Another View: Reflections on the Boston Marathon

By: Elaine Wersky, special to the Press Tribune
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In 2002, I qualified for the Boston Marathon at the California International Marathon. Before I had entered the world of endurance running, the relevance of Boston was not known to me. But I soon learned that for marathoners, Boston is a big deal. It’s one of the most celebrated running events in history, and runners come from all over the world to be a part of it. Entry into this iconic race is coveted and hard-earned. Runners have to meet a speed qualification to get into Boston. Once there, you can’t help but be swept away, not only by the excitement generated by the enthusiastic crowds of runners and spectators who line the 26.2 mile course from start to end, but also by the history that weaves through the fabric of this 114-year-old foot race.

My Boston experience was pushed back to 2004 due to injury the year before, and I anticipated that April weekend with great excitement. My friend had given me a book about the history of Boston and I devoured the information on its pages. From town to town, the book shared the most memorable images of the Boston Marathon. It took me through the highs and lows. I learned how “Heartbreak Hill” earned its name in 1936 from a quip by an overconfident John Kelly the Younger, who goaded his opponent just enough to get himself beat. It shared the scandal of Rosie Ruiz in 1980, a pathological liar who ran the last half-mile of the marathon, crossed the finish line and was crowned with the laurel wreath as the winner, only to be revealed as an imposter a week later. There are the shameful moments, like in 1967, when director Jock Semple dragged Katherine Switzer from the field when he saw she was a female, only to be punched by her boyfriend, making him release her. She finished the race unofficially, but it wasn’t until five years later, in 1972, that women were admitted into the field. 1982 was the year of the closest finish in Boston history, between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley – a duel eulogized in the book “Duel in the Sun.” Legendary runners abound in the history of the Boston marathon, like Amby Burfoot, Joan Benoit, Bill Rogers and East German Uta Pippig (who ran Boston in 1990 after the historical fall of the Berlin Wall had opened the doors to her running career). The crowd was galvanized for years each time Dick Hoyt ran past, pushing his adult son, a spastic quadriplegic in a customized stroller, raising public awareness about the disabled. Kelly the Elder has two bronze statues at the top of Heartbreak Hill, one as a young man and one as an old man. He ran 61 Boston Marathons. He was a legend in this town. In my Boston 2004, at the age of 92, he was the guest of honor at the pre-race celebration and I was thrilled to see him. He died shortly thereafter.

These are but a few of the legendary moments captured during the Boston Marathon and shared by millions the world over. When I was in Boston, I walked through Bill Rogers’ running store, met Dick Hoyt and his son and had my bib autographed by Dick Beardsley. I had read about Boston’s historical marathon and then, in 2004, I got to connect with that history and become a part of it. The stories literally unfolded in my mind with each mile on the course. Boston is straight for about 25 miles, so the throngs of people are endless. In Wellingsley, the college girls can be heard long before you are near them. The locals love their race. It is held on Patriots’ Day and celebration is in the air. This was truly one of the most exciting experiences of my life. Each year, when I know the Boston Marathon is being run, I revisit the thrill just a little and I quietly celebrate the runners who are there feeling some of what I felt. Sure, it’s a 26.2 mile run that leaves you walking funny and your toenails black. But as my poster from Boston says, “Pain is temporary, Boston is forever.”

Today that doesn’t have the same ring to it as it has for the nine years it’s been on my wall. There are so many emotions that accompany endurance running that I often quip that each race takes you through the good, the bad and ugly. But today, ugly transcended anything I had imagined for this event, and my heart is heavy. Today I mourn as an American, as a fellow runner, as a Boston runner. With this vicious, cowardly act, the innocence of Boston will be forever lost. I know I will meet runners who were there this year. Their memories will not be the memories that most hope to take from Boston. They have been robbed of their personal victory. I grieve for those who have lost their loved ones and those who have been maimed by this terrible crime again humanity. But even as I grieve along with our nation and the world today, I know the Boston Marathon will heal and be made even stronger over time. There have been too many wanton acts of violence in our recent history, many that are still raw. But the lessons of the resilience of the human spirit are fresh enough to bring us hope. Even as terrorist or other violent acts cut us to our knees, they have the power to unite us. There is healing energy for a community that comes together through its grief and healing. May we all mourn together now, but resolve to heal stronger and more resilient.