(I know this is just a tiny echo from a much, much larger and more-profound story, but it’s my echo, and after trying many times, this is the best way I’ve come up with to tell it.)
ONE MORE TIME
You wake up early to run a big-city marathon –
Early enough to pick up your phone in the darkened hotel room and check the weather, then shave and sunscreen before putting on the clothes laid out the night before – Smear your toes with Body-glide to fend-off blisters, before pulling on socks and the shoes that have been broken in just right. Early enough to gather up extra warm layers and hat and gloves for the trip to the start, and energy-gels and water bottle and music player; to touch your wife’s sleeping shoulder so you don’t wake her, and whisper ‘Goodbye,’ before stepping out into the silent and deserted hallway, shutting the door as quietly as you can.
Familiar tasks, that you’ve done before, – not because you’re some kind of natural-born athlete, or an athlete at all. No, you actually got into it because you were turning fifty and your 12-year old towered over you and your business had slowed to a crawl after 911 even as your country was sliding downhill into war and it all made you desperate for something – anything – that felt like moving forward. The first marathon hurt like hell, but the atmosphere was electric, the energy and optimism of all those vibrant persons, and that part clicked, so that you wanted to try it one more time, to see if you could do better. And when you actually did worse, that drew you in to do it one more time, and then one more.
And every time, there came a point somewhere along the distance that it seemed it would never end, where you told yourself ‘this is ridiculous, I’m not made for this, I will never ever do this again.’ With the result that, when you happened on a chance to run here – in the big-time – you said, yeah, that’ll be a good way to end it all. One more time, and then it’s over: you don’t ever have to do that to yourself again.
Which is what you’re thinking out on the street and in the coffee shop, where half the people you see are other runners heading for the subway, which takes you to the park where 20-some-thousand people are converging to board the hundreds of school buses arriving like clockwork and where you find yourself next to two women who are also from Colorado, and as you chat and watch the sun come up along the highway, you all know this is going to be a great day. Filing through security; milling about a high school campus that’s been organized like a military marshaling yard, you feel the excitement, see the smiles and anticipation on thousands of faces. The armed soldiers on the school roof seem like overkill, as do the sniffer dogs being handled through the crowd. A couple hours of shivering and finally the sun is starting to warm the treetops as your wave – the last and slowest wave that is – make their way through the usually-sleepy side streets to jam up behind the tape. Music is playing and everything is under control as your group reaches the line, then a gun goes off and you’re running again, along with several guys doing the distance in combat boots, fatigues and field packs; six kids in hamburger suits, and twenty-six-thousand of your closest strangers.
Along the way you stop a couple of times to take photos of the hoard – never brought your phone on a run before, but since this is the last one, and since it is the big time, it seemed like a good idea, and it lets you catch a photo of the sign for Framingham – where your father returned again and again for surgery after the war, which connects in your mind with the uniformed servicemen and women controlling traffic at many of the cross-streets. There are a hundred little things like that to see and remember, but mostly it’s the continuous cheering crowd lining both sides of the route, with their signs and high-fives and kids reaching out for hand-slaps as you pass by, that make it feel like coming home, generating warmth not just from the rising sun or the sweat, but from the good will pouring out all around you.
Around 22 miles you look for Jennifer, on the corner the two of you picked out with Google Earth, and there she is, camera pointed. A quick hug, a hearty kiss, wisecracks from the people standing beside her, and you’re off again knowing now the goal is to spend these last few miles burning up whatever strength is left, to get the most out of this one last time and the pulsing humanity lining both sides of the course, now two and three deep.
The closer you get, the deeper the crowd is, and louder, voices bouncing of tall brick buildings, fueling you to think “it doesn’t get any better than this,” this glorious celebration and welcoming – four-hundred-thousand people, the press predicted – pouring out their goodest-good-vibrations for strangers and family alike, a festival of community as you make the final left onto Boylston and get your first glimpse of the finish three-and–a-half blocks away. The emotion builds as you push still harder, breathing locomotive-loud with every footfall, heart beating like it wants out of your chest and your only goal is to drain out as much of yourself as you can, to be spent and exhausted at the end of this road, and then in an instant you’re across the line, legs stuttering to a stagger. Someone hands a bottle of water as you try to stay upright and get some air into your lungs, then, another volunteer puts a plastic cape around your shoulders as she tells you to keep moving. Farther down the block, they hand you a medal to drape around your neck, and despite the fact that every limb is screaming with pain you begin to really feel the glow of triumph and self-satisfaction, to realize what a great day this is – one of the best days of your life – when POOMF
Not Blam! or Bang! or any other comic-book-speech-bubble-sound, Not thunder or earthquake or ground moving beneath your feet, or even very loud, really. Just ‘POOMF’, but a sound so out of place you know in an instant what it is, and when you turn you see down the block the back-side of the finish line arch, with dozens of people strung-out between here and there and every one of them turning just as you are, to stare at the column of white smoke rising from where, two minutes before, you passed the shoulder-crammed crowd of spectators.
