If you’ve never run in, or even merely attended, the Boston Marathon, there are some unequivocal facts you should know. First, it’s an extremely open event, in the sense that the only thing separating you — well, you and a couple hundred thousand of your fellow spectators — from the planet’s most elite runners is usually nothing. Sometimes, it’s one of those easily moveable steel police barricades, sometimes it’s a piece of race tape, sometimes it’s the stern hand of a volunteer. But sometimes it’s nothing, and people are always running from one side of the course to the other. You have to time it like you’re running across the street in Rome. Runners come by out of nowhere and you don’t want to be the guy who accidentally tripped the lead runner when he was a mile or two from history.
Secondly, it’s more or less a mammoth, citywide party. The Red Sox play their annual Patriots’ Day game at 11:05 am, timed specifically so that three hours later, when the game ends, the crowd might file out to Kenmore Square and see a huge pack of participants run by on tired legs toward Copley Square and the finish line. A lot of people have a few drinks, which often leads to jokes about how easy it would be for any old spectator to just tackle one of the lead runners at any time. But it never happened, because who would want to mess up the Boston Marathon? It was too much fun. You wouldn’t think standing there and watching people run — I mean, think about how that sounds — could be so much damn fun, but it always was.
As a student at Boston University, I watched four Boston Marathons come and go, and I can think of no better representation of the better angels of a jovial, sports-obsessed city. It’s athleticism pushed to its boundaries, and it produces a camaraderie that seems illogical, because unlike at any other event, no one’s rooting against anyone. There’s no confrontational edge to the rowdiness. The best part of this manifests as rooters make reference to the runners’ shirts or shorts as they slog on. For example, if one runner is wearing a Dodgers shirt or headband, you would hear endless variations on GO DODGERS! and comments of that ilk, only to hear equally rousing cheers of support for the San Francisco Giants if the next person along were sporting their colors. Again, it’s so much damn fun.
Now, that has perhaps been irrevocably turned on its head. Charlie Pierce cautions, wisely, that “obviously, nobody knows anything yet,” but we surely know that at least two explosions went off near the finish line today, that the police are openly calling them “bombs,” that multiple people have died, that people’s limbs were blown away, that thousands of runners were being held back short of the finish line, and that reports of more devices continue to surface.
Of course, Patriots’ Day this year also happened to fall on Jackie Robinson Day, and now what had been an emotional reminder that intolerance and ignorance could be triumphed over by feats of courage has turned into a grisly scene, likely at the hands of someone intolerant and ignorant.
Like thousands of others, I worried like hell about my brother and sister in the city until I finally heard from them. Same goes for an old BU friend who was running in the race — I’ve never been so happy to see a pal quoted by Fox News — and yet I’m still on the brink of tears. Right now it seems hard to imagine that race organizers and Boston residents and visitors will ever be quite as trusting or good-natured on this day as they were before. And who will be able to blame them? The reasonable response to something like this is fear and caution.
A day of celebration has turned to horror right in front of us. People are dead, people are confused, and people are only now coming to grips with the fact that this thing that was much bigger than a race, this time for all of us to come together and cheer each other, on a happy day in the spring, will never feel the same again.