What It Means to Miss Marathon Day in Boston

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One of the best races in the world has been postponed for the first time in its hundred-and-twenty-three-year history.

Jerry Noonan ran his first Boston Marathon in 1985, and his second in 2003. In 2016, he joined the runners as the race wound through Wellesley, slipping in alongside his daughter to pace her through the last thirteen miles. He grew up outside of Boston, went to college in Boston, and still lives in Boston. The marathon has grown with him: there were more than five thousand runners in 1985, twenty thousand in 2003, and more than thirty thousand official entrants today. But the course follows the same physically punishing 26.2 miles—through the suburbs, up Heartbreak Hill, and into downtown—as it has since 1924. (Before then, it fell a couple miles short.) A competitive qualification time is still required for the vast majority of runners. The race always falls on the third Monday in April, Patriots’ Day—or Marathon Day, as some call it. Schools are closed, even in a normal year, and the bars are filled. The Red Sox play an early game at Fenway.

In 2013, Noonan was walking with his wife from Fenway, where they had just watched the Red Sox beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 3–2, when they decided to head to the finish line and watch the runners come in. They were a few blocks away, at Newbury Street and Fairfield, when they heard the sound of two explosions. The crowd turned and surged toward them, running in fear from the finish line. A pair of bombs had gone off. Three people were killed, two hundred and eighty-one injured. Another man, an M.I.T. police officer named Sean A. Collier, was killed during the manhunt, which lasted for four days. Eventually, the perpetrators—two young brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—were tracked down. There was a chase, a gun battle. The boys threw pipe bombs and an I.E.D. made out of a pressure cooker at the police. Tamerlan was fatally injured; his younger brother escaped. A shelter-in-place order was issued for the area. Finally, Dzhokhar was discovered, hiding inside a boat in someone’s yard. The following year, Noonan and his wife went to the marathon again. They stood at the finish line. There was “a lot of trepidation,” he said. But people still went. “It was a time to take back the city,” he told me.

Noonan thought of the bombing and its aftermath last month, when social-distancing restrictions were issued in Boston—as they have been around the country—owing to the coronavirus crisis. The manhunt was his “only comparable experience,” he said, for the way that life has been so disrupted. Of course, this threat is very different. There is no corollary for the new sense of siege, and for what it requires—not togetherness but distance. The weekend after he learned that the Boston Marathon had been rescheduled for September 14th, Noonan went running along the Charles River. It’s the first time the date has been changed in the hundred-and-twenty-three-year history of the race. Noonan came back from his run and said to his wife, “I can’t imagine spring in Boston without Marathon Day.”

In addition to offering an excuse to drink too much and yell at strangers, sports provide a kind of social circadian rhythm. They are an ordering mechanism, a way to set the clock. Every baseball fan can tell you the psychic significance of Opening Day. Every swimmer and gymnast knows the real meaning of the phrase “every four years.” In Boston, the marathon is an annual reset. High-level competitive running is a niche pastime, to say the least; most people don’t think about it the rest of the year. But for one day, in Boston, it seems like the only thing that matters.

The race has an élite field—it is one of six marathons around the globe that attract the world’s top runners. But for amateurs, too, there is a high competitive standard; simply qualifying is an achievement. Ruth Perkins, a running coach in Puyallup, Washington, described it to me as “the Olympics for the average runner.” Tom Daniels, who has run nineteen marathons, including all six majors (Boston, New York, Chicago, Tokyo, London, and Berlin), called it “a marathoner’s Mecca,” adding, “It’s the hardest. Not necessarily the largest, but the oldest, traditional, most brutally physical of the six.” What makes the biggest difference, he said, is the crowd. “The whole city is a marathoner that day,” he told me.

In 2018, when Sarna Becker ran it, the conditions were monsoon-like. Becker had run track for Stanford and was still an ambitious competitive runner. That day, though, was a slog. Around mile five, she started planning her strategy for dropping out of the race. Then, moments later, she caught up with a runner she’d been trailing, and they started talking. They decided to run it together. At mile eight, a spectator gave her a dry pair of Red Sox gloves, and she pulled them over her raw, cold hands. She told me that, when she reached the finish line, after one of the slowest races of her life, she thought, I’m at peace with putting my racing career to rest. She called it one of the most memorable experiences of her life.

When the postponement of this year’s race was announced, it was a blow for racers, of course—all of whom had been training for months, and some for much longer. “A lot of my athletes feel like this work is kind of wasted,” Perkins said. “I keep reminding them that fitness is always valuable.” Roger Smith, who was set to run his first Boston Marathon this year, told me, “Instead of running twenty miles this weekend, my four buddies ran thirteen at a slow pace, talking about Boston the whole time.” Initially, it was a relief to many runners that the race had been rescheduled rather than cancelled, but the logistics looked complicated: the Boston, Berlin, London, Chicago, and New York City marathons are now scheduled to be run in a six-week span this fall. Some élite racers hoping to run in Boston and also another of these courses were now going to have to choose between them. And even mid-September has begun to seem optimistic for an event that brings thirty thousand runners from around the world together, with somewhere between half a million and a million spectators.

Part of what makes a marathon special, after all, is the spontaneous intimacy that it generates. The enduring image of the sport may be a lonely runner on an empty road, but marathons are communal. Runners aren’t separated by lanes, as they are on a track. They move in masses, and within those packs they dodge and draft. Spectators aren’t always neatly cordoned off—they don’t sit in assigned seats, and they don’t have tickets. They jostle with one another. They reach into the race, to offer high fives or cups of water. Of all sporting events, a major marathon, open to all runners and spectators, may be one of the hardest and slowest to bring back.

And yet the Boston Marathon is the one that, for me, has continued to seem, despite everything, just around the corner. Part of it is that I live four miles from the finish line. Another part of it is that running is one of the few things from my former life, which ended in early March, that we are still allowed to do. Every morning, I head out. I wear a neck gaiter to pull up over my nose and mouth, and take less travelled routes, and worry about drafts and wind currents and keeping distance, and whether it is really safe to run. But once my feet find their rhythm I lose myself in it, and for a little while I feel a sense of progress.

It has helped me to think of the tragic period we are in now as a marathon, and not as a rupture in time. It’s an odd sort of marathon. We are still near the start, most likely, but no one knows how far it is to the end. The days blend into one another, and the weeks, and now the months. Monday is Patriots’ Day, but there will be no game at Fenway; Opening Day hasn’t happened yet. The schools were already closed, and the bars are empty. There aren’t any strangers around to yell at. Time passes, whether or not runners come down Boylston Street; spring has arrived, even though snow flurries were falling when I ran last Thursday. The story goes that the first marathoner, in ancient Greece, collapsed and died; the point of the race is to win, but it is also, still, to survive. My mind keeps turning back to the race in 2014, the year after the bombing, and to the crowd at the finish line, who believed that it was important to show up. Now the important thing is for people to stay away. But it’s part of the same collective project.

A Guide to the Coronavirus

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  • How pandemics change history.

by Louisa Thomas newyorker.com