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2011 Boston Marathon: Ordinary People Conquering the Extraordinary

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 18: Caroline Kilel #8 of Kenya reacts after winning the women's division of the 115th running of the Boston Marathon on April 18, 2011 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Mike StangerCorrespondent IApril 19, 2011

I arrived at the corner of Washington Avenue and Route 135 in Natick around 10:00 a.m. and decided to stand near the 10-mile mark. 

The day was sunny, but cool.  A strong breeze stung my flesh a bit, making me glad I brought my jacket. As the elite female runners passed, my mind drifted into thought and I waxed philosophical.

We human beings are a strange bunch. 

On one end of the spectrum, we commit such graphic atrocities and malfeasance toward one another that at times the propagation of our species seems to be an act of gross injustice to the rest of the universe.

But on the other end of the spectrum, we have the ability to persevere against insurmountable odds and unfathomable adversity.  And it is during those moments that we, as a species, show our true greatness.

In some instances, the two ends of the spectrum must meet for the greatness to surface, as in the case of war and genocide.  And at other instances, the stakes are not as severe.

The Boston Marathon falls into the latter category.  In it, we can witness the sublime without enduring tyrannical cruelty.

To run 26.2 miles at any pace is an achievement worthy of admiration and amazement.  After all, the outcome for the first “marathon runner” ended quite badly—he dropped dead after announcing that the Greeks had defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon.

Yet, thousands of people willingly choose to subject themselves to this physically-demanding, mentally-challenging gauntlet. 

Many may say that this is insane.  I don’t necessarily disagree with them. 

But I also believe there is something greater at work here.  You see, running a marathon takes Descartes’ “I think; therefore, I am” and moves it to a different level.  The new mantra becomes “I endure; therefore, I live.”

Indeed, it is through enduring the challenge that we most feel alive.  That is why people climb Mount Everest for fun and a nation puts a person into space.

And it is why someone would run 26.2 miles. 

Now, I will never run a marathon.  I don’t have the desire or, quite frankly, the pain threshold.

(My wife will forever remain the “tough guy” in our family because she completed a marathon and gave birth to three children, albeit not at the same time)

However, each year I take my place along Route 135 and live vicariously through each runner.  Today is no different than any other year.

My thoughts came back to the event at hand.  The male elite runners pass by.  Although I respect the elite runners, to me, they are surreal, almost inhuman.  Their gait is flawless and their pace seems impossible.  I swear their pace is faster than my sprint.  And they do this for 16 more miles.

No, I am here to see the common folk. 

There is a slight break after the elite runners pass, and then the wave of human flesh appears on the horizon.

Some are running fairly effortlessly; others look pained.  I cheer the pained ones on.  I want them to endure.

The accountant.  The school teacher.  The grandmother.  It is in their eyes that I wish to look.  I want to know their story, if only for that moment.

And they come from all over the world—Canada, Japan, Denmark, Mexico and Germany, to name a few.  The list of countries looks like a United Nations roll call, but that is where the similarity ends.  Unlike the UN, the marathoners are unified.  And they are unified in one goal—defeat the course.

Later in the race, I catch a glimpse of Dick and Rick Hoyt—a father and son duo.  The son, Rick, has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair.  Dick, the father, pushes him. 

As a father myself, I can’t help but feel the overwhelming love between a father and son that the Hoyt’s project. Every damn time I see them, I am brought to tears.  This year is no exception.

The Boston Marathon, however, is not without it’s moments of levity.  I do a double take as a man wearing absolutely nothing but a loincloth goes running by.  (Yes, it was a real loincloth, not a Speedo)

Another man in a gorilla suit goes by and I sense that he may be hitting the First Aid tent after he finishes the race, if he even makes it that far.

Within the next couple hours or so, I cheer a lot, laugh a little and admire continuously.  I leave my spot exhausted and fulfilled, without ever running a step.

Yes, the Boston Marathon is when we human beings can be proud of our species.  Sometimes I wonder why it can’t be like this all of the time. 

But then I think that maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.  Having these few moments is better than never having them at all.  For it is in events like the Boston Marathon that we truly realize how great we can be.

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