Like many others around the world last Monday, I was gripped by a deep sense of dread as news of the Boston Marathon bombings began to unfold.
Compulsively refreshing my Twitter feed, the news coverage seemed unfathomable: three people had been killed and scores more injured watching and running the world's most established foot race.
My emotional reaction was instant, visceral and while I knew it had to do with my connection to the race, which I ran back in 2009 and consider a major life highlight, I had a hard time articulating why there were tears welling up in my eyes.
For runners, the epic journey to Hopkinton, where the race starts, begins the moment you cross the finish line of your qualifying race. Mine was in Edmonton in the dead heat of a prairie August, where I was dizzy with joy that I had beaten my required time of three hours and 40 minutes. Because Boston is in April, it meant I had to train through an Alberta winter — frozen hydro packs, slick paths, snowstorms — in order to prepare for the biggest race any amateur runner can hope to run. For months I thought of little else.
And then shortly before the big day my grandfather died. We had spent weeks in the hospital at his bedside where he seemed to be recovering from surgery one day then taking a turn for the worst the next. Details are blurry from the years that have passed, but I remember my grandma, in particular, encouraging me to go and run after he died. They would postpone the funeral, she said.
So, I went with a small group of supporters, including my mom and dad, to cheer me on at the finish line.
When we arrived, the city was buzzing with marathon fever. It was the only thing anyone was talking about. Everywhere you looked there was a sea of bright blue and yellow — the marathon's official colours. It was particularly thrilling for someone like me, who had never really been involved in sports before, to be in the middle of a highly anticipated athletic event, surrounded by people with whom I instantly had something in common. The long, solitary Sunday runs, the weeks of traversing up and down hills for strength training, gagging down goopy energy gels and spending Saturday nights on the straight and narrow— they understood it all.
On the bus to Hopkinton on race day I met a woman around my mom's age. We instantly hit it off, discussing our music playlists, training and passion for a sport that few understand. She had recently lost her father — a fellow runner — and was carrying some of his ashes to sprinkle along the course.
We parted at the starting line, where I optimistically joined the three hour and 30 minute wave and lined up a few rows ahead of her, but the encounter stuck with me as the gun went off and we began our journey towards downtown Boston, 42 kilometres away.
The course was lined with people almost the entire way. They sat in their front yards in lawn chairs, cheering for complete strangers, handing out orange slices and cups of water. Passing Wellesley College — nicknamed the "Scream Tunnel" for the hoards of students who crowd the road's edge and, well, scream their asses off for the entire race — was particularly memorable. Throughout, spectators and fellow runners doled out words of encouragement at the exact moments I needed them, particularly up "Heartbreak Hill," the last of the race's big inclines.
I crossed the finish line three hours and 32 minutes later. It was two minutes behind my goal, but the sense of accomplishment was still overwhelming.
As the video and photos from this year's race show, the bombs went off at around the four hour and 9 minute mark. I couldn't stop thinking about how, if it had been four years ago, I would've been navigating through the massive crowd, searching for my family near that spot.
Besides the obvious tragedy that people were killed and maimed, my heart aches for all the runners who set out last Monday to achieve a life goal in what is essentially the least competitive (in that you are competing only against yourself) and violent sport and, instead, wandered into a brutal, heinous attack. But I also feel devastated for that marathon's future runners. The race has been irrevocably altered in name, meaning and significance.
Never again will the Boston Marathon be a simple goal for which amateur runners can strive. It's now sullied and complicated by a cruel pair (allegedly) who decided they wanted to hurt and kill regular people running a race, the loved ones who came to cheer them on and the kind Bostonians who volunteered to make it an unforgettable experience. In the end, we should grieve not only for those directly affected, but also for an institution that has had its joy, spirit and goodness stolen.