The Boston Marathon lost its innocence, but not its spirit

The marathon is a globally unifying event, a universal symbol of perseverance in the face of adversity. Photo: Honoring the Boston Marathon AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

NEW YORK, April 16, 2013 — The 117th Boston Marathon descended into tragedy yesterday when two explosions from home-made bombs killed at least three people, wounded at least 176 and left 17 in critical condition.

The attack was meant to deafen our resolve, demoralize us, to terrorize us. But for what purpose? We don’t know. Who knows why hate marauds the collective streets of the world, perpetrating unspeakable evils.


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That’s what the streets of Boston symbolized yesterday: the streets of the world. It’s what the streets of every major marathon come to mean on race day. The marathon is a globally unifying event, a universal symbol of perseverance in the face of adversity.

It couldn’t be truer now. 

The Boston Marathon is the oldest annual marathon in the world. Every year since 1897, the world’s best at the 26.2-mile distance have taken to the city and surrounding suburban streets. And every year, the race runs on Patriot’s Day, a Massachusetts and Maine holiday that commemorates the opening battles of the American Revolution.

It’s an American event almost as old as Major League Baseball, the Triple Crown of horse racing, and the modern Olympics themselves.


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But as much as it’s an American event, it’s a global event. Runners from 56 U.S. states and territories compete alongside citizens of 96 countries around the world. As the flags of the world lining the Boston Marathon course showed, it wasn’t just Boston that was attacked.

It was all of us. 

Marathons are unifying events; they bring people together from all around the world, near and far. Friends and families come together to take part in the race too. Spouses run together or cheer each other on, kids root for their parents, friends come out to support other friends, many of them flying long distances to be a part of it all. In so many ways, the marathon is a community event, encompassing both local communities and the global running community on race day.

The attack on the Boston Marathon is an especially devastating blow to the running community, which prides itself on being an ambassador of goodwill. Runners in the U.S. raise billions for charity every year. The top 30 race fundraising programs alone raised $1.68 billion for charities in 2012, according to the Run Walk Ride Fundraising Council. That doesn’t include smaller programs that raise less than $9 million per year or funds generated by athletes outside the U.S. At the 2013 Boston Marathon, 20 percent of the race’s entrants were expected to raise a total of $11 million for 35 charities.

But in situations like these, there is no “especially.” We are all runners, we are all Bostonians when tragedy strikes. Just as after September 11, 2001, we were all New Yorkers. In the face of an attack on a holiday that celebrates our very freedom and during a sporting event that celebrates perseverance and the triumph of human spirit, we all feel the sting of this tragedy.

Peace is written in front of the Boston home of 8-year-old Martin Richard, who was killed in the April 15, 2013 bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Much was made of “The Spirit of the Marathon” in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and the cancelation of the 2012 ING New York City Marathon. I wrote about it myself in a column about the event. It’s a phrase that captures what it means to participate in a marathon, as a runner or a spectator, and what the marathon means to the world.

The phrase has inspired a movie, a museum exhibit, a book, and millions of runners worldwide.

“The Spirit of the Marathon” is the idea that the marathon isn’t simply another athletic feat, but an international event with a unifying spirit. That it’s a source of inspiration to millions of people who strive to better themselves, and in many cases, better the world. It’s an event that simultaneously celebrates national pride and global unity, an event that embodies perseverance in the face of adversity.

And it couldn’t be truer now. To attack the marathon is to attack the human spirit itself.

As a runner, I’ve had the privilege of completing six marathons. I’m not yet fast enough to qualify for Boston. Only 10 percent of all marathoners attain that feat. But I’ve covered the race as a reporter, along with dozens of other events, interviewing pros, charity runners and spectators alike.

I’ve also cheered friends across their own finish lines in many other races.

What strikes me every time I run, cheer or report is the spirit of every one of those runners and every single one of the spectators who line a marathon course. Watching the ING New York City Marathon as a spectator is what inspired me to run my first marathon, largely because the spirit of the fans along the course was so rousing.

