Boston Marathon bombing strikes at the very heart of individual achievement

The Eh Game

Every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning, we gather to run.

Its a varied group: people learning how to run again, others getting in shape for a 10k or a half-marathon, and some of us training for a full marathon. We gather in the back of the room, alongside those who have something of a hallowed status: the Boston group.

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The Boston group is made up of runners who are training for the Boston Marathon, or those who have already run it, and even some for whom the race is old hat, an annual tradition. We look upon them with a certain awe; we can only dream of being fast enough to qualify for Boston.

Each time the Boston Marathon comes around, a select few elevate to join the ranks of the veterans. I spent Monday morning with one eye on a spreadsheet, and one eye on the Boston Marathon tracker, as eight of my running partners and coaches conquered the streets of Massachusetts. I followed them throughout the day, and one by one, it seemed a coronation was in order. Some flew through the finish line, others struggled near the end, but one by one, they completed the grand-daddy of marathons, some for the first time.

In the end, only one of the group didn't finish; she was held up less than 2 km from the finish line after the bombings struck the finish line in one of the most unfathomable acts of terrorism one could even imagine. Now, they're all left, not to celebrate, but to mourn, and we mourn with them. When they return for our weekly Wednesday session, once the hugs and "glad you're OK"'s have been handed out, what then?

The running community is tight-knit; online forums host lengthy discussions on the proper way to wave at another runner going in the opposite direction. When Isabelle Robidas was running on Monday, I felt like I was running alongside her; she and I have trained together for a year, finished each practice run and race within a few minutes of each other, and use each other as pace-setters on the "don't feel like running" days. Isabelle hadn't yet finished the Boston Marathon when I had to leave my computer Monday; fortunately she finished in 3:46, just enough time to clear the finish line and medal area before the bombs went off.

The story of the race earlier in the day was Rob Watson, an overlooked elite Canadian runner who briefly led the race before finishing 11th. That story won't be told, now; instead, the story has headlines like "Deadly Terror Attack at Boston Marathon," which sounds like a stupid idea for a Hollywood movie, except it's real.

The attacks of 9/11 struck iconic buildings; the attack on the Boston Marathon struck at tradition, community, and aspiration. While many commentators have noted that with the bombs going off 4:10 after the race started, they were designed to hit the optimum number of runners, that's actually not true. With a minimum qualifying time of 4:00:00 for all runners under 50, the bombs were more likely to affect the families and friends of older runners and those running for charity - the general makeup of your average marathon (or any other road race). Runners like Bill Iffrig, the 83 year-old who was blown off his feet steps from the finish. An understated part of the video clips from the bombing is how many runners kept running as they looked at the explosion (see picture above); this was Boston, and for runners and fans, Boston is the pinnacle, and it would take a lot more than a little explosion on the sidewalk to keep them from completing a lifelong goal. Once you cross the finish line in Boston, nobody can ever take that away from you.

Except now, as facts emerge, the death toll solidifies and the stories of casualties are verified, the truth becomes clear: you can, in fact, take that away from them. Last Wednesday I ran with Isabelle and told her how proud I was of all the training she put in over the winter. I told her she'd put herself in the best possible position for success in Boston. I was right; she set a personal best. But how can we celebrate that now? How do we not feel collective guilt for placing such importance on an event that became such an icon of individual accomplishment that it became a target for evil? How do we look at the images of blood-stained sidewalks and shattered storefronts, and dare to think instead of the individual feats that took place a few hundred feet away? Are we allowed to still be happy for our friends?

A few days ago, I was talking to another runner in our group about whether we'd ever take a run at qualifying for Boston. It seemed like a longshot, but if we could, we'd join that special group at the back of the room on Sunday mornings, the ones in blue and yellow Adidas gear that signified their rank amongst the best of the best. But now, and maybe forever, they won't be asked "what's it like to run Boston?" Instead, they'll be asked "were you there in 2013? Were you terrified?"

In that respect, maybe the terrorists have already won.

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