The Boston Marathon course runs in only one direction. Two years ago when I ran it with an old friend, we were lucky. There was a tailwind that lifted us up so hard and so fast that the race’s top male finisher, a Kenyan named Geoffrey Mutai, clocked the fastest marathon time in recorded history. Of course, even with the tailwind I could still barely walk or think by the end of the 26.2 miles. All I really remember of the finish line is sitting down on the sidewalk and being unable to stand back up for a very long time.
Knowing that feeling, yesterday all I could imagine as I learned of bombs, overwhelmed phone lines and a suspended transit system was an exodus of exhausted runners slowly walking out of Boston, knees buckling, eyes burning, and everyone stopping once in a while to pull others back to their feet. In retrospect I realized that my imagination was simply super-imposing images of the 9/11 trek uptown onto Boylston Street. There’s a natural desire to make comparisons — and to draw contrasts. Good. Evil. Us. Them. Before. Now. The marathon’s iconic finish line written into a symbol of peaceful Americana. The lines were drawn.
The truth is that the finish line is always a chaotic place. There are crowds and clocks and signs and police and a steady stream of naked legs staggering downtown. People are shrieking and leaning over steel barricades to scan the course for fathers and co-workers and high school friends. Officials in neon yellow jackets cover collapsed runners in space blankets and call for stretchers on walkie-talkies. About ten years ago, back when I was convinced I was going to be a professional marathon runner and I would watch the race from my home on Heartbreak Hill, the first female finisher crossed the line covered in both menstrual blood and diarrhea. Everyone is drunk off either adrenaline or Sam Adams. Yes, there are all the trappings of Herculean glory surrounding the finish line of the Boston Marathon, but it is better described as a place bursting of sheer humanity — filled with as much exhaustion and thirst and struggle and chaos as life itself.
Yet, after a tragedy, we simplify. We revise our memories. On the radio on Tuesday, famed Boston sports writer Dan Shaughnessy called the event a “sweet, charming day for 117 years.” Until now, that is. This sepia-colored paint slowly coating Copley Square is the same one that scrubbed Manhattan after 9/11. It’s that soft, peaceful color that, when you stare into it, makes it easy to tell ourselves that we were at peace, and then — horrifically, unwillingly — we were thrust into war.
We know that’s not the reality. And as much as I didn’t want to think yesterday about the drone strike in Pakistan that killed five people as the soon-to-be marathoners were sleeping Sunday night, or the 45 inmates on hunger strike in Guantanamo who are, right now, being force-fed through their noses, I required myself to. We should all require ourselves to, because violence doesn’t travel in only one direction. It’s cyclical.
The International Association of Athletics Federation doesn’t recognize Geoffrey Mutai’s time as the fastest marathon on record. No real runners thought it would. Even though the Boston Marathon is considered one of the most difficult, most humbling and most iconic marathons in the world, everyone knows one directional-courses don’t count. They’re not fair. Even worse, they are dangerous and unpredictable. True, sometimes you get lucky — as I did two years ago, as U.S. residents are almost every day. But when the wind shifts, it swings around hard and fast. And it always shifts.
Shortly after the bombings, President Obama went on national television to declare that the U.S. government would hunt down and punish the perpetrators. What he didn’t talk about, and what we mostly don’t talk about, is that we live in a world steeped in violence, mass shootings and attacks on civilians. That we help construct a world where cities shutter school and hospitals to increase police budgets, where arms dealing is a billion-dollar industry and where two U.S.-launched wars over ten years have resulted in only more lost lives.
Instead of staying on this same course, perhaps we can instead stagger uphill towards peace. Perhaps we can run toward an idea of nationalism that does not include committing acts abroad that we consider unconscientious at home. After an act of violence occurs, an end to militarism may seem like a delusional, utopian goal — an epic, super-human undertaking. But so is running a marathon. And if tens of thousands of athletes can return to Boston’s race next year — as you know they will, as I plan to do — then there’s no reason that, until then, we can’t cheer for peace as loudly as the crowds in Boston. There’s no reason that we can’t all take part in a marathon’s original challenge: to defy the limits of what everyone believes is possible.
Laura Gottesdiener is the author of A DREAM FORECLOSED: BLACK AMERICA AND THE FIGHT FOR A PLACE TO CALL HOME forthcoming this summer from Zuccotti Park Press, www.zuccottiparkpress.com.