When called on to comfort and reassure communities stricken by tragedy—be it manmade or act of God—American politicians often turn to sports metaphors. The marathon in particular lends itself to declarations of perseverance in the face of disaster: to collectively push through the “wall,” knowing that on the other side, “someone will be there to cheer us on and pick us up if we fall.”
But then two young men blew up homemade bombs at the world’s most celebrated marathon. And the metaphorical became literal.
At the interfaith memorial service held in Boston last Thursday, President Obama told the victims of the Boston Marathon attacks gathered at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, as well as those dozens who remained hospitalized, “As you begin this long journey of recovery, your city is with you, your commonwealth is with you. Your country is with you.” And following crude and callous acts of hate in which many lost legs, Obama promised, “we will all be with you as you learn to stand, and walk and yes, run again.”
Boston’s large community of running stores, clubs and teams (my own included) interpreted Obama’s words as a call to literally help victims “run again.” Many have already planned 5Ks and other running events to remember the victims, and to raise money for medical costs, specifically rehabilitation and prosthetics. Boston-area runners want to do what we can. And what we can do is hopefully help at least a few of the victims who want to, and are able, line up in Hopkinton at the start of the marathon next April.
Perhaps this is trivial compared to the carnage of Marathon Monday, the death of three spectators, and the maiming of dozens more. Yet runners fervently believe that running is therapeutic, a way to mend and strengthen the mind, body, and soul. For runners, the act of running, and the act of helping others run seems like the most natural of responses to this tragedy.
We will have time (and need time) to analyze the specific religious and political implications of the bombings and their aftermath. Last week, as the media and much of the country clamored for details, facts were hard to find, information was misinterpreted or mistaken. Even as investigative reporting emerges, we are left with more questions than answers. Even as we seek to understand the attacks, we cannot yet fully comprehend motive, or the role Islam played, or how the policy debates intersecting the tragedy—from immigration and gun control to terrorism, domestic and foreign—will play out.
Though I spend my days studying religion and I live in the Boston area, like most people, I have little insight into the crimes. For now, I only have a runner’s reflection to offer, a personal response to the events of last week.
First, let me talk about maps.
Runners love maps. They love making them, plotting their courses, measuring their miles. Because marathons especially involve logging so much time on the roads, for marathoners making a map becomes a pre-run ritual, as important as filling water bottles, and stretching hamstrings.
The events of last week occurred in many neighborhoods and suburbs of Greater Boston. From the marathon’s iconic finish on Boylston Street where the horrific week began, to MIT’s Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center, where MIT police officer Sean Collier was gunned down. From the working-class East Cambridge home of the alleged bombers, to leafier Watertown, where one Tsarnaev brother lost his life, and the other evaded capture for almost a full day by hiding in a boat. The act of mapping the events became a convenient shorthand that many news outlets used to explain the geography and chronology of a story unfolding in real time, and across the city.
I recognize these maps because I’ve run them. I used to live one street over from the Tsarnaev brothers in Cambridge, without knowing that within a hundred yards of our front door, terror was being contemplated, if not planned. These days my runs often take me to MIT where I begin the most Boston of all Boston runs along the Charles River, and where the owner of the car the brothers hijacked managed to escape. Preparing for my last Boston Marathon, I often stretched my long runs into Watertown and down Arsenal Street, which became the massive staging ground for the house-to-house search that occurred last Friday.
While my map is unique to me, all residents of this city have their own maps; each one of us has, to borrow again from Obama—himself a onetime resident of this area—a “personal” connection to the events. Since last week, my running friends and I have spoken about our own maps. But we’ve connected to others by finding the places where our maps overlap.
And running has taken on a new meaning since last Monday. When a running event is attacked, running itself becomes an act of defiance. It is a political expression that rejects the fear that terror creates, fear that would keep us inside on our couches and glued to news of more terror, avoiding our running shoes stacked next to the front door.
A group of Boston College students understood this. Last week, Dani Cole and Michael Padulsky announced on Facebook plans for “the Last Five”—a reference to the last five miles of the marathon route from Boston College on Chestnut Hill to the finish line. The event was intended to honor the victims, and to provide for at least a few of the five thousand runners who could not finish on Monday a chance to complete their race. “We decide when our marathon ends,” became the event’s motto. Close to 18,000 signed up, surpassing the organizers’ wildest expectations, and for now, surpassing a very wounded Boston’s ability to provide adequate security for such an event. Last Friday, even before the citywide lockdown, organizers agreed to postpone the event.
Still, after the lockdown was lifted, Boston runners reclaimed their streets in less organized groups. With Saturday and Sunday-morning runs, they marked the end of one of the most terrible weeks in the city’s history by running well-known routes. But these routes—these maps—have new meaning, especially where they cross the places where last week’s tragedies occurred. Makeshift memorials have sprung up at MIT and at the marathon finish line. Certainly more permanent memorials are to come. On Monday, when FBI officials handed control of Boylston Street over to the City of Boston, they presented Boston’s longtime Mayor Tom Menino with the American flag that has flown at the finish line since the attacks.
And time too has changed. I made sure that my run this past Monday coincided with the official, statewide moment of silence at 2:50 p.m., marking the time when the first bomb went off on April 15. Called to attention to do so by news stations playing in many of our ear buds, I, along with a handful of runners along the Charles River, stopped our runs as bells tolled from area churches.
The politicization of last week’s tragedies, the rush to find fault in one interpretation of a religion or another, has certainly already begun. And over the next year, it will certainly continue. Still, many residents of this city and beyond responded to the most destructive of deeds with acts of creativity and generosity.
And for many, that act was simply to go for a run, and promise to help others to run again.
Max Perry Mueller is a contributing editor to Religion & Politics. Follow him @maxperrymueller.