This year, my marathon Monday began exactly the same as last year: pack our lunches and books, watch the series of starts from mobility impaired through the elite men and first wave, and then head to the train station for the first leg of the journey. As with last year, my husband had left well before to get to the shuttle bus that would take him to his start in Hopkinton hours later. I wouldn’t see him until he passed us on the course somewhere in the latter miles.
As I pulled into the parking lot at the train station, Space Oddity played on the radio, and suddenly, tears were running down my cheeks. Only the briefest moment, and the strangest prompt–a song about an astronaut lost in the abyss of space–but the lyrics would stay with me all through the day. I hummed the song over and over, first the cheery bits, “This is ground control to Major Tom, you’ve really made the grade. And the papers want to know whose shirt you wear…” but then always the part when things go wrong too. It fast became the soundtrack to the things I remembered over and over–the police officer who told us to “just go home. People got blown up in there,” the sudden flood of texts and phone calls coming in to my phone, my uncertainty about where Christophe might be, and where the bombs. “Can you hear me, Major Tom?” over and over.
The train ride on Monday was just the same as last year, down to our sandwiches and the appearance of the cheerful man with developmental delays who patrols the cars each year, yelling out, “Going to Boston! Patriots’ Day! Some people want to see the marathon…Some people want to see the Red Sox…”
Last year was the first time I ever went to the marathon, though all my life I’ve watched it on tv every year. Last year was the first time my husband ever ran a marathon, or at least, he tried to. He had to turn back two miles before the finish line. Last year was the first time my sons ever saw me genuinely scared.
After last year’s marathon, there was the chaos that reigned around Boston for a few days, and then the fatigue, and the sadness. There were so many people who wanted to know what they could do to help us, but we hadn’t been physically harmed and hadn’t witnessed any of the worst of it either. We just went back to work, Christophe quietly picked up his finisher’s medal in the city a few days later, and our older son had nightmares for a few weeks. There was noise swirling all around us–calls for justice, cries of mourning, rousing renditions of the national anthem at a Bruins game–but I felt like the world had gone quiet the moment I stood by the side of the road between mile markers 21 and 22 and heard the news that there’d been a bombing. My whole body stoppered up, I began walking the boys against the flow of the crowd toward the city, the way their father had run twenty minutes before. So far out, we heard no sirens, and as the streets emptied and a low cloud ceiling moved in casting everything in gray, we stood our vigil by the medical station.
It seemed like that quiet that fell, that muffled woolen isolation that enveloped me while I waited for Christophe, stayed with me the whole year. He had decided to give the race another try, so the winter hours were consumed with his long absences for training runs, and my long hours home with the boys. The public clamor began in earnest a couple weeks before this year’s race and built through the one year anniversary memorials up to race day itself while I withdrew from it steadily. The marathon had never really left us, after all, and now, it was only the rest of the world’s attention turning back to us.
After our subway ride, we came up the steps onto the street into full daylight and a cacophony of sound. Taking up our position at mile 23, I began yelling for the runners, and all that freighted memory evaporated. I cheered myself hoarse. I cheered until waves of nausea choked me. I called out every name I could read emblazoned on a shirt or numbered bib. All the Michaels, the Sarahs, the Kates and Katies, and Vivek, and Paco, Paola and Akash, and Koji, carrying two tiny flags, one American, one Japanese, and a lumbering Asian man who slid me a glance and wide smile when I called out “Dong Dong!” which he had markered across his chest. There were the given names and the chosen names, the joke names and the serious names. I called out for V-Money and Nudey and Tranny. I called them by whatever true name they had chosen for us to call out, hoping it might summon them back from themselves in those hard middle miles.
As the hours went by, the runners graded from sinewed speedsters to the slower sorts, and finally, to the halt and the lame. But the crowds don’t diminish, not in spirit or in numbers. When a man stopped and bowed down, hands on his knees, his face a rictus of pain, the gathered spectators on both sides of the street raised a roar so loud it seemed to hit him physically. When he straightened and began limping down the course again, our cry of triumph set him laughing as he went, though the pain was, undoubtedly, undiminished.
A runner in orange came to high five our knot of screaming strangers and said, “I love all of you guys! Thank you!” Runners hearing me call their names sometimes seemed to jerk awake, and would smile, or flash a peace sign, or maybe muster only a nod. But we were doing, together, what defines this race and gives it its legend. We were staying to lift up, to ferry onward, to praise and to celebrate even the slowest among them. After Christophe ran past us, I knew we wouldn’t get to the finish line to see him cross, but I also knew he was heading into a gauntlet many rows of people deep who would bear him over that line with the sheer force of their will, and he would cross with our tribe of runners, who would bodily carry him, if it came to that. I was not afraid for him, this second time watching his back recede toward the finish line.
The race had been reclaimed and restored to its rightful possessors–the runners, and the strangers who see them through. Last year’s race was fractured at its end. Runners couldn’t finish, were set adrift in the streets. Those cheering throngs who would see them through were splintered apart, body and soul. It was an extraordinary and a terrible thing. But by the end of this year’s race, though there are still the unhealable wounds, the race itself, the organism that is a ribbon of runners stretching thousands deep, and the flanking ribbons of all of us there to see them run, to bear them up, was alive again, and it was only the marathon once again. It was only the ordinary marathon: thousands of people helping thousands of other people do only the ordinary, extraordinary thing.