April 15, 2013

Why I Race—A Runner Responds to The Boston Marathon Tragedy

Today's tragic news of the bombing of the finish line of the Boston Marathon hit me hard. Obviously all Americans are stunned and saddened by yet another terrorist attack at home (even if we don't know right now who perpetrated this atrocity or why). But this attack was like a sucker punch to my psyche because I am a runner, and the Boston Marathon is the quintessential road race, the ultimate running challenge for which merely qualifying to participate is a badge of honor.

The Boston Marathon is not just the ultimate road race, it is also the ultimate expression of the paradox of running. Running is inherently an individual pursuit, a solo sport. Runners generally train alone, spending hours with nothing but their thoughts as they trip off miles in the early morning or twilight hours. Running provides personal records (PRs) as a goal, rather than the team victories offered by softball or basketball leagues. Runners finish their workouts with Powerade and yogurt, while golfers finish their rounds with beers and cigars.

I run for a lot of reasons. I run for my health. I run to stay fit. I run to relax. I run to get lost in my thoughts. I run to enjoy the weather and the great outdoors. I run to exercise and bond with my happy and manic dog.

Yet while running is a lone wolf pursuit, racing is a gathering of the wolf pack. There is nothing quite like the experience of a road race, joining together with hundreds or thousands of fellow runners and even greater numbers of volunteers and spectators to run, still as an individual, but also as a member of a community that shares your love of running.

Over the better part of two decades, I have run dozens of road races for a myriad of reasons. In my youth, I was competitive and raced to beat my friends, to compete in my age class, and to set PRs. More recently, after several years away from road races, I was lured back by the opportunity to share an experience with friends, and an excuse to visit places I had never seen. And in the past year, I have come to appreciate a rather spiritual element of racing, where pushing yourself as an individual can lead to a special bonding with friends.

In the wake of the Boston tragedy today, I have no special insights to offer, no easy solutions to sell, no political position to push. My gut is twisted in knots by news of dead and injured children, by photos of maimed and bleeding runners and spectators. To many Americans, today's events may be just another attack by terrorists or a delusional sociopath. But today's bombings hit me hard; even though I don't know any of the victims, I feel as if I knew them because of the special bond between runners and those who support them at road races. Those hurt by the bombs in Boston were the family and friends of some of us runners, which makes them the family and friends of all of us runners everywhere. The only way I know how to explain this feeling is to explain why I race.

* * * * *

I race for my friends who are on the verge of qualifying for Boston.
I race for my friends for whom just crossing the finish line is a victory.
I race for the young girl with the rainbow covered sign that says, "Go Mom! Run Fast! I Love You!"
I race for the little boy in his favorite athletic jersey high-fiving strangers while he waits to see his Daddy run past.
I race for the old couple holding hands in their lawn chairs as we zip past their home.
I race for neighborhood groups schlepping Gatorade and raking up cups.
I race for the ladies with the funny signs that say, "Run like a bear is chasing you!" or "Those shorts make your ass look fast."
I race for the local bands covering classic rock songs at every mile marker.
I race for the amateur DJ spinning tunes out of a minivan parked at the bottom of the Big Hill.
I race for the spectators cheering for hours for complete strangers, even the slow, balding, and pudgy old guys like me.
I race for the gals in the rainbow tutus, the dude in the banana suit, and all the running Elvises.
I race for the high school kids, the mothers pushing strollers, and the old men who all pass me in the last three miles.
I race for my boyfriend and dog who magically appear every couple of miles to yell or bark my name.
I race for my friends who sit for ages just to pop up and pace me for encouragement after a rough hill.
I race for that last half mile kick past cheering throngs of people who don't know me but want me to finish strong.
I race for the folks who hand out the medals, the water, the yogurt, and the beer in recognition of a successful run.
I race for the police officers who take a day off to direct traffic, and for the EMTs and doctors in the volunteer medical tents.
I race for my friends at the finish line who high five me and buy me pancakes and beer despite my being a sweaty mess.
I race because runners aren't meant to run alone.
I race because I'm part of the pack.

* * * * *

I'm registered to run half-marathons the next two weekends at the Marion Rotary Marathon for Shoes and at the Drake Relays / Hy-Vee Road Races. As planned, I'll be running to enjoy Iowa's spring weather, to compete against myself and the field, and to celebrate an accomplishment with my friends.

After today, I'll also be running in honor of those innocents who died or were injured in the Boston attacks. I don't believe in any simplistic "Run or the terrorists win" pablum. I just feel that the best way to honor today's victims—and heroes—is to keep the Great Race alive. To high five cheering kids. To do a little dance when a DJ pumps up the volume along the course. To give a thumbs up to random spectators with a funny sign or a local band belting out an upbeat tune. To spare a breath for a "Thank you, sir/ma'am" for the police officer holding traffic at a crossroad. To respond to neighborhood volunteers' calls of "Gatorade!" or "Water!" with a sincere "Bud Light?!?"

To simply keep the pack together to race another day.