‘Maybe a gas line burst,’ someone says hopefully, and you say no, that wasn’t a gas line, because you know – but of course you’re wrong: it wasn’t a vest and it wasn’t a belt. It was a backpack-filled-with-pressure-cooker-filled-with-fireworks-nails-and-ball-bearings.
Which is also not a gas line.
‘Where’s Kathy?’ one runner cries out – or maybe it’s ‘Mary’ or ‘Judy;’ the name doesn’t mean anything to you but the point is crystal clear. ‘She was behind me,’ answers another, and whether one of them says ‘Oh my god,’ or you just think it, the meaning is the same. In your head you do the quick math – Jennifer was at least three miles back of the line; however long it took you to run that, it’ll take her a lot longer to walk it, so there’s no way – unless she hopped a bus or took the tube…. You pull out the phone – which you never take on runs but you did today because it was going to be the last one – and text Jennifer, just the letters: “I M O K R U”’, but the first time you check for a response the networks have gone down and it will be hours before you receive or send another message.
There are no sirens yet, just a murmuring stream of runners, and the race workers urging you all to keep moving, their voices calm and gentle as if nothing at all has really happened.
You start walking again, dazed and confused, body starting to chill though you don’t quite notice it yet. You’re farther down the block and it all seems kid of distant and unreal until – POOMF –a second time, and this is when it hits home; in this moment everything else about this day seems small and silly and pointless as you seek out the nearest stable object and grab-on tight with both hands, the words clearly verbalized whether the syllables come out of your lips or not – “people are dying, right over there” – while your entire body starts to vibrate and the tears come, the first time.
By now the sirens have started, distant and inconsequential at first, like they could be any city street any time of the day or night, except they continue and multiply as you heed the volunteers’ instructions to keep moving away under a darkening sky, sun hidden now, the wind picking up; reminders of the morning’s cold; or the cold of midnight; the cold of things that end forever.
As cold as you soon become, focus is impossible; it’s half an hour before you remember the long-sleeved shirts tied round your waist miles ago, and fumble to get them on, though they do not help at all as you arrive at the lamppost you and Jennifer had scouted for a rendezvous, to find her nowhere in sight.
It’s an hour from the moment – an hour of no cell service and no word from Jennifer, who you’re so sure was far from the scene, and yet so not-sure at all – an hour of listening to people trying to figure out what’s happening, the news so far all cryptic, half-conjecture – before she appears out of the chaos to find you shivering and blue-lipped, arms-wrapping and feet stomping to try to get warm, and seeing her face and feeling her hug is about as welcome as anything has ever been.
It’s maybe two days later, that someone asks – do you want to come back?
“One more time,” you were thinking, waking up in that darkness. “One last time and you’ll never need to put yourself thru that again,” but now the answer comes in a heartbeat: “absolutely”. To hear that crowd, to run that last hundred yards past where it all went down? To stab a middle-finger in the eyes of the impotent losers who did this to all those beautiful smiling spectators? Damn right you’re coming back.
It’s maybe a month after the day that you realize you were wrong – about everything else being small and silly and pointless. When yet-another person asks you what it was like and you realize you don’t want to talk about the tragedy, because that gives the idiot bastards too much credit. What you want to remember and to tell about is the crowd that day, the outpouring of support and encouragement and what certainly felt like a kind of love. About how it was really those spectators and volunteers who were targeted, who paid the most in blood and sorrow, who deserve to be remembered; and they who make you want so badly to do it all again.
Which is why, six weeks after the day, you run again in another town, and find something has changed; despite it being as hard as ever, there’s a sense that this is now something you do. It has become a part of you, though underneath the handshakes and smiles of the finish line you feel the emotion bubbling up from the deepest places inside, and sneak off into a nearby alley to huddle in a doorway as the tears return; not for the last time.
At five months, you apply to go back, only to learn that so many people want to run that first-year-after – so many people want to thumb their noses at the fiends and all their like – that you don’t quite make the cut-off.
And so you suck it up and train harder and run more, and now – two years and five days after that moment,– you get to go back and do it again. Travel those same roads and tour those towns and campuses; turn that same final corner feeling the warmth of that mass of humanity and shout ‘THANK YOU’’ and ‘BACK-AT-YA’ to them, for being there, year after year – though no one ever gets a medal for spectating or for volunteering. To honor and to thank them for coming out again to welcome thousands of strangers into their city –
ONE MORE TIME.