Monday, April 15, 2013

Further Notes on Senseless Agony

I was born and raised in the great state of Ohio, and to my dying day I will always think of myself as a Buckeye. But my adopted home is Boston, Massachusetts, and I have lived here almost as many years as I have in Ohio. Unless I make a big move--say, to Africa, the mother of all homelands--in the years to come, Boston will remain my home, in part because there is much to love in this city.

Of all the great privileges of living in the Boston area, none is greater than an obscure little holiday known as Patriot's Day. Celebrated only here and in Maine, which was originally part of Massachusetts, Patriot's Day is nominally celebrated for the opening battle in the Revolutionary War (enthusiasts still gather in Concord and Lexington very, very early in the morning to watch reenactments). The entire state takes the day off just as spring is shaking off its hard frosts, almost as if to say to the rest of the nation, "hey, we deserve this day to ourselves for the brave deeds of our forebears...think of it as a gift in perpetuity for bringing this nation to life. See you Tuesday!"

While the reenactments are, I am told, a delight, the real celebration takes place at the running of the Boston Marathon and at Fenway Park, where the Red Sox often play their season's home opener just while the runners pass nearby on Beacon Street headed for the final stretch. Hundreds of thousands line the streets each year. They come to cheer for loved ones, support a cause, or just serve as spectators of one of the premier road races in the world.

It's hard to explain to people who haven't seen the marathon up close what a special event it is. Simply put, it is the greatest single sporting event in the world. To me, the marathon has always served as a metaphor for how we should behave in the world rather than how we do. First, Americans aren't even the reigning princes of the race: the owners of the day for the past few decades have been East African runners, earning thunderous roars from Bostonians who hardly know their names as they fly down Boylston Street en route to the finish. Unlike every other major "championship" in American sports, which involves the typically American shortsighted binary system of winners conquering losers, the marathon is--except for an incredibly tiny percentage of elite runners who really are out to win against other people--not an event where spectators must be forced to choose sides. Indeed, the ethos of the day is just the opposite, as the best and most spirited fans are the ones who cheer on all comers to the point of hoarseness, no matter the size, the shape, the age, the skin color, the flag worn by the runner.

It is a free event; there are no luxury boxes to be distributed as corporate baubles to ambitious executives who care little for the sport. It is a community event too: there are troops from the US National Guard who, in full dress and carrying heavy backpacks, march the entire length of the course, often to the loudest applause. And other than the staggered start, there is no segregation of any kind: the course is chock full of men and women; big-burly "Clydesdales" run alongside featherweight Olympians; the young run with the old; and some of the most fit athletes run with people who've trained for only six months trying to raise money for cystic fibrosis reseach. Yet they are all equal competitors, and their opponent is 26.2 miles of road rather than each other. The spectators want all of them to win.

In the marathon you can find what's best about our country. I'd say the ambiance of the Boston Marathon is the most apt illustration of the word nostalgia--nostalgia for an America as seen in Norman Rockwell paintings, Chevy commercials, and Bob Seeger songs--except unlike that nostalgia, which is a chimera, the behavior on display at the marathon is very real, even if it only happens one spring day every year. It still does, in fact, happen.

When I was younger and before I had kids, my wife and I would watch the runners at about Mile 23--toward the end of the race when most of the runners knew they had survived the worst the course had to offer. There was an Italian restaurant on Beacon Street in Brookline and we'd get there for an early lunch. (The marathon then had a traditional noon start, so we knew that the elite runners would get there around two; after a few 90-plus degree marathons when runners wilted in the heat and local hospitals dotting the course were overwhelmed with seizing runners, the organizers wisely moved to an earlier start, roughly staggered between 9 and 10 am.) I would start drinking beer at 11 am, even formally inventing my own rule for it--"Patriot's Day is the only day where it is acceptable to drink before noon!"--and usually be midway through my third when we could see some Kenyan duking it out with some Ethiopian on TV at the bar just as they passed Cleveland Circle. That was our cue, and out we ran to scream our lungs out for these human gazelles as they swept by us, running with a level of grace and energy that I would lose after about five steps...and then nothing, since they had so outpaced the other runners. So back in to finish off the third in preparation for screaming my head off for the next hour or two.

After heading back to Ohio for medical school I returned with children and a life in the near suburbs. It turned out that I had gotten Patriot's Day off in my intern year by accident. Mondays are not typically days that interns get to call their own, and I don't remember now what exactly were the circumstances that led to me having the day off. I considered myself insanely lucky; when I got off the following year, and the year after that, I couldn't believe my good fortune.

These years, and those that have passed since, I've watched the race in Newton, not far from where I live. Newton is really the proving ground of the marathon; you enter the city at about Mile 17, just when (so I am told, anyway) your legs are really starting to feel the distance. You take a slight hill over Interstate 95, come to a corner where one of the local firehouses sits (just "the firehouse" to experienced Boston runners), and round the corner to see what at first looks like another mild, innocuous hill. Only the hill never quite stops. Nearly a mile long, that is the first of three hills in Newton that causes runners to either drop out, or at least turn runners into walkers, by the thousands. The second is shorter but has a slightly greater incline, and the third one, the shortest, has a steeper incline still, and is so devastating to runners in their 21st mile that it is known even to runners who never come to Boston as "Heartbreak Hill". And after that there are some declines heading into Boston that my friends who have run the course assure me are very nearly as painful as the parts going up.

I simply love watching the runners in the Newton hills. I love shouting encouragement to them. I love watching my children caught up in the excitement. I love watching this one man, known to nearly everyone who follows the marathon as a spectator, running his paraplegic son  in a wheelchair for the entire course. His name is Dick Hoyt, and he and his son Rick have been doing this for 30 years. The Hoyts are the only runners I have ever seen get louder cheers than the marching soldiers, and they deserve it.

But I love one aspect of the race far beyond anything else. My favorite part of watching the race in Newton--my favorite moment of participating in the race--is watching those wheelchair racers face the nightmare of those hills head on. I bike a fair amount, and I take on those Newton hills fairly often as part of a regular route. Even on a bike, with four fully functional limbs, they aren't fun. These men and women in wheelchairs get up these three hills--toward the end of the race!--just with the strength of their arms, and the ability to persevere through hardship in pursuit of a goal. Nearly all of them demonstrably suffer. I jog by them and scream encouragement: "COME ON! YOU CAN DO IT!" And I keep screaming until the next crazy fan, another hundred feet down the road, takes up the gauntlet of supporting this athlete until he or she is at the top of the hill on Hammond Street and begins what for the wheelchairs is the perilous descent past Boston College and the train tracks at Cleveland Circle.

These people are my heroes. I have no idea how on earth they do it, but I am amazed each year at their determination.

That is what is on my mind tonight as I allow a little Scotch to numb the pain that comes when you see something this pure and beautiful be utterly violated by God knows what kind of person. Even as I write this I am certain the story is developing by the hour, and any thoughts on the specifics of what happened to whom will be out of date faster than one could flick 140 characters across a screen. So instead I figured I would let you know what it was that was defaced today. I have no idea what next year's marathon will be like, but I desperately hope that it hasn't been irrevocably changed.


  1. Thank you, Billy, for your thoughtfulness, your reflection, and your humanity.

  2. I really really loved this. Thank you for providing some hope and comfort.

  3. Thank you so much for educating the ones of us who have never been and didn't know what it meant. That was a gift you gave us.

  4. FABULOUS post that captured in words a local holiday that I couldn't quite explain to my international friends. OR my domestic friends that have never experienced it! Thanks!