SB Nation

Paul Flannery | April 21, 2014

Back to the Finish Line

Boston wants you to know that it’s not afraid. This is important. It wants you to know that it’s not going to stay locked up inside on this fine morning, especially not after that gawdawful winter when a warm day was like 34 degrees. Not after all this.

Boston came out of its Back Bay brownstones and Dorchester triple deckers like it does every year on the third Monday in April. It came from Belmont and Waltham and the North and South Shores on the commuter rail and the Green Line. It came over the Mass Ave. bridge from Cambridge on foot, through the back streets of Brookline on bikes.

Boston came out to watch friends and strangers run 26.2 miles of unforgiving asphalt from Hopkinton to Wellesley and up and over Heartbreak Hill. All the way down Beacon and through Kenmore Square, past the Sox who were playing the O’s and finally down Boylston St. where we reclaimed what’s always been ours.

You were expecting something different?

I’m not mentioning their names because this isn’t about them. That breaks some fundamental rules of journalism, but also this isn’t journalism. This is about tension and exhaustion borne from an overwhelming feeling of sadness that took hold last spring and never quite left. This is a personal story and I’m making no apologies for it.

In the days after the last Marathon, there were bomb scares all over town and snipers at the ready. Military hardware filled the Common and the Back Bay was a crime scene. The Celtics rightly canceled their game on Tuesday, leaving it to the Bruins to bring us together the following night. Rene Rancourt sang the anthem, or rather the Garden crowd stood in for Rene, and we all felt a little better for a little while.

By Thursday, things seemed to be getting back to what passed for normal. It was a sunny early spring day and my wife and I were having dinner with my aunt down by the harbor. As we crossed back into Cambridge, I suggested we stop for gas on Memorial.

There were odd reports of a robbery at a nearby convenience store and shots being fired at M.I.T., just a few blocks from where we were. Word around town was that with the huge police presence massing on the Common, things were getting out of control in other pockets of the city. Maybe this was that?

I fell asleep in a chair that night, to the crackle of the police scanner.

There were sirens already blaring in the distance. Some of my students at Boston University watched the stream of red and blue flashing lights make their way over the bridge from their dorms and thought the world was coming to an end. It felt like anarchy. "Let’s just go home," my wife said. I fell asleep in a chair that night, to the crackle of the police scanner.

We spent the next day on lockdown, watching the news and trying not to get on each other’s nerves as the details began coming together.

It turns out they lived a mile from us in Inman Square. A brave young man named Danny made his daring escape at the gas station where we were going to go fuel up. They ended up in nearby Watertown, where my wife used to work. She commuted every day on the 71 bus, or by bike when it was warm.

At some point that afternoon, she decided to bake a pie, but we were out of eggs. We argued for hours about walking two blocks to the market. The lockdown order was lifted and we made plans to see some friends. We were on our way out the door when they found the boat, the last one they had to search. She never made the pie.

The next morning, I sat next to Jim Davis, the great photographer from the Globe; we were both headed to New York to cover the NBA playoffs. We passed the papers back and forth. We exhaled nervously a lot. South Station was shut down an hour after we left because someone had left a backpack on the ground. I don’t remember sleeping through the night until May.

Meb Keflezighi celebrates being the first American male to win the Boston Marathan in 31 years. Photo: Greg M. Cooper, USA TODAY Sports

Every Thursday night, the Somerville Road Runners meet at Casey’s Tavern for a four-mile loop that starts on Broadway and winds through the city. The Road Runners are a hearty bunch. They’ve done this every week without fail since 1995 through autumn rain, winter snow, spring winds and summer heat. This is tough urban terrain, all gruesome hills and uneven sidewalks and cracked pavement.

I’ve been running these streets for years but never really thought about making it a group activity. Running has always been a solitary exercise for me, a time for my mind to wander without the usual inhibitive filter. Every runner gets something different from every run but, even alone, there is a communal bond that all of us share. We nod silently during weekend training runs along the Charles and reflexively give ground on crowded sidewalks. I’ve never felt closer to total strangers than I have in seeing fellow runners these past few months.

I went to Casey’s to run with a bunch of people I’ve never met on the Thursday before the Marathon. We were there to honor Sean Collier, the M.I.T police officer who was murdered in his patrol car a little over a year ago. Sean’s family met us at the start of the run, and so did members of the Somerville Auxiliary Police Department, a volunteer organization where Sean also worked. He was set to join the city’s police department before he was killed.

