Almost four years ago, two terrible people committed a horrific act of terror that impacted millions of lives. Out of that tragedy emerged some of the most profound acts of kindness I’ve witnessed. Residents giving away coats to freezing runners; hotels offering shelter to those who couldn’t make it back to theirs; strangers sharing food and hugs. That’s not to mention the heroics of medical personnel, volunteers and fellow runners.
The Boston Bombings in 2013 shook my world to its core. I knew terrorists existed. I saw the planes crashing into buildings on 9-11. I watched the news and tried my best to keep up with current events around the world. Yes, terrorism was real, but not. It’s one thing to see bombs exploding in countries across the globe from the comfort of my own living room. It’s another thing entirely to hear those explosions, feel your hotel room shake and listen to the windows rattle. It’s another thing to receive a phone call from a friend asking in panic where another friend is. It’s another thing to emerge from your hotel room only to be greeted by soldiers with large guns telling you to turn around and go the other way. It’s another thing to sit on the floor of your hotel lobby with hundreds of stranded runners, many of whom never finished their race and who can’t get to their hotel, and watch President Obama talk directly to you through the media in an attempt to soothe our fear and console our hearts.
I don’t think about that day much. I don’t plan to see the movie. No judgement towards those who do, but the previews alone leave me in a state of panic. It was the worst day of my life. The location of the first bomb was in the exact spot my family stood while I ran my first Boston in 2010. While my friend and I ran in 2013, our husbands stood across the street from that first bomb, waiting to cheer us on that last .2. After celebrating our own finish, my friend and her husband went back to cheer on other runners and were directly across the bomb when it went off. I was back in my hotel room nursing a sore hamstring. The plan was to let 2013 be my last Boston. The moment those explosions happened, I knew I’d be back in 2014.
For a year I carried the weight of that day on my shoulders, and I didn’t even realize it. I did what I always did: drive kids; teach classes; run errands; train for Boston. Life goes on. Before I knew it, my friend Shelly and I were flying to Boston where I would meet up with my running partner Tyler and run the marathon one more time.
The day before the race was Easter Sunday. The Old South Church, located at the Boston Marathon finish line on Boylston St. traditionally holds a service the day before the race and offers a Blessing for the Athletes. I’d never been, and seeing as it was Easter Sunday and the last time I’d be in Boston for the foreseeable future, Shelly and I decided to attend the 11am service. It was beautiful. People from every background packed the pews. Every race, religion, and gender represented. Different backgrounds and different stories, but we were all looking for a little peace. There were a lot of runners wearing their 2013 Boston Celebration jackets. It was comforting to see so many of my fellow runners who’d lived the same day I’d lived. Our shared experience made us almost like family. I felt like I was a part of a club, although I never wanted to be a member.
The service began. The music was beautiful. The minister’s words more significant than ever. Near the end the runners were asked to stand for their blessing. Then those who’d run in 2013 were asked to remain standing. Men and women walked down the aisles with their arms laden with blue and yellow scarves; each one unique in its design. The church had spent the past year recruiting volunteers to knit scarves for the runners. People from all around the country contributed and the final result was making its way around the church. The minister asked for the person to the right of every standing runner to take a scarf and wrap it around the neck of that runner. An older gentleman took a scarf and wrapped it around my neck and gave me a hug. We’d never met, but it didn’t feel that way. I was crying. He was crying. There was a lot of crying.
While we stood with our scarves wrapped snuggly around our necks, the minister explained their significance. Service is something we give someone else. Someone had to place those scarves around out necks so they could serve us and we could receive that service. In that act we are both blessed. Scarves provide comfort when the world is stormy. They give warmth on the coldest day. Those that knitted the scarves also served as they provided comfort. Those scarves were in essence a hug from a stranger wanting to reach out to let us know that out of that one stormy day there was still warmth. I wore that scarf for the rest of the trip.
Marathon Monday, was equally as moving. We had a moment of silence at the start line. And then we began our race. There were over 30,000 runners with 30,000 different reasons to run. At mile 16, after the right hand turn at the fire station on our way to Heartbreak Hill, I’ll never forget the little girl holding the sign, “Remember Who You Run For”. Underneath was a picture of Richard, the little boy who’d been killed in the bombings. How could I forget.
Rounding the corner to Hereford and then Boylston, the crowds cheered so loudly I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. Their energy lifted me to the point I felt like I was floating. I couldn’t feel my legs, but in a good way. It was the closest thing I’ve had to a religious experience in the secular world. It was a triumph of spirit as we crossed the finish line. We carried the spectators and volunteers with us. For those 26.2 miles we were one. Completely and utterly one.
Why do I bring this up now? The last year has felt more divisive than ever. I’ve seen friendships ripped apart through tweets and posts. Families divided over politics. Divisions in parties, genders, geography are so wide they seem too cavernous to cross.
But here’s the thing. In the end, we are all human. We all want peace. We all want unity. It’s just a matter of putting each other first and our differences second. If the diverse group in that South Church can come together in the spirit of support and love, why can’t we all do that? Is a political season worth the relationships with those we love? Can we fight for our beliefs and the causes we hold dear without fighting personal battles with each other? I’d be willing to bet that the man who wrapped that scarf around my neck and the woman who knit it don’t all agree on every issue, but in the end it didn’t matter. They gave service and I was the grateful recipient and we were all better for it.
Sadly, it’s often through tragedy we find common ground. I hope to find that common ground before another tragedy happens. We all want to be heard, but if we’re all screaming at each other we never will be. In the end, we’re all just runners trying to make it to the finish line. It’s a lot easier to get there when we cheer each other on.