Runners’ Worlds

4:14:10 was my time in the one and only marathon I ever ran. Four hours, 14 minutes, 10 seconds. 26.2 miles. The Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. 1999. I was forty.

For the better part of a year, I had trained for the race with one of my best friends. She lived across the street from me at the time and turned forty a couple of months after I did. Running was her idea, but running a marathon was my idea. It was a dream that had somehow gotten lodged in my head years earlier, probably in the late 70s when George Sheehan was promoting running as the path to enlightenment. (For the record, dude was right. Read all about it.) I doubt that either of us alone would have committed ourselves to the preposterous notion of preparing ourselves to run 26.2 miles. Separately, we were just a couple of middle-aged chicks looking to get back into shape post-motherhood (her) and post-tenure (me). Together, we were Thelma and Louise, carb-loading instead of gun-toting. We mapped out a sensible but strenuous training plan that had us slowly building our endurance through a mix of shorter and longer runs, gradually increasing the distances of the long runs we did on weekends. We did most of our running on a beautiful paved trail just blocks from our houses. We ran occasional races to get a feel for that experience. We stuck with our plan, through rain, snow, searing heat, and the painful dissolution of my friend’s domestic partnership. Our bodies changed. Our friendship deepened, as friendships will do when the parties do things like provide cover for one another when circumstances require urinating al fresco. (Don’t ask. Or go ahead and ask. It’s not as if I’m too modest to tell you.) On race day, we stood on the starting line together with goofy grins on our faces and determination in our sculpted legs. 26.2 miles later a beefy young Marine kneeled down in front of me to remove the timing chip from my shoe. When he stood up, he put a finisher’s medal around my neck. Our eyes met. “I did it, didn’t I?” I said. “Yes, ma’am, you did,” he replied. “You did a great job.”

The Madwoman's finisher's medal and race bib from 1999 Marine Corps Marathon.

The Madwoman’s finisher’s medal and race bib from 1999 Marine Corps Marathon. With notes on time and place scribbled in above the number. Proud? To this day.

4:14:10. If I had run that time Monday in Boston, I wouldn’t have made it to the finish line by the time the bombs went off. Photos and video show the race clock at 4:09:55 when the first explosion rocked Boylston Street. I would have been among the thousands left trying to absorb both the shock of a violent event and the disappointment of not being able to complete a major milestone. A New York Times article provides a poignant glimpse of runners in precisely that situation the morning after the incident:

Marathon officials had set up an ad hoc site adjacent to the crime scene, where runners who had been stopped before the finish line could pick up their medals and bright yellow bags of belongings that they had left at the start. What would ordinarily be a moment to bask in accomplishment was a grim occasion, as runners — many with tears in their eyes — wondered what to make of a medal for a marathon they had been unable to complete.

“It’s heartbreaking to not cross the finish line, you train so hard for this,” said Lauren Field, an auctioneer who now lives in Hampstead, N.H., who was stopped blocks from the finish line. “It’s sad, but I’m safe.”

Caroline Burkhart protested gently as a volunteer handed her a medal. “I didn’t finish,” she said, explaining that she had stopped at mile 25.2. She took off the medal and examined it. “Memories,” she said, with a shudder. “Next year, I’ll wear it.”

Look, I know: People were maimed and killed in Boston on Monday. People are maimed and killed somewhere on the planet every day, and my country is often directly or indirectly responsible for the maiming and the killing. It would be obscene to compare the disappointment of a race cut short to the tragedies of lives cut short and bodies blown apart, but that isn’t what I’m doing here. In the scheme of things, the heartbreak experienced by runners like Lauren Field and Caroline Burkhart might not count for much, but it does count — for them as individuals, for all of us who now have one more scenario of ordinary moments turning into disasters to play out in our heads as we lie awake at night. I want to acknowledge and honor the heartbreak of the runners who were denied the chance to complete their races on Monday. I want to give them space not to be consoled by medals that on some level they know they don’t deserve. You don’t go to Boston to run 25.2 or 26.1 miles. You go to Boston to run 26.2 miles. Training matters, yes, and the journey counts for something, but crossing the finish line is, after all, the point. If you don’t reach it, for whatever reason, the only honest thing you can say, no matter how much it hurts, is, “I didn’t finish.”

Here’s a thought, which I offer for free to the organizers of the Boston Marathon and to all who believe that running is the path to enlightenment, as long as you finish the race:

Next year, open the race to everybody.

No qualifying times. No elite entrants. Make it as big as you can possibly make it — and here’s the really radical part:

Let the 5000 runners who weren’t allowed to finish this year lead the pack.

Yeah, it’ll be slow and messy and perhaps as much a party as a race, but perhaps a celebration is what’s called for. Marathoning is, as a friend remarked on Facebook yesterday, about endurance and striving, but it is also about “pageantry and communal joy.” I propose that next year Boston devote itself fully to communal joy. Acknowledge that a 4-, 5-, or 6-hour race is as noble and beautiful as one that is barely over 2 hours. Tell the world that on this day and in this place we run to declare that nobody wins unless everybody wins — and everybody wins if and only if everybody finishes. Today, we dedicate ourselves to getting everyone across the finish line. Come hell or high water.

Do that, Boston, and with dog as my witness I swear I will commit myself to doing what I thought I would never do: Run a second marathon. C’mon, Boston, make me do it!


  1. I with you on opening the race, but I’m against turning it from a race to a parade.


  2. Aww, come one, Physio. I want to see eleventy bilion runners converge on Boston — and you making pasta bolognese for all of them. I do hereby declare you Executive in Charge of Carbo-Loading for the 2014 Boston Marathon! I’ll bring the wine.


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