Today is Marathon Monday...the Boston Marathon that is, the world's oldest 26.2 mile race.
In Massachusetts (where I'm from) the day is actually a holiday...a day off for the entire state to watch, cheer, and participate in the best race ever! (Okay, officially the holiday is Patriots Day, the day the first shots were fired for the American Revolution in the Battle of Lexington and Concord following the Paul Revere's nighttime ride warning the Minutemen of the advancing Redcoats...but now, it's Marathon Day).
Growing up in Massachusetts, even nonrunners get excited about Marathon Day. I can still remember being in elementary school, home for the day, with live race day coverage on the television...I didn't really get it - watching two or three tired, intense, and sweaty men (and behind them, women) putting one foot in front of the other for a distance that meant nothing to me. But, it seemed exciting nonetheless. Coverage of the event for days before and after would be intense.
I remember my first Marathon Day when I was in college at Boston University (1994). My neighbor, Tara, asked me to go with her to Copley Square in downtown Boston, where the finish line is. She was a graphic arts major and had an assignment to take photos of the race...her idea was to catch shots of the back of the pack (an idea, I'm sure, fueled by the fact that we wanted to sleep in, have lunch, then go downtown). I was rather lukewarm about the idea...I mean, how boring does that sound? Let's go stand on the road and watch strangers run by you. Being a good friend, though, I accompanied her.
I have to say, that first day in Copley Square forever ruined me for every race to come: THIS is what a race is supposed to be like. Thousands and thousands of people were crowded into the city. Everyone was cheering...Thousands of runners went by and even though they were strangers, somehow, each one seemed so personal, so familiar. Perhaps it was because some of these runners were the ones featured in the news on the nights leading up to the race. The father who always ran, pushing his son in a wheelchair the whole 26.2 miles. The mom pushing a double jogger. The college kid, shirtless, running behind a keg of beer on a dolly. Or perhaps it is just that bit of common humanity that your soul hums in tune with others who are pushing themselves to their limits and proud of their accomplishment. The smiles, the raised arms, fists pumping, clapping at their own achievement, feeling the high of the crowd's cheers.
[Side note: This is what I expected my first big race to be like, the Philadelphia Marathon (or the half portion of it I ran in November of 2008). Big city, big race, big crowds, big excitement...Unfortunately, the Philly race was empty of bystanders and energy, probably due to the 22 degree temperatures and the early start time (7:00 am, as opposed to Boston's 10:00 start).]
Tara and I stayed for several hours, cheering on the runners. I'm sure the race is different now, since Boston has become so ridiculously popular (spurred on by the selectiveness of having rigid qualifying times to enter the race). But then, almost 20 years go (crap, it's been that long?), there were plenty of people at the back of the pack, plenty of runners whose time was a 5 or 6 hour marathon (unlike the elites who can run 26 miles in a little over 2 hours). We clapped until our arms ached, cheered and screamed until our voices were hoarse. It was one of the best sporting events I'd been to, then and now.
I made it a point to go down to Copley Square for Marathon Day each year I was in college, and then the three that I was across the river, studying theology in Cambridge. I'd bring friends who'd never experienced it before, and they would always come back starry eyed, as if they'd just witness something miraculous. And they did.
Perhaps, this is why I want to run in the Boston Marathon someday. This race was my introduction to running. This race is my touchstone. It is my ruler. It is what I measure every other race on. When I run Boston, it will be like a homecoming for me, a return to that nascent place where the runner within me I'd become one day was conceived.
"There are two ways to live your life. One, as though nothing is a miracle. The other, as though everything is a miracle." Albert Einstein