As a runner who studied the sociology of terrorism as part of his undergrad, I think I need to say something in light of recent, appalling events. It won’t be much. Words cannot reverse what has happened, but maybe they can point towards a possible direction, a different place set forward in the horizon.
Running, we know, is an intimately personal act. It is an act of mustering the motivation to lift your body from a state of rest. It is breaking your body down in order to make it stronger, it is choosing to be strong when your body has broken down.
In addition, running is an incredibly political act. (Not in the sense of elections and legislation, but in the sense that politics is the art of the public.) Save for treadmills and indoor tracks, running always takes place “out there” and relates the surrounding place to the runner.
Runners are vulnerable. Sometimes we are with a group, but often our sense of commitment means we go it alone. In the city we watch out for cars and in the country we watch out for cougars. The nature of the sport means we tend to be under-dressed and a little fatigued. Many times we have done an “out-an-back” long run where have turned around and realized that we are miles away from home, often with no cash, no identification, no phone. The only security runners have are our legs — and the fact that we trust society to let us freely go about on our little exercise ritual.
Runners are disruptive. Runners may be vulnerable, but runners have a certain power. Runners redefine what sidewalks and gravel roads and city parks and out-of-the-way trails are good for. Our routes are like arteries on a map, infusing meaning into the landscape around us. Running is a performance, a play of biological code and cultural script. Running is an act of presence, of being multiple places almost at once, witnessing the world around us at many miles per hour. On our favorite, out-of-the-way runs, we might stumble across a high school couple making out (sorry) or a slightly more offensive offense (like that one time I busted a drug deal at seven-minute-mile pace).
Runners are achievers. There are a special few endorphin junkies who are runners just for the feel of it, but for the most part runners lace up their shoes with some goal or challenge in mind. Many runners can point to a personal record or a particular day that they are proud of. Even if the runner falls short of an arbitrary goal, they have succeeded in going out and trying. Olympians and first-timers alike can inspire the human spirit – if passersby take a moment to step back and notice.
The reason I bring this up, in light of yesterday’s events in Boston, is because even if the blasts occurred among bystanders, many of whom were not runners per se, these particular victims were there to celebrate a runner they knew and in some way part of the running spirit.
And terrorism, the sort of act witnessed yesterday, is not just homicidal mania. The heinous crime of terrorism is also a political act. As the cliche goes, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Certainly that doesn’t make it right, as terrorism is neither morally sound nor tactically effective (non-violent protest is always more effective, ethical and sincere). But it helps us understand the event and shape our response.
Almost every marathoner represents hundreds if not thousands of hours of training. A marathon itself is the sum total of this hard work and sweat, in addition to the volunteer and staff commitment that make the event possible. To witness the finish line of a marathon is to see the focal point of millions of hours of hard work.
Never mind that the Boston Marathon is an amateur event as opposed to mere recreational race. Although it is not the Olympics, individuals still have to qualify for the Boston. It is difficult to just “sign up” for the race, one has to truly be committed to the sport. Hence, amateur, rooted in the word amore, the word for “to love.”
Never mind that the Boston Marathon is a integral part of the Patriot Day celebrations, something I admittedly don’t understand but Bostonians certainly cherish.
We do not know who the culprit behind yesterday’s horrible act is. But we do know this:
With the string of moments it took for them to assemble an explosive device, they attempted to steal away the significance of millions of hours. They attempted to replace love with hate. They attempted to pervert the public spirit.
Let us make sure that, whoever it is, that they fail. Let us reject categorically the twisted worldview that made a senseless act make sense to this particular group or individual.
Let us mourn the dead, care for the injured, lament what could have been.
But let us not sacrifice one inch of meaning to the false gods of fear. Let us continue to celebrate the human spirit, seeing that in a runner (like any athlete, or any person striving towards a positive goal of any sort) we can be better than base, deranged and pathetic. We may not be perfect, but we are not soulless.
So for those of who run, or cheer those who do, let us keep lacing up our shoes. Let us carry the weight of tragedy, let us look over our shoulders to be on guard for obvious threats, and then let us go, and go strong.
Vulnerable, disruptive, achieving: let us keep running.
Even before the explosions, the American Red Cross was at the Boston Marathon, supporting the running spirit by providing volunteers and working at aid stations. They were quick to respond and continue to put their muscle into this tragedy. I consider myself more of a rational giver than an emotional giver, so as odd as it is for me to impulsively add a handful of dollars to an organization with a $3.5 billion budget, for whatever reason I threw out all calculations and did it anyway. I cite my frugal donation not to boast, but rather to challenge you to consider doing it too.