April 22 (Bloomberg) -- I live at the other end of unthinkable -- the start, not the finish, of the Boston Marathon.
My wife and I raised our two sons in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, less than a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the yellow-and-blue starting line Jack LeDuc and his crew paint each year. There was no loss of life or limb here in Monday’s hideous blasts. Thank God. Still, there’s a deep hurt and a suspicion that tradition, in its sunniest, winter-is-over hues of rebirth and redemption, is gone.
What tens of thousands learn when they arrive each spring in my small town of 15,000 is that their road to athletic glory, those 26.2 miles of water stations, orange slices, frost heaves and gritty sidewalks, is a special connection we share with the world and each other. If Opening Day at Fenway Park signals the revival of baseball, the marathon rekindles our sense of community.
We open our homes to runners, offering bed and breakfast. We stuff trash bags with the warm-up sweaters and long pants they take off before heading out. We host the elite Kenyans at our elementary school, and these skinny soft-spoken wonders never fail to dazzle our kids with stories of long slogs on dirt in bare feet and the heat, and how hard they worked to get to Hopkinton.
Down the road at mile three in the town of Ashland, Jeff Stone has watched this swift parade of bobbing heads for all of his 60 years. When he was a sophomore at Boston’s Northeastern University and studying to be an athletic trainer, a runner stumbled onto his front yard moaning about a severe leg cramp.
“I need your help,” he told Stone who turned and ran inside for the nearest tube of Bengay. He rubbed out the cramp, the runner finished the race and, later, sent a letter of thanks to Stone’s school. That stumbler was Johnny Kelley, a guy with two Boston Marathon wins and seven second-place finishes, who ran a record 61 times. He did his last full marathon when he was 84. Stone’s bold moment secured a place in the late legend’s book, “Young at Heart.”
The night of the bombings Stone had another moment. He walked away from the images of tragedy on his television and went outside to lower the American flag on the white pole in his yard.
“If you don’t live on the course, you don’t understand,” he said.
Stone, who oversees a water station for the elite runners, said he was determined to do his part to keep the race going strong: “It’s who we are, and to let somebody take that away from us, no way.”
At mile seven in Framingham, the Chicken Bone, a pub with the tastiest wings this side of Buffalo, hired a band for the race, as it always does. But when things turned tragic that afternoon, the music stopped. Sean Sweeney, 20, the takeout manager, turned his attention to the customers who were trying to reach relatives and friends at the finish line.
“We needed to make sure they were all right,” he said. “For at least the next five years, this day will not be the same.”
One town and two miles closer to Boston, the Natick Animal Clinic each year holds a barbecue in its parking lot for more than 100 people affiliated with Tufts University and its veterinary school, which sponsors runners. Clinic manager Andrea Harding was driving to work Tuesday morning when she decided the flag there should go to half-staff, too. Pulling in, she looked up and saw her team had beat her to the punch.
“It just made sense,” she said. The terror experienced in other places around the world had come to Boston and sprinted 17 miles down the road to Natick.
“It’s in our own backyard now,” Harding said, warning a visitor that she breaks out in tears these days without notice. “You hurt one of us,” she said, “you hurt all of us.”
Travel this suburban swath regularly through the seven communities along the marathon route as it pushes toward Boston and you begin to recognize the nooks and crannies where generations have stood with water, ready to carry and lift the helpless and summon emergency care if needed.
At Wellesley College, the students have made a name as a premier cheering section. They jump and shake signs, and have been known to kiss and hug a runner or two. They know it helps.
Newton is next, and at the base of Heartbreak Hill, known to stop many who confidently said they’d run to the finish, stands Fire Station 2. Lieutenant Tom Lopez, a native, has watched 16 marathons in uniform. He and the others open their four large bays to runners and spectators for easy access to the bathroom. They wheel out the hot dog stand, selling treats for charity, and keep an eye out for those about to tackle the hill for signs they might need help.
“This race, this day, it belongs to us,” he said, describing the happy crowd gathered in the hours before the unhappiest news. “Our race, it’s the best in the world.”
Back in Hopkinton (town motto: “It All Starts Here”) Jack LeDuc was on a ladder near the starting line two mornings after the race. Drill in hand, he was taking down the large and familiar “Welcome Runners” banner.
LeDuc is a volunteer on the town’s race committee who puts in many hours and has helped paint the starting line for each of the last 32 years.
“This used to be such a fun thing,” he said, pointing to a spot where, as a boy, he sat perched in a maple tree awaiting the starter’s pistol. On the other side of the road, bunches of cut flowers were fastened to a wrought-iron fence in memory of the dead.
“There was such an innocence,” he said, “and now it went away.”
I, too, conjure images of bygone races. There’s my friend Mike, shooing runners off his front yard. There’s my little boy asking for a balloon and, daddy, please, another slice of fried dough almost as big as him. Absent is the evil that visited the finish line and three days later moved across Cambridge and into Watertown in a whirl of bombs and gunfire.
I want to believe I’ll go back next year and fences and sniffing dogs and men in black with long rifles won’t come to obscure the sights and sounds that have become part of all of us.
The great four-time winner Bill Rodgers says he’s coming out of retirement. The tandem of Dick and Rick Hoyt, dad pushing son in a wheelchair, now say 2013 wasn’t their last.
I want to believe them, and President Obama and all the others who say this race won’t get smaller but bigger, as big and wonderful as the place I call home.
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