not in our stars, but in ourselves
4/20, a day celebrated quite differently in other parts of the country, was Marathon Monday here in Boston. It’s taken me a couple of days to formulate my thoughts (such as they are) on the race – hence the lack of topicality of this post. Forgive me if you can.
For you international types, or for those of you who aren’t aware of running culture, the Boston Marathon is a big, big deal. Of course, any marathon is a big deal. 26.2 miles is nothing to sneeze at, and it takes months of preparation – physically and mentally. Boston’s is generally regarded as one of the toughest courses in the world, because there are lots of hills – and an especially difficult uphill slog in Newton, aptly known as Heartbreak Hill, after runners already have 20 miles behind them. (Fun etymological note: “Massachusetts” means something like “near the great hill.” We don’t have mountains, but we sure do have hills.) Since the Marathon effectively shuts down an entire swath of the state – to say nothing of the City of Boston itself, where a last couple of miles play themselves out in winding streets – it always takes place on Patriot’s Day, the third Monday of April. Patriot’s Day is meant to commemorate the beginning of the Revolutionary War, with the Battle of Lexington and Concord, but it’s all about the Marathon nowadays. Most people have the day off, whether they work in the private or public sector. We all stay home, watch the elite runners finish in a couple of hours, get a little drunk, and have a good time.
I hope you’re beginning to appreciate how deeply ingrained this Marathon is in Massachusetts souls. It’s not just a race; it’s the best race. It’s not just a tradition; it’s a tradition tied to our very identity as the birthplace of the American Revolution. It’s not just a day off; it’s a day when the entire state is doing the same thing, watching the same feats of human endurance, cheering for them along every mile of the route or just marveling at it all on TV.
I’ve spoken before about how doubly horrifying the Marathon bombings were: horrifying because, of course, they were horrifying acts of violence deliberately carried out against innocent civilians; but also horrifying because Boston is, despite having a bit of an attitude problem, usually a peaceful and uneventful city. There’s more to it than even that, I realized this year. I was going to a friend’s apartment to watch the elite runners just before they turned onto Boylston Street for the very last leg of the race. To get there, I had to go through numerous police barricades, and one bag inspection; and while I’m sure security wasn’t exactly lax before the bombings, it’s downright paranoid now. I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just unsettling, and sad, and strange to see this police state on a day that’s nominally about a war for freedom. I know, I know, welcome to America. It didn’t used to be like that, though, and that’s what the Tsarnaevs took away two years ago: not only four lives, not only hundreds of people’s limbs and hearing and mobility, but the Marathon’s unsullied status as a symbol of all the best about Massachusetts and about Boston especially. It’s still a symbol of all of that – but it’s forever tainted by tragedy.
Ironically, or appropriately, the sentencing phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial began yesterday. This means that, while we’re all coming back to work and runners are slowly beginning to attempt limping around once more, we get to see and hear the prosecution’s efforts to present “aggravating” circumstances – which is to say, especially damning facets of what he did, damning enough that the prosecution hopes to prove the death penalty is the appropriate sentence. (The defense, which was pretty quiet during the first part of the trial, is still pretty quiet. The speculation is that they’ll let the prosecution finish completely, without cross-examining any of the prosecution’s witnesses, and save all their thunder for explaining the “mitigating” circumstances.) The upshot is that we’re seeing and hearing about some especially gruesome injuries and deaths. There was new footage on the news last night – and I won’t link to it, but I’m sure you can find it – of the jostling and panic in the crowd during one of the bombings. It’s upsetting. I can’t imagine how upsetting it is for the jurors to see things like that, all day long, and to listen as victims (and families of victims) recount their excruciating pain. Needless to say, I can imagine even less how it must feel for those testifying to have to relive that pain – which they surely must have been reliving every day for the past two years anyway. It must be traumatic for those who were there, and traumatizing for those who weren’t.
Basically, I wish the timing were different. I wish this weren’t happening just after Marathon Monday. I wish we could begin to try to have our holiday back. Maybe we’ll get there someday, but for now, the wound is still very fresh.
Well. That’s a lot of doom and gloom. To end on a lighter note, sort of, here’s something hilarious for you all to consider: our Marathon course – iconic, legendary, world-famous – is too tough for the Olympics. If Boston wins the 2024 Olympics bid, we’ll have to whip up some sort of alternate course, one with far fewer hills. (My cousin, who minored in Classics, scoffed at this requisite flatness: “Um, I’m pretty sure they had to run up hills in the Battle of Marathon.”) Isn’t that just too rich? Besides our sports teams, we are notable in athletic circles for our Marathon. This, you would think, would be one of the primary reasons to consider Boston for a summer Olympics – but no, sorry, that’ll have to change too. Hysterical.