These days, we no longer puzzle over the question of why runners run. That used to seem like an important philosophical question, but nowadays we’re awash in evidence that regular exercise keeps us healthy in mind and body, and that running in particular conveys a myriad of benefits from better mental functioning to greater longevity. Oh sure, there are those who point out the dangers of extreme devotion to sport, and maybe in the end they’ll be right that “serious” runners who persist in high-mileage, high-intensity running over a number of years are prone to negative outcomes compared with those who are more moderate. But overall, there’s a broad recognition that running is a pretty good deal, and a respectable and healthy choice for many.
It’s almost a pity that the existential question of why we find meaning in running has receded and now it’s all about the cost-benefit analysis, but that’s a topic for another day.
Instead, what has me pondering this week after watching another brutal Boston Marathon on Monday and seeing the carnage visited on so many done in by the surprisingly warm temperatures in the first half of the race, is why anyone in their right mind would make it a priority to race those 26 miles on the perversely difficult Boston course during the most volatile season of the year. It seems like such a terrible, irrational idea.
What bothered me even more as I tried to take it all in — including the hours of standing by the side of the road in Wellesley waiting to hand out water and Gatorade to friends and teammates who had trained for months for this day — was how I found myself day-dreaming about being out there myself again someday. Why would I do such a thing, and why would I give in to a fatal attraction like that? Why would anybody?
And then it hit me that the best way to think about running Boston is that it’s one of those hopeless loves that consumes us from the inside out, a pining that brings us nothing but heartache, but overrides every rational thought we’ve ever had. Yep, no matter how hard we try to play it cool, we’re secretly carrying a torch for the Boston Marathon, hoping against hope and reason that our love will be requited someday.
Hal Higdon used to say, “If you’ve ever felt unloved, try running the Boston Marathon.” Where else is it possible to write your name on your shirt or singlet and have a million people cheer for you like family? In what other activity do you become the center of attention in almost every conversation before and after the big day? Is there a better feeling in the world then having an entire city, an entire sport, celebrating your accomplishment? Isn’t it a small price to pay that you won’t be able to walk down stairs normally for a week?
So like anyone who has ever fallen in love with someone or something out of one’s league, you sacrifice everything for Boston. You put your life on hold, or at least go through the motions but all the while thinking about your next workout, your next long run. You’re obsessed, but it all seems worth it. That is, it all seems worth it when the runs are going well. But then you get a cold or the flu, or your shins start bothering you, or you find yourself tired and run down. You know you should back off, but you can’t. You rationalize. You find it difficult to have perspective.
You’re in love, but you can’t or won’t admit that it’s an unequal love. You’re still hoping for a happy ending. You’re counting on it being one of those romantic comedies where the two people overcome all the misunderstandings and obstacles and end up in each other’s arms before the final credits. The soundtrack to this movie has all those great songs, those songs you love, and so you run with those songs in your heart and dream about the finish line.
I haven’t run a marathon in five years, but I remember how it is. I remember how the heart overrides the head every single time. “The heart wants what it wants… “
Maybe this time, this time at last, I will be loved by Boston even as I love…
But as it has always been with hopeless loves, no matter how many sacrifices a runner makes for the Boston Marathon, no matter how many cold days in January are dedicated to long, lonely runs, no matter how much a runner suffers and endures for its sake, there’s no guarantee that Boston will ever notice those who prostrate themselves on its iconic streets, let alone find it in its intemperate marathon heart to love them back.