Reflections on running and the terror attacks

Last Friday, with one Boston Marathon bombing suspect dead and the other subject to a massive manhunt, I left their picture open on my laptop all day. I wasn’t even in the U.S. when the bombing occurred, but a kind of cold magnetism drew me to contemplate the two men who, by attacking my sport, felt like they’d struck at me.

For fifteen years, being a distance runner has defined who I am. Half a dozen of my closest friends from college ran the marathon on Patriots’ Day. And runners form a particularly tight-knit community–the FBI picture I was looking at, in fact, came from Letsrun, one of our online homes. So blowing off runners’ legs at the best known race in the world seemed profoundly personal, an assault on our identities and the idea of movement itself.

As I stared at the Tsarnaevs in their backwards baseball caps, I tried to process the attack, the three dead and three hundred injured competitors and spectators who lodged like gravel in my throat. I tried to shoulder my share of responsibility for the deadly legal response. One of you is dead, I said flatly to the screen, and the other may soon be too.

*

The day of the bombing, I was halfway around the world, cooking dinner with a bunch of Canadians in a villa in southern Spain. Acoustic covers of R&B songs swirled in the air with sizzling garlic, shrimp, and onions. A fiery sunset expired over the mountaintops. As we started carrying dishes outside to the dining table, a friend read from his laptop, in a voice tinged with concern but not quite horror, that two bombs had exploded at the Boston Marathon.

I don’t remember sprinting to my room to get my computer. I must have. I don’t remember rushing back to wi-fi range in the kitchen. I distinctly recall opening my browser and smacking my hand again and again on the table as the blue loading bar crawled its way across the screen. But as I try now to relive my frantic search for information about my friends, my brothers really, who were in the race, all other details have been bleached away. I can see only my computer display, as if the rest of the world had dissolved around me.

I’ve written before about the nauseatingly placeless quality of terrorism, the way it insinuates itself unknowably across boundaries around the world. But when the bombs went off in Boston, I felt not only placeless, hurling my thoughts back over the Atlantic, the world around me bleached away, but everything-less. My reality shrank to encompass my teammates’ safety and nothing more. And I didn’t know if they’d been erased from existence.

*

Distance running fundamentally connects places. We run from, through, and to somewhere. We compare times from races around the world. And especially in marathons, we join a multinational cast of competitors to test what we can do. The marathon bombing perverted this basic connectivity, linking Chechnya and America, the Tsarnaevs and their victims, in ways that should never be.

But afterward, the connective power of running forcefully reasserted itself. Within minutes of hearing about the blasts I managed to confirm that all my friends were safe. And when Letsrun crashed from too much traffic, my bleached, narrow little world expanded back out into a huge net of distance runner solidarity. The Boston Police at the scene of the bombing turned the terror of running away from a fireball into the courage of racing to protect those who’d been hit.

That’s the transformative nature of our sport, from Jessie Owens’ performance before Hitler to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ raised fists at the Mexico City Olympics to Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, carrying the American flag at the opening ceremony in Beijing. The Tsarnaevs’ attack on their adopted nation hideously parodied the way foreign-born runners have proudly represented America on the world stage, but a week later the London Marathon went on, and so will our sport.

*

This fall, I unofficially retired from running. This week I laced up my shoes again. Some of the people at the Boston Marathon will never run on their own legs again, and I owe it to them, to the idea of racing freely through public spaces, to push my legs as far as I can.

Last week was like nothing I’ve experienced before. I’ve never felt such searing concern for someone else’s safety. I’ve never felt so connected by threads of anger and heavy responsibility to those who are hunted by our laws. So with a runner’s faith in my own improvability, I want this to be an inflection point in my life that helps me attend better to the other natural and human disasters unfolding around the world, from Syria to China to Bangladesh, and to the myriad violences unfolding themselves at home in America.

The bombing deconstructed the very soul of distance running: our freedom of movement, our public congregations, the long quest for self-improvement amid a respectfully competitive community, our sport’s worldwide appeal and connectivity. But those attributes have and will prove stronger than any pressure cooker or pipe bomb ever could. As in all things, we distance runners will endure. We turn our eyes to the next mile in the race, and we try to make it faster, better, more meaningful than the last.