Lacing Up After the Tragedy in Boston

Boston Marathon runners embrace at the barricaded entrance near the finish line. (CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters)
Boston Marathon runners embrace at the barricaded entrance near the finish line. (CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters)
When I got home from the office Monday, I did what I do most days: I changed into running clothes and put on my sneakers, readying myself for a few miles to alleviate the daily stress. Of course, Monday wasn’t like any other day.

I had spent the morning watching the live stream of the Boston Marathon on my computer, sneaking glances in between e-mails and conference calls as runners made their way from Hopkinton to Boston. These guys run fast, I thought. And unlike more intricate sports, running is something almost everyone can comprehend. Few of us can run a five-minute mile, but nearly all of us can relate to the fun and excitement of running a race.

Pride, excitement, joy
A few years ago I became an amateur long-distance runner. I had run a 10-mile race and I loved the experience, so I thought I’d try to run a half-marathon — 13.1 miles. I was running alongside a close friend who was simultaneously training for a marathon, and he encouraged me to consider joining him in the full. Intimidated at first, I took him up on his challenge, finishing my first marathon in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2011, and my second in Burlington, Vermont, last May. Together, we’ll begin training this summer for the Chicago Marathon in October.

Marathons are celebratory occasions. The finish line, in particular, is an atmosphere of pride, excitement, and along with sore legs and sweat-stung eyes, joy. In many races, elite athletes who defy physical limitations run with individuals who have overcome tremendous personal challenges, some raising funds to cure diseases or alleviate suffering. The vast majority of runners are everyday folk who set a seemingly impossible goal for themselves, who trained hard for several months, and who spend a few hours proving to themselves that they, too, are capable of physical greatness. All of these people inspire, and the half-million or so spectators who line the streets in Boston each Patriots’ Day are testament to the impact of the marathon on participants and spectators alike.

I grew up in Massachusetts, where the Boston Marathon is part of the state’s sports-obsessed culture. Last year, I stood with thousands of others, cheering on the runners, eager to support my friend who had introduced me to long-distance running as he completed his first Boston Marathon.

When I read the news about the explosions on Twitter — that two blasts had caused injuries near the finish line — I could immediately picture the scene. Last year, I had stood just one block from Monday’s explosion. The graphic images pouring in from cell phone cameras and professional video filled in the gruesome details.

Which of my friends are running? Who is watching? Are they safe? I didn’t have any answers to these questions. My voice broke during a meeting. Coworkers who know of my New England roots checked in. I was confused. Being so far away, in Washington, I felt powerless. Like everyone else, I asked, Why?

Spirituality of running
During long runs, those 15-, 18-, 20-mile adventures that are the most important part of marathon training, I sometimes pray. When the music gets stale and the podcasts end, I turn off my iPod. I might recite prayers I’ve known since childhood or mouth decades of the rosary to distract myself from the pain in my legs. Often, I focus on the scenery around me, reminding myself that I’m but a small part of creation. And other times, I make it a point to smile at others running by me, passing on a bit of encouragement or looking for a friendly face to offer even a small moment of motivation.

I love running, and I love writing about the spirituality of running. It never occurred to me that I would one day write about terror and running. The two just don’t make sense together. “More on the Boston Marathon Bombing,” was the headline on NPR’s hourly news update when I walked into my house yesterday. It sounded so ridiculous.

I imagine that many of those running Boston Monday had their own spiritual or meditative practices helping them as they approached the finish line as well. As their excitement and jubilation turned to fear and terror, I have to believe there were moments of grace, too. Police and medical personnel rushed to help the fallen, many thrown to the ground and remaining there in shock.

In the coming days, details will emerge. Whoever did this acted out of incomprehensible hate. Images of runners with tears on their faces, of bloody and broken bodies, will haunt us. We won’t be able to understand why.

As I laced up my sneakers Monday afternoon, I choked up a bit. Many of those suffering in hospitals in Boston tied their shoes the same way, readying themselves for what should have been a day of personal glory and city-wide excitement. That was shattered.

As I headed out, I queued up a chant that would guide my meditation for the next five miles:

Spirit of love, enfold and teach us;
Spirit of peace, rest deep within;
Spirit of change, transform and heal us;
Spirit divine; Spirit divine.