Spectators are the unsung heroes of running. They make signs, ring cowbells and cheer themselves hoarse for complete strangers shouting out names on running singlets, countries emblazoned on jerseys and encouragement to go all those miles. Every race I attend, the people lining the course move me profoundly. 

To target and punish them for their spirit is depraved in a way I can’t even fathom, because what makes running an extraordinary sport is its universality. That person cheering could be a spectator one day and a runner the next. Amateurs run alongside professionals in a way that exists in no other sport. Football fans don’t get to play in NFL games alongside the pros. But in marathons, weekend warriors toe the line with elites from around the world, running the same streets and the same courses at the same, albeit much slower, time.

So it’s common in our sport to move from the sidelines to the racecourse like I did. The sport’s popularity boom over the last few years is a testament to that fact. A record 13.9 million people finished a road race in the U.S. in 2011, compared with just 5.2 million in 1991, according to Running USA. That same year, 518,000 people finished a marathon in the U.S., compared to 224,000 in 1990.

Part of that popularity boom has been because running is so accessible. You don’t need fancy equipment. You don’t even need shoes. You just need the will to put one foot in front of another, no matter your size, speed, age, or gender.

However, it was that very accessibility that put lives in danger on Monday.

How do you secure a 26.2-mile course through public streets? Even in the face of tight airport security, we know all too well that some threats manage to squeak through despite our best efforts. Many stadiums, like the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, scan spectators with metal detectors. Sure, you could scan the 27,000 runners in Boston who enter the starting corrals, but how do you scan the fluid mass of 500,000 spectators who line the course. For a race like the ING New York City Marathon, it’s a herculean task with 2 million spectators moving about the city.

The organizers of the Virgin London Marathon have already announced that they are reviewing their security plans for the race slated to take place on April 21.

No doubt, organizers for the rest of the World Marathon Majors — the professional race series that includes Boston, Chicago and New York in the U.S., London and Berlin in Europe, and Tokyo in Japan — will hold meetings in the coming weeks to assess security for their own races. It’s a factor that the Majors and many other large marathons around the world, like the Marine Corps Marathon in Arlington, Va., and Washington, D.C., will have to address in the future.

But it can’t stop races from going on.

The bombers’ actions were an act of cowardice. But running a marathon is an act of bravery. Cheering for marathoners is an act of solidarity. It’s an act that celebrates the streets and the people of the world as our own.

Our sport has lost its innocence. But it hasn’t lost its spirit.

In all sincerity, my thoughts and prayers are with the victims of the Boston Marathon attack: the innocents who died, who were injured, who witnessed it all, and the family and friends of everyone who has been affected. My heart is with you. And I’m grateful to everyone who has stepped in to aid victims of the attack. You are truly heroes.

Karla Bruning is host of On The Run, New York Road Runners’ web show about running. She has completed six marathons, two triathlons and trains with the New York Harriers. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.


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Karla Bruning

Karla Bruning is the host of On The Run, a TV and web show from New York Road Runners. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, American Athlete Magazine, RunnersWorld.com, Active.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Orlando Sentinel, and two dozen other outlets including ESPN2, Universal Sports and ABC in New York. She and her work have also received mentions from The New York Times, Runner's World, Fox Sports, Canadian Running, The Baltimore Sun, and PBS among others. She also covered the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver for The Washington Times.

 

A former Newsweek reporter, Karla has won a Fulbright scholarship for American journalists and reporting grants from the Scripps Howard, Carnegie and Knight Foundations. Karla holds degrees from Amherst College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

 

When not pounding the pavement as a reporter, Karla is pounding the pavement as a runner. She has completed seven marathons, four triathlons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. She is a writer, editor, and on-camera reporter dedicated to covering the sport of running from a runner’s perspective. Find Karla on RunKarlaRun.com, Twitter@KBruning, Facebook and Google+.

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