The 117th Boston Marathon was a year ago today. I was not there, of course, but ran my first marathon the week before. Some of my running friends were preparing for Boston while I was preparing for mine, and we met for several training runs throughout the winter. So, I was especially excited to follow my friends’ progress as they ran the premier race for marathoners.
When I pulled up the Boston Marathon website to look up their times, however, it was with a fearful anxiety, as a coworker had just mentioned a bombing at the marathon. My heart had dropped when she told me. I managed to find my friends’ finishing times. Just the fact that the times were posted gave me hope they were both out of harm’s way. It was several hours until connections on facebook confirmed they were not hurt. They were perilously close to the bombing, but emerged (physically) unscathed.
As my friends–and thousands of others–prepare to return to Boston to run its 118th marathon next Monday (April 21), I’ve wondered what that will be like for them. I’ve thought about my own experience of returning to a race with memories of trauma attached. I don’t know whether sharing my story can help them or anyone else. If nothing else, I know it helps me to share it.
Over two years ago, as my first half-marathon neared, I was more excited and nervous than I have been for any other race, then or since. The night before, my parents drove up to attend the race, and we stayed in a hotel together. They drove me to the race, waited patiently and encouragingly as I registered and stood in line for one last visit to the restroom, and waved me off as I crossed the starting line.
I had a great race. I had trained very well, and it felt almost easier than it should have been to run the longest distance I’d ever attempted. I cheerfully thanked volunteers, chatted with other runners, and waved to children watching from the side of the road. As I approached the finish line, I heard my mom cheering, and I grinned as she snapped a few pictures.
Soon after I crossed the finish line and received my “finisher” medal, I could tell something was wrong. My dad wasn’t there to welcome me. My mom tried to keep the focus on my race, but explained that my dad wasn’t feeling well, and she had taken him back to the hotel while I was running. For my dad, father of six, to leave one of his children’s events before it was over, especially after having made a special trip just to be there… he really, really wasn’t feeling well.
There are many stories that follow, from going back to the hotel and excitedly (but gently) telling him about my race, to him being admitted to the hospital less than a week later. That day of getting sick at my half-marathon was the first in a series of days of doctors discovering his cancer had returned and eventually concluding there was essentially nothing they could do but attempt to ease his suffering. Three weeks after attending my half-marathon, he passed away.
A year later, I returned to the same race, this time to run my first full marathon. I knew that just to make it through the 26.2 miles emotionally, I had to make the experience different enough to be able to focus on my run. Still, there were parts of the event that would be similar no matter how I approached it. As we pulled onto that familiar road to get to the starting line, a wave of grief and pain hit me. I remembered the moment my dad had gotten sick in the car, when I had been too excited and nervous to recognize what was happening. I went to register, and I saw the bench where my parents had waited for me, smiling, as I waited in line for the port-a-potty. As the race started, I wished I could picture my dad’s expression as he had watched me start, but I couldn’t remember. Then I settled into the 26.2 mile trek through the back country roads, and I had to push most of that from my mind and focus on my run.
I did enjoy my marathon. It was an exciting culmination of months of training. My mom, my sister, my coworker, and a running friend were all there to support me. The scenery was beautiful–that’s why I chose to do my first full marathon there. And I know my dad would be so, so impressed and proud of me for running a marathon. Still, the finish was bittersweet. Truly. It was bitter. And it was sweet.
Running a marathon is hard in the first place. Running a marathon at a time and place connected to trauma? Indescribably difficult. So, dear friends (those I know and those I don’t, but call friend anyway), when you run in the 118th Boston Marathon next Monday, run it for the love of running we all share. Run it for the sheer joy of knowing just how far your own feet can carry you. Run it for those who no longer can, whether their life or ability was taken from them by nature or a violent act. Run it because you understand why they ran, because it’s why you run. But if memories overwhelm and keeping all of that purpose in mind is more than you can handle, then run. Just run.