I drove over the starting line of the Boston Marathon nearly every day for four years in high school, once on the 30 minute drive from my home to the little private school a few towns away, and then again on the way back. Each morning and afternoon I drove along the pastoral opening stretch of the marathon. I knew it was spring when the new starting line showed up, that Opening Day and April vacation were coming, that flowers would come up and that baseball season would soon begin for real—no more playing catch and fielding ground balls inside a gym. I knew that on Patriots Day I would have to find an alternate route to and from baseball practice.
Everyone out there knows this, because for 117 years the Boston Marathon took over the lives of everyone from Hopkinton to Boston on Patriots' Day. I knew it myself because the marathon was one of those sporting events, like the Olympics, that my grandmother loves. She loves the atmosphere, the openness of the event. The Boston marathon is, or was, one of the last truly open sporting events. After the events that happened yesterday, that will probably change.
I grew up a few miles from the starting line of the Boston Marathon, but I can't remember ever going to see the start of the race save one time with my grandmother. This was 17 years ago, when the marathon turned 100. I remember my grandmother explaining the significance to my two brothers and me, that we were there because this was important—important for Massachusetts, and especially for this part of the state, but also because of what it meant to all the people around us there at the start.
The starting point in Hopkinton looks more like an outdoor concert than a race. It's awash in people, with port-a-potties and lawn chairs strewn about and a blanket of buzzing noise over the whole thing. Runners congregate on the tiny square waiting their turn, stretching. Bystanders set up chairs and get watching spots hours before, around dawn or even before. Roads to and from the race are closed. Unless someone sets up camp, it's a long walk to the starting point. Runners begin lining up early; the crowd of them seems to go on forever, a sea of neon colors, short-shorts and funny looking hats with brims flipped up. Even at the start, nothing more than a metal barricade that could easily be pushed a side separates some of the world's elite athletes—those in the first packs—from revelers celebrating what feels like a national holiday. The ultra-focused Olympians, made superhuman by their discipline, were right there, right next to the rest of us.
Patriots' Day is, for non-marathoners, a celebration of discipline's purest, goofiest opposite. It's the final day of a long weekend and most people have the day off from work or school; the Red Sox start playing at 11, and people begin partying earlier than that. The celebrations are prosaic: spending time with friends and family, grilling food outside and doing nothing in particular. It is like the Fourth of July except it's not too hot and there is no waiting in endless traffic to get to and from Cape Cod. That, and the crucial difference that Patriots' Day's singular ritual is to stand outside and yell encouragement at people you don't know as they rush past. Patriots' Day is a celebration of Massachusetts history—there's a lot, of course, which you and every schoolkid knows—but also of the present, of the fact that Boston can still be the reason why tens of thousands of people show up in the morning, in Hopkinton, every year.
Boston is not only the state's capital, but it’s also the emotional capital—where the sports teams are and the source of a real local pride even for non-Bostonians. But the Boston Marathon includes more cities and towns than just Boston. It includes the towns on the way in, and the cities and towns (and states, and nations) that the runners come from. For all the history and the thousands of little overlapping dramas, despite the qualifying bar that limits the race to serious runners, the Boston Marathon is a race for everyone. It's a party anyone can join, and one that most people do.
It's also a drama that allows spectators to imagine themselves into any number of roles. Some dream of winning it, or just of running it; I dreamed of covering runners collapsing on Heartbreak Hill, reporting on the lead pack from the back of a truck, of finding some of the unique stories inside this 26.2-mile-long narrative. I had never hoped, or even bothered to fear, that I would end up chasing down stories from my home-office on marathon day because of some tragic event. I couldn't have dreamt it, and I wouldn't have.
And yet I did, because it happened and because it's my job, and because the horror superseded my day's assignment, which was taking pictures of famous people shooting a movie in Worcester. I thought, as I went about working the phone and running down this nightmare, of the days I spent driving that first stretch of the marathon. I thought of how I associated the race with my grandmother, and of my grandmother, and of all the intersecting affections between she and I and the race and our home. I thought of everyone watching, together; I thought of the small heroes running the race for one cause or another, whether it be research towards a cure for cancer, juvenile diabetes, AIDS, or to raise money for a best friend suffering from one of those. It made me wonder if this day will ever be the same. I thought of history and the future, how we'll remember it and what we'll celebrate—people helping, people trying, people going on. It's a lot to hold in mind, all that horror and hope. Marathon Monday has always been more than a day, has always contained multitudes. It all suddenly feels like too much.
Image via Wikimedia Commons/Pinswept.