Training

BOSTON: Effects of the Tragedy

Did the explosions change our sport?

 

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy at Boston, I fielded several phone calls from reporters from Chicago, South Bend, Michigan City, all seeking my thoughts. One of the reporters asked, “Had you ever imagined something like this could happen?”

Unfortunately, I had.

Many runners have read my novel, Marathon, about the 72 hours leading up to a major marathon. It is a work of fiction, pure fantasy, with multiple characters and multiple plot threads. One of those plot threads in an early outline involved a bomb on the course, timed to explode when the elite runners passed. That plot thread never made it into the novel for several reasons. Mostly, I did not want to inspire someone to turn fiction into fact.

Sadly, yesterday at the Boston Marathon, fiction did become fact.

Speculation already has begun as to why someone would attack the runners of Boston. The New York Times suggested a possible connection with the April 19 fire in Waco, Texas that left 80 members of a religious group dead and the Oklahoma City bombing on the anniversary of that date two years later that killed 168 people. Ironically, I watched the Waco raid on TV from the course of the Boston Marathon. I was covering the race for Runner’s World, on the media bus just ahead of the lead runners. The bus had a TV set above the windshield, the screen filled not with runners, but with the flames of Waco, which continue to cast shadows today.

Did Waco signal the beginning of our vulnerability? The loss of our innocence? Or was it Oklahoma City? Most likely, it was the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001. That woke everybody up. Security certainly has tightened since 9/11, but marathoners operate on a 26-mile-385-yard playing field impossible to secure. You can’t establish security points on every intersection between Hopkinton and Boylston Street as you can at a ballpark like Fenway Park, which marathoners pass in the last mile of their race.

Three people dead, one of them an eight-year-old child. Ten people who lost legs. More than 150 people injured. Is it crass to say, it could have been worse? Not when you consider the 3,000 killed in the Twin Towers. Coincidentally, only one day before the Boston bombs my wife Rose and I had attended The Impossible, a movie based on the tsunami that killed 230,000 in Southern Asia.

Numbers!

Is one life lost, or three lives lost, a lesser tragedy than a tragedy with a larger body count? It is not if you have a connection to that eight-year-old child, and as runners we now all possess that connection.

As runners, we sometimes are obsessed by numbers: mile splits; heart rates; PR’s (for Personal Records); BQ’s (for Boston Qualifying), the fast finish times that (now ironically) allows the fastest of us to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Given the large number of marathon runners, the even larger number of recreational runners, the family and friends of all those runners, millions of us, hundreds of millions who watched the explosions played and replayed on TV, we all have been attacked. In some respects, our lives as runners will never quite be the same.

One of the reporters asked me, “Has this tragedy permanently changed the sport of marathon running?”

In the immediate hours after the tragedy, I’m not sure I can answer that question. I suppose we all are victims. How can the explosions not have changed the course of our sport? Certainly, in the wake of Boston, the race directors of the major marathons, those that might be perceived as providing the greatest targets for terrorists, all will be reviewing their security options. They will be guided by the various public agencies, particularly the police departments responsible for the safety of us all. Might we be told, no more major marathons? Too dangerous. No guarantee of your protection. What about the protection of the much larger numbers of spectators who watch us and cheer us. Twenty-five thousand run Boston each April. Probably a million or more line the course as spectators. As anyone who has run Boston knows, only small gaps without spectators exist all the way from the starting line in Hopkinton to the finish line on Boylston Street.

The Boston bombs exploded at a time when never before has running been more popular. The major marathons sell out on the Internet within hours if not minutes of when registration opens. Could security concerns cause our sport now to go backwards in time? The first year I ran Boston, only a hundred or so runners stood with me on the starting line. We were of a much more innocent age. I do not expect us to retreat to that point in time.

Whether runners were the target of the misguided bomber or bombers, it was the spectators who bore the brunt of the attack. It was our supporters, those who cheer us as we complete the final 385 yards of our incredible journeys. The innocents, as it so often happens, were the ones who were killed and maimed. The explosions happened behind the spectators, and their bodies served as shields for the runners on the course.

We must run on. We must continue to strive for BQ’s. We must continue to head to Hopkinton each April, our simple goal being to earn with our efforts medals hung around our necks, shiny blankets draped across our shoulders, after we cross the finish line on Boylston Street. We hope that we, safely, are allowed to continue to do just that.