In Boston, a City Takes Back Its Race - and Spirit

One year after the tragedy, joy prevailed at the Boston Marathon, even if the pain can never really be left behind.

AP

BOSTON — With a million spectators’ thunderous whoops and whistles cheering 36,000 runners up winding slopes and past red-brick buildings, Boston moved from grief to triumph on marathon day Monday. It was the kind of emotional shift that Israelis go through every spring as Memorial Day merges into Independence Day.

Sherry Archibald, 56, a retired elementary school teacher from Enfield, Nova Scotia, stood pressed against the barrier on the same spot on Boylston Street, the race’s final stretch, where she stood last year with a good friend. They were back cheering on their husbands, who were running together.

Just like last year.

But last year, as they were walking toward the finish line, they were startled by the sound of one explosion, and then another. They were unharmed, but the trauma lingers.

“To get over last year we had to come back this year,” said Archibald, looking out at the runners through her sunglasses.

She and her friend had returned to cheer again and walk down those same streets —  “and to trust that we can still trust,” she said. “That no matter what happens, we can handle it.”

Last marathon day, Boston was a city plunged into an unfamiliar vulnerability after a pair of radicalized brothers allegedly set off two homemade bombs near the finish line, killing three, badly wounding 16 and injuring over 200 more. The brothers, the Tsarnaevs, had come of age in nearby Cambridge.  

On the bombing’s anniversary last week, a large commemoration provided another stage of healing. It prepared the way for the celebration and reclaiming of the marathon on Monday.

Sue Fendrick, a rabbi, watched the racers dash by her family’s front yard in the Boston suburb of Newton. Her home sits on the approach to “Heartbreak Hill,” the race’s last main hurdle.

“In a way we are all now like Israelis,” she said. “We are generally safe, but we also know anything could happen. And Americans are not used to feeling vulnerable.”

Her gaze fixed on the neighbors and friends among the throngs of well-wishers encouraging the runners outside her door. “This feels like a reclaiming, even if I don’t believe that any reclaiming is pure,” she said. “For those on Yom Ha’atzmaut [Israel’s Independence Day], for example, who have had a loss, the pain can never really be left behind.”

The somberness of the commemoration last week was a reminder that Marathon Monday has its roots in a day that until 1894 was known as Fast Day by the residents of Massachusetts.

But by then Fast Day had largely been discarded for the more congenial pursuit of sports, so a new state holiday was ushered in — Patriots Day — to mark the first shots fired in the Revolutionary War. And the marathon was added — an ode to American (and Athenian) democracy.

As the runners streamed in from the race under clear blue skies they looked a bit like superheroes, wrapped in silver-foil warming blankets. Among them was Marian Lindberg, a nurse from Ellis, Kansas, who crossed the finish line last year just after the bombs went off. She was determined to run again this year.

“Races are not usually won by the swiftest, but those who keep running. Perseverance is key,” said Lindberg. “The whole community and the runners have shown perseverance. And they have become even stronger.”

In the crowds, Flossie Gaile, a 68-year-old woman who showed up from Hampton, Virginia, stood out. She sat atop a trash can wearing a royal blue sweatshirt and matching sweatpants with a clear view of the runners.

She cheered them on in words that felt like a combination of preacher’s sermon and a Bostonian’s prayer: “Have no fear! Y’all looking good out there! Determined! Brave! Running for others! Love, nothing but love! Boston came back. Boston came back.”

But Gaile wasn’t finished. “Run, run, run. Oh what a beautiful sight.”

Reuters