I’d been told that the last mile of the Boston Marathon is as close as an ordinary runner can get to the victory lap in an Olympic stadium — a triumphant ride to immortality.
For me, Monday’s finish was more like crawling ashore after a shipwreck. As soon as I hit the finish line my legs buckled, and I began madly staggering about. A race volunteer and a doctor ushered me into the medical tent for treatment.
Barely an hour later, that same tent would become the triage center for the victims of the deadly bomb blasts.
I went to Boston to find my personal limits, but I left inspired by others’ selflessness. I went excited, and left humbled. Boston welcomed us, and in the tragedy revealed what thousands of caring individuals can achieve collectively in the face of evil.
The race began in Hopkinton, 26.2 miles from the center of Boston, on a crisp, sunny morning. Packed in our corrals before the race, we could feel the excitement in the air. Soon we were a vast river of runners, a liquid churning of elbows and legs. From its banks the crowds yelled words of encouragement and held up signs. “You’re my HERO!” said one sign, and I tried to believe it.
I’d been preparing for this race for more than a year — perhaps my whole life — and this was it, the chance to find out what I was made of.
About 17 miles into the race, I hit the wall. I began to feel light in the head and heavy in my legs. I tried to dig down deep for inspiration. “Is that all you got?!” I challenged myself. “Yes,” came the answer. I shuffled and trudged, trying to visualize all the individuals who helped get me to Boston. But my mind only conjured images of brutal endurance: ragged souls wandering in the desert, parched survivors adrift at sea. The pain had turned inward and soon I ceased to hear the happy cheers from the crowds.
When I collapsed at the finish line, my body and spirit were shattered, but I felt a strange sense of euphoria and love for all the spectators and volunteers and medical workers who had all come to support us. They had come for us, the runners! How lovely. Everyone seemed cloaked in a soft blanket of kindness. The ashen-faced, shivering runners on the cots next to me must have wondered who this grinning madman was beside them wanting to fist bump anyone nearby.
At 2:50 p.m., when the two bombs exploded, I was driving from town with my mother and uncle for a family gathering on the outskirts of Boston.
Within minutes, our phones were ringing, texts were buzzing in, and when we arrived it was TV news replays of fiery blasts, falling runners, billowing smoke and bloody sidewalks. We had switched roles. The runners were now the spectators. The crowd was at the center of the world’s attention.
I quickly understood that my pain was nothing compared to the pain of a father who loses a child, a mother watching as her two sons’ legs are amputated, a loved one waiting outside surgery room doors.
Now, in the aftermath of the bombing, the accomplishments of more than 23,000 runners seem trivial when compared with the acts of heroism that followed the blasts.
Bystanders dropped their signs and ran into the smoke to care for the injured. Race volunteers carried broken bodies to ambulances. Medical workers turned the runners’ recovery tent at the finish line into a triage center, saving countless lives. Surgeons and nurses at local hospitals performed emergency surgeries throughout the afternoon and evening. The Boston police cordoned off a huge downtown crime scene and quickly ushered the multitudes to safe zones while they scoured the city for more dangers. Boston residents drove the streets, picking up stray runners exiled from their hotels, offering them food and shelter for the night. Terror had struck Boston, and the people responded with bravery and kindness.
Of the Boston bombings many will remember only the blood and the horrifying images etched in the collective consciousness.
Perhaps the horrendous, cowardly actions of April 15 will forever tarnish the Boston Marathon race. But Patriots Day 2013 revealed to me the true nature of heroism.
Geoffrey Land teaches world history and psychology at Paso Robles High School.