We took off as a group and heard a man yell, "This is Awesome!" as we made our way up Winter Hill. The group thinned out and I fell in with a pack of four other runners as the sun set over Tufts to the west. There were a few jokes and casual banter but I stayed silent as we fell into our pace. It was a strong one. There are few better feelings for a distance runner than finding a stride.

Some runs are blissful, and some runs are slogs. Hitting that perfect pace is something like a surfer finding the right wave, and then just riding it and riding it. It’s difficult to explain, even if you’ve experienced it for yourself. This wasn’t quite that, but it was good.

About a half mile from the end, another runner asked if I was running on Monday. I said no, and he said he wasn’t either. Left unspoken was the tacit understanding that we both would have been, and maybe should have been, and definitely would have wanted to be running on Monday.

The run is timed and the results are logged on the SRR’s website, so the competitive instincts started kicking in as we raced down Pearl and hung a left by the McGrath, down a makeshift chute of cars parked on either side of a narrow city street. I wasn’t in the lead pack, but I was in the middle of the next one. "Good run," I said to the others. They nodded, although that doesn’t mean they were listening.

Running has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, back to when I was trying to keep up with my dad when he went out for a jog. Last spring I made the decision to start training seriously for the first time since high school. I ran a 5K in Somerville and another in Arlington, and then a 10K in Lexington. I’ll be running a half marathon in May for the first time in almost eight years and maybe a full one for the first time next fall. I never seriously considered running Boston before. I’d believed it was beyond my abilities. I’m sure of it now.

Boston Marathon bombing survivor Marc Fucarile threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Red Sox's game Monday. Photo by Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

I was going to take my son to the Sox game, but we’re kind of fanatical about nap schedules, this being our first one. Last October, when he was barely a month old, I held him in my arms so he could sleep while the Red Sox won the World Series. I have no idea if he’ll like baseball, but I don’t think he’s going to have much choice where the Sox are concerned.

Big Papi spoke for all of us, live, to make sure everyone heard it.

I’m glad the Sox won the Series and I can’t wait to tell my son about it. It may be a bit longer before I can tell him how the season was made when David Ortiz stood at home plate in Fenway, after the Marathon and everything else, and said, "This is our fucking city." Big Papi spoke for all of us, live, to make sure everyone heard it. I wanted to bring my son to Fenway to be where that happened, to let him to know that anger and fear are no match for peace, love and Koji Uehara.

But I can’t help but think about the parents of Krystle Campbell. Like so many others have done, she left the Sox game to watch a friend finish the Marathon. I can’t help but think about Lu Lingzi’s parents in China, who wrote in a letter to Boston University:

"We are grieving and at a loss for words to describe the pain and sadness we are experiencing following the sudden passing of our dear daughter, Lingzi. She was the joy of our lives."

Or the Richard family, as the Globe’s David Abel wrote about their seven-year-old daughter:

"When a nurse or tech stopped in, Jane would tell them about Martin, how she lost her leg, and that Denise couldn’t see. ‘My brother Henry only got some cuts,’ she would say, ‘but was hurt in his heart.’"

That’s when I lose it again.

We were not defeated, but this was not a moment of triumph.

We were not defeated, but this was not a moment of triumph. Nothing good came out of this. Slogans and hashtags are little more than digital bumper stickers, their good intentions overwhelmed by a blaring cacophony of tone-deaf marketing and cheap, political posturing. The baseball team won the World Series. The city grew, in a sense, as it came to understand its own toughness. None of that was worth it.

There is nothing that will bring back Martin Richard, Lu Lingzi and Krystle Campbell. No amount of psychic healing can make the survivors whole again. We can’t undo that awful rampage that left Sean Collier dead in his police car. We all know this.

There was real strength at the finish line, where the first responders raced in to save lives and ordinary citizens comforted the maimed and quite literally stopped the bleeding. There was strength among the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who gave runners shelter, a working cell phone and a bottle of water. There was strength at the hospitals, where doctors and nurses worked around the clock. There is continued strength at the rehabilitation centers where survivors and therapists heal physical injuries and scarred psyches.

There was strength in all the runners who trained through nor’easters and sub-zero temperatures. There was strength in the town square and along the route where we gathered in public and lived our lives.

So we went to a baseball game and we ran a race, because this is what we did last spring and this is what we did again on Monday. We’ll do it again next year, too. We start the race again, and we finish it.

Editor: David Roth | Producer: Matt Watson | Lead Photo: Gregory Fisher, USA TODAY Sports

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.