A Marathon, A Bomb, and A Long Race

Boston Marathon Bombing
photo from flickr

By the 22nd mile of the Kampala Marathon last fall I realized I had reached the final limits of my body. Each further step was a bitter negotiation with my skeleton, my muscles, my neural pathways—they tried to shut the whole system down; I pleaded and commanded and tantrumed to keep it moving, at least one more step, over and over and over.

Yesterday in Boston, before the explosions, athletes far better than me made their own negotiations. At the excruciating frontiers to which marathons push us we struggle not only with our bodies, but with embodiment, our vast souls stuck with these little legs, little lungs, these short little lives. The stride of a runner near the end of a marathon is a practice in transcending the body, a skate along the edge of mortality.

Then some scared and desperate soul set off two bombs, killing three people and injuring almost 200. He (it was almost certainly a he, wasn’t it) wanted to inject death into a day of life, to bring a city and perhaps a country face to face with our own final fragility. To what ends, we don’t yet know.

Tragically he took a few lives, and forever changed some. But death did not win the day. When 78-year-old Bill Iffrig was knocked down by the explosion only yards from the finish line, then got back up and finished the Boston Marathon, it was clear that death did not win the day. And when bystanders rushed into the smoke, dismantling guard rails on their way, to start aiding those who were injured, it was clear that death did not win the day. And when runners finished the marathon and kept running to the nearest hospital to donate blood for the victims, it was clear that death did not win the day.

There is a longer race we all run. And we, too, court our own mortality, a mortality of the human spirit. In this race we are confronted with the boundary between the love and courage that define us at our best, and the waste of fear and violence that lies beyond. Acts like the Boston bombing aim to knock us into our own darkness. It is up to us whether we stop, give up, let death take the story. Or whether we get up, rush into the smoke, and keep running towards love.