Growing up, I heard the story so many times it became my story. How my dad attempted to qualify for the Boston Marathon in 1981. How he was on pace to do just that, and how, at mile 20, his appendix burst.
Just like that, his dream was shattered — but his daughters picked up the baton, so to speak.
Twenty years after my dad’s final marathon and subsequent appendectomy, he stood on a hill at the Victoria Marathon and watched me, his oldest daughter, qualify for the Boston Marathon by 8 seconds. I ran in Boston in 2002. My family was not able to fly east to join me, but at approximately the same time I hit the series of hills from miles 16-21 that end with the infamous “Heartbreak Hill,” my family members laced upped their shoes, started their watches and — 2,500 miles away — ran with me.
At the time, my sister, Shannon, was 17.
Eleven years later, Shannon qualified for the Boston Marathon, which is why my sister, brother-in-law, parents and I found ourselves in Beantown last April on the best race in the world’s very worst day.
Race day was absolutely perfect. The weather was ideal, the crowd jubilant. My sister finished 30 minutes before the bombs went off. We were one street over, in the family area, shoulder to shoulder with proud spectators and salt-caked finishers, when the first bomb exploded. The entire crowd went silent. There are only a few things capable of making a noise like that. A girl said fearfully into the silence, “What WAS that?” and we all looked to one another, and to the sky, to try to find an answer.
Then we heard the deafening boom of the second bomb, followed by sirens. Siren after siren after siren. The sirens didn’t stop for 20, 30, 40 minutes, as we turned en masse and started to walk in the direction opposite of where the sirens were headed.
A few blocks later, a crowd stood immobilized at a storefront window with a big-screen TV, the words running across the top of a CNN report: “Explosions reported at the Boston Marathon finish line …”
Around me, runners pulled out their phones to call loved ones. “No … it’s OK,” they said with voices breaking. “I’m OK …”
Rumors began to swirl that other bombs were planted in significant locations around the city, that we should avoid public transportation and major landmarks. We stopped walking because every direction seemed dangerous. But we couldn’t stand still for long. The police pushed outward in a concentric circle from the blast zone and shouted at us to get back, cross the street, get one more block away.
We moved obediently, quickly, attempting to hail cabs that wouldn’t stop. We walked with throngs of people — volunteers, runners, fans — walking against the race route, against thousands of runners who stood, a mile or two from their final goal, stopping their watches and standing on tiptoes to try to see when, or if, the race would resume.
The farther we walked, the more the stranded runners had learned of the tragedy, and instead of waiting to finish, they began to wander off course. Bostonians emerged from the nearby brownstones to offer water, cell phones or jackets. We watched the runners faces as they processed a heartbreak far worse than the hills they’d just overcome. My family walked past and then away from them, trekking six miles out of town to our hotel.
It had been an absolutely perfect day, up until it wasn’t. But my story is not unique — I am one of hundreds of thousands of people for whom this race means something.
And it is the very ubiquity of my story that ensures that today’s 118th running of the Boston Marathon will be as glorious — no, more so — than it has ever been.
There is a magic to the Boston Marathon that no evil can eclipse. For one day, it allows ordinary people to become extraordinary — runners, volunteers, and, most of all, Bostonians, who buy and slice their own oranges to hand out on the course, who, with friendly solidarity, shout the names of runners smart enough to write them on their shirts, and who spend every Patriots’ Day screaming for normal people as if they had a Red Sox jersey on their back instead of running shoes on their feet.
The 26.2 miles of any marathon is its own kind of battle — and the city of Boston recognizes that better than any city in the world. There are moments in the race where it feels impossible to continue. And yet, every year, people do, carried by the crowd. And they will do so today, with a stronger sense of unity and purpose than ever before.
And I will watch from home, and will try to explain to my young son how all these people believe good is more powerful than evil, courage more common than cowardice, and the race is truly won in rising every time you fall.
I will whisper this to him, and he will be too young to understand. But I hope, if I tell him this story enough, that it, at some point, will become his story, too.