderful place with, is emotionally crushing. I don't want to think about my home differently. I don't want to look sideways when I next walk into Abe & Louie's and think about an 8 year-old boy dying while his sister loses her leg, or a Chinese student dying halfway around the world from her family. I don't want to think about any of that, but I just don't see how it will ever really be gone.

As a city, we will recover. We'll be bigger and stronger and better. The race will become and even more important part of the fabric of our city. Next year, the demand for entries will be higher than ever, and the spirit of the runners and spectators will be be stronger. But we will never, ever be quite the same.

7 comments:

Nilsa @ SoMi Speaks said...

It is no secret that I left Boston for good due to many of the flaws you pointed out in this post. I never felt at home living in the Boston suburbs, despite living there for half of my childhood. That said, this post brought tears to my eyes. A geuinely heartfelt tribute to the events this week and how they will shape your town well into the future.

Lpeg said...

This is a really nice post. And for a lot of us Mainers (yes, we have that holiday too!), a lot of us feel like Boston is a part of us - we all feel connected, as that is the largest city we have. It's where we go when we want to 'get away', and where we cheer on all of our favorite teams. I think it's the New England mentality - we all kind of huddle together and support each other, even though there's some definite love/hate relationship going on. Boston is like our big sibling.

Lpeg said...

Oh my! Almost 200k visitors!

Kari said...

Love your posts!
Stay safe!

nikkeedee2001 said...

Well said! Thinking about you guys though, hopefully things will get back to normal soon.

cindy said...

Glad to see that you and your family are fine. Easily imaginable that your very athletic sister (Munchkin) could been out there running with friends or cheering on friends.

I'm a pseudo-runner but am not really a fan of running marathons (the only half-marathon I've done was Disney), so I didn't know much about how each of the Big 6 is perceived. I've enjoyed reading a glimpse of it from a Native perspective here.

A said...

As some point in the future (but maybe alreaddy) you'll be so glad that you wrote all of this down. I'm glad that you did. :) Hugs to you and your fine city, friend!