Why Running the Boston Marathon Wasn't What I Expected

I visited the finish line of the 118th Boston Marathon a little less than 24 hours before I would cross it as a runner. Walking down Boylston Street, I felt like I had been there a thousand times before. Yes, I had seen the infamous street many times on TV, but it was also familiar to me because it was as recognizable as any street in America.

Chain restaurants commingled with sporting goods stores, where runners in bright colored jackets were alternatively carbo-loading and drooling over Adidas products. Athletes from all over the world held up their bibs as friends and family snapped photos in front of the blue and yellow scaffolding at the finish line. Police and National Guard officers quietly wove through the crowd. The atmosphere was dignified, Olympic.

I hadn’t come to Boston for any reason other than the fact that I had qualified and wanted to compete. I was wary of being a tourist in someone else’s grief. I was wary of the hashtag #BostonStrong. When I saw vendors in the train station selling T-shirts with the slogan, I felt my unease was justified.

Before I knew it, it was 6:30 am on Marathon Monday, and I was sitting on a bus next to a mother of four from Utah who runs a 3:08 marathon. We talked about what it was like to qualify for Boston the first time. She had told no one but her husband.

Since I started training, I’ve learned that marathoners are stone-hearted loners until race day. No matter the preparation, a marathon is an extreme event that leaves too much up to chance. A marathon leaves plenty of room for heartbreak and a fatalist attitude, but it also inspires camaraderie.

That's why I think of course this goodness while looking at a now-famous picture from the 2014 Boston Marathon of three runners carrying a fallen runner to the finish. It’s reminiscent of its mirror image: the picture from 2013 of three strangers helping a fourth. I look at the older version and think: of course this vulnerability. A full range of emotions is to be expected at any marathon, but this is the Boston Marathon. This is a race that brings runners to their knees year after year.

This is the Boston Marathon, one year later.

Through Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, and Brookline, it was hard to constantly think about the bigger picture, about the space of a year, about four families that lost their loved ones, about the hundreds of others now living with permanent injuries. It was hard to think about anything but getting through the race.

I hadn’t come to Boston for any reason other than the fact that I had qualified and wanted to compete. I was wary of being a tourist in someone else’s grief. I was wary of the hashtag #BostonStrong. When I saw vendors in the train station selling T-shirts with the slogan, I felt my unease was justified. At the same time, I knew that Boston had summoned these slogans in part so that people like me could have the race they'd always planned to run.

My race didn’t go as planned. I made a rookie mistake and started out too fast. Though I had picked a goal time, there came a moment when I knew I wasn’t going to clear it. In the first seventeen miles, focused on pushing forward, I passed many tiny hands outstretched with orange slices, cold rags, Twizzlers, and high-fives. Around mile eighteen, there was nothing I wanted more than to high-five a child. As my legs started to give way and slow down, I took the opportunity every chance I could.

Others around me struggled, especially from Heartbreak Hill to the finish, but the usual throwing of elbows and angry "watch out" grumbles that are a constant in road races were absent here. I knew that everyone in my wave was a competitor at heart, and that some part of each of us cared deeply about a finish time. But nobody was going to let that supersede the gratitude we all felt to be running that day.

The crowds connecting the dots of every mile cemented my conviction: I would lose time before I lost perspective. I smiled as beer-drinking grandmas, drunk college kids, and married couples yelled my name. I never doubted I would finish, and I never took that for granted. Soon, it was a quick right onto Hereford, a quick left onto Boylston, a faint roar from the crowd, the silent scream of exhausted limbs, and a line in the road.

Several times throughout the race, I asked myself a question tinged with mortality: Am I here? If the answer was no, if I was zoning out and thinking about faraway things, I widened my eyes and looked ahead and told myself: I am here.