There are no winners and losers at the 2014 Boston Marathon. Only winners. Rita Jeptoo set a course record and Meb Keflezighi made history. The history books will say they won. But every man, woman and child anywhere near Boston for the 118th running of the Patriot's Day classic deserves to paint the city red like the Sox did winning the pennant.
At this time last year, there were no celebrations. Jeptoo held the podium alongside Lelisa Desisa, but no one remembers those initial smiles. They remember the fire whistles, police sirens and bomb squads. They remember the empty well of despair that comes after tragedy, the frantic unknowingness that comes with attempting to contact a nearby loved one and hoping that they are alive.
They remember the aftermath: A four-day manhunt in search of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Chechen brothers who detonated two pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line, killing three human beings and wounding more than 260 others.
What these two brothers did—unsatisfactorily explained all this time later—remains one of the more heinous acts of my lifetime.
Even for those nowhere near Boston on April 15, 2013, the memories are still vivid. I remember sitting late in the night on April 18 and 19 listening to police scanners, enraptured by every syllable uttered and hoping for new clues. I remember sitting at my computer and doing a subdued fistpump when the police finally captured Dzhokhar. I remember feeling a deep-rooted sadness when they pronounced Tamerlan dead on the scene, because for all of the atrocities he committed, he was still another human being dead in wake of a senseless crime.
And I remember knowing that this tragedy was far from over.
In the city of Boston, where the Red Sox matinee ballgame and marathon are as deeply rooted a tradition that exists in any American metropolis, the Tsarnaev brothers ripped away the innocence that comes with the Monday after Easter. The cosmetic damage has been repaired and the "Boston Strong" movement remains strong, but that day will never be the same. It will always feature a strange sense of communal glee and melancholy—the type you feel at the end of a truly uplifting but heart-wrenching film.
Nearly 36,000 runners took to the starting line Monday morning, the second-largest field in history. Among them was an eclectic crew featuring the elite of the elite distance runners worldwide, participants bound to wheelchairs and countless non-competitive racers hoping for the triumph stolen from them last year, a chance to cross the finish line at the Boston Marathon.
"I can't imagine the number of emotions that are going to be there," Katie O'Donnell, a participant whose race was stopped a mile short of the finish line in 2013, told Bob Salsberg and Michelle R. Smith of The Associated Press. "I think I'm going to start crying at the starting line, and I'm not sure I'll stop until I cross the finish line."
O'Donnell was far from the only one planning to shed tears. Spotted across the thousands of participants littered across the 26.2-mile trek were onlookers overcome with emotion. Whether there to honor family members lost and affected, or simply overcome with the atmosphere, a message of defiant pride echoed through the streets.
That sense of the moment also carried onto the competitive runners, especially the ones representing the United States.
Keflezighi, an Eritrean-born runner and permanent U.S. citizen, is one of the unlikeliest winners in recent memory. At age 38, Keflezighi is three years older than any other elite-level participant and was a massive underdog in a field littered with marathoners vying for the year's biggest prize. He was also chasing a bit of history. No American male had won the race since 1983, a three-decade drought that was by far the longest in history.
"It was not just about me...I was going to give everything I could for the people," Keflezighi told Scott Malone of Reuters.
On the women's side, hope came in the form of Shalane Flanagan. Raised in Marblehead, Mass., Flanagan received the loudest cheers of anyone throughout the early part of the race, as she sprinted out to an early lead and held it there for the first 20 miles. Jeptoo, who won her third career Boston Marathon, and five others would eventually pass Flanagan—three of whom set would-be course records.
"I love Boston so much and I really wanted to do it for this city," Flanagan said. "I'm so sad I couldn't do it for Boston."
While Flanagan, in tears as she gave an on-camera interview, was disappointed, you'll find no shame in her performance. Flanagan's frantic early start helped force Jeptoo and others into their record-setting paces, and even they spent most of their day looking up at the competitor nearly all were cheering for. For more than three-fourths of Monday afternoon, an American was leading the Boston Marathon.
And that's kind of the point.
The lesson of Monday was not about who crossed the finish line first. It was about the process. The process that started with David Ortiz's "this is our (expletive) city" speech, continued when more than 2,000 people walked across the finish line last May and continues to this day via The One Fund Boston, a charity aimed at helping those directly affected by the bombing.
All of those individual moments culminated Monday afternoon. There would be no fire whistles, police sirens or bomb squads in 2014. The empty well of despair was displaced by the overflowing pride of those who watched an American man cross the finish line ahead of the pack for the first time in 31 years. The frantic calls in search of loved ones were instead ones of congratulations.
There is no way anyone will forget the events of April 15, 2013—not today or any time soon. Keflezighi and Jeptoo crossed the finish line first. But, at least for this one year, it's the person who finishes last—who is allowed to finish last—who is most vital to allowing the Boston Marathon to start moving on.
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