‘If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon’

April 15, 2013

My wife has been training for a marathon. She leaves the house early in the morning and runs for hours and hours. She comes home tired and sore. And then she does it again. And again. And again.


Caity Brown, left, of Yorktown, Va., and her friend Marisa Muller of Wilmington, Del., cheer on runners participating in the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Marathon in Washington. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

There's no reason for her to do it. There's no competition or payoff or award. It's just a quiet, solitary triumph over the idea that she couldn't do it, and it all happens before I even wake up.

In recent months, runner's magazines have begun appearing on our coffee table. One includes an article from Tish Hamilton. "The Boston Marathon," she writes. "Even the nonfaithful know that it is the holy-grail accomplishment, the one that marks a runner as 'serious.'"

Hilton's piece is about the "squeakers," the runners who fight every year to qualify for the Boston Marathon, but who barely make it in. "A squeaker is always thrilled to qualify, no matter how many times she's done it before, and always suspects that this might be the last time she runs Boston."

The finish line at a marathon is a small marvel of fellowship. Everyone is there to celebrate how much stronger the runners are than they ever thought they could be. Total strangers line up alongside the route to yell encouragement. Bands play. Some hand out cups of water, Gatorade, even beer. Others dress up in costumes to make the runners smile. The fact that other people can run this far makes us believe we can run that far. It's a happy thought. It makes us all feel a little bit stronger.

Today, the final line of the Boston Marathon is a crime scene. It's a testament to how much more evil human beings can be than we can imagine. The bomb — or at least what we think was a bomb — went off at four hours and nine minutes. As Pacific Standard notes, that's a popular marathon time. It seems likely that the detonation was timed to kill as many people as possible.

But that's not all it was meant to do. It was also meant to be on television. It was meant to be on the front page of every newspaper, to be the top story of every news broadcast. That way it could hurt even the people who weren't there. It could make everyone in the country feels a bit weaker, a bit more vulnerable, a bit more scared.

“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon," wrote Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. Her story, as recounted by Dave Zirin, is worth thinking about today:

Through 1966, women weren’t allowed to run the grueling 26-mile race. But in 1967, a woman by the name of Kathrine Switzer registered as K.V. Switzer and, dressed in loose fitting sweats, took to the course. Five miles into the race, one of the marathon directors actually jumped off a truck to forcibly remove Switzer from the course, yelling: “Get the hell out of my race!” But the men running with her fought him off. For them, Kathrine Switzer had every right to be there. For them, the Boston Marathon wasnʼt about exclusion or proving male supremacy — pitting boys against girls. It was about people running a race. Somehow Kathrine Switzer kept her pace as this mayhem occurred all around her. As she said, “I could feel my anger dissipating as the miles went by — you can't run and stay mad!”

When the pictures from the marathon were transmitted across the globe, the world saw two opposing models of masculinity: the violence and paranoia of the marathon director vs. the strength and solidarity of the other male runners.

If you are losing faith in human nature today, watch what happens in the aftermath of an attack on the Boston Marathon. The flood of donations crashed the Red Cross's Web site. The organization tweeted that its blood supplies are already full. People are lining up outside of Tufts Medical Center to try and help. Runners are already vowing to be at marathons in the coming weeks and months. This won't be the last time the squeakers run Boston. This won't be the last time we gather at the finish line to marvel how much more we can take than anyone ever thought possible.

Further reading:

Eight facts about terrorism in the United States.

Where the explosions occurred (MAP)

Video: Explosions at the finish line

Photos of the scene

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Neil Irwin | April 15, 2013