Growing up, I looked forward with eager anticipation to my father’s semi-regular marathon participation. We lived in a small town, so traveling to a marathon was as much about the road trip as it was about the race. Watching a race was a high-adrenaline spectator sport. Prior to a race, my brother and I decorated vivid “Go Dad” signs and prepped bottles filled with either sports drink or ice water. We packed bananas and orange slices and snacks for ourselves. For some marathons, my mom brought lawn chairs, knowing that we’d be road side for most of the day. The night before the race, we went over Dad’s route, marking the best spots to stand and deciding on a meeting point where we’d greet him at the finish.
When a race was on, we’d clap and cheer for the front runners, noting their finely-honed bodies and graceful strides. After the professionals and the elites had passed, we’d anxiously scan the crowds of mid-pack runners for a glimpse of my father’s face, his lucky tee-shirt or his distinct cap. We’d check my mother’s watch and anxiously count the minutes until we thought we had a chance of seeing him. Often we stood with the partners of Dad’s running buddies, and together searched the crowds for our hometown runners.
No matter how demanding the race or how much pain he was in, Dad broke into a huge grin when he caught sight of us. He’d slap our hands with high-fives, grab a sip from our water bottles and trot off refreshed, or at least that’s how it always seemed. At the finish, we’d ooh and awe at his medal, pilfer through his post-race bag of goodies. Sometimes we’d spend the rest of day sight-seeing, other times we’d hop back in the car and head home. Dad would limp around the house for a couple of days, and eventually get back to training. A few weeks or months later he’d announce that he’d found another race to run and we’d put on our spectator hats and hit the road for the newest chapter in his racing career.
I was in high school when Dad ran the Boston Marathon. After running the Richmond, Virginia marathon a couple of times and a fast Myrtle Beach marathon that qualified him for the Boston, Dad was thrilled to get a chance to run such a historic and prestigious race. Once in Boston, we did as much sight-seeing as we could prior to the race. On race day my mother and another friend led us through the city using the city’s old-fashioned streetcars. When Dad passed us on the infamous “Heartbreak Hill” stretch, about six miles before the finish, he even stopped and chatted a few seconds before trotting on to the finish. Running Boston is an accomplishment recognized throughout the running world. Even in our small-town community, runners knew that to make it to Boston, you had to have discipline and perseverance.
After each of my father’s races, I’d wonder about my own running future. Would I ever run a race as long as a marathon? Did I even want to? Back at home, running laps or on the paths at the local state park, I trained my legs for upcoming track and cross-country meets. When it came time to race, my family, mom, dad and brother came to cheer me on. They often held banners or waved flags. I could hear their voices, “Go get ’em Em, you can do it” in the crowd, and no matter how dead my legs felt at the moment, it made me pick up my pace and run just a bit faster. On better days, I was a mid-pack runner. Once at a cross-country meet, I ran last, just in front of the swag golf cart that was meant to sweep the course. I was never the best, or anywhere close to it, but finishing a race gave me a sense of accomplishment.
As an adult living in Prague, I set my sights on the early spring Prague half-marathon. A half-marathon seemed doable, without being as physically demanding as a marathon. Five years ago, I ran my first half-marathon with a friend who was an experienced racer. She kept our pace slow till the last few kilometers; then we went for broke. Throughout the race, especially when my legs grew tired, I scanned the crowds of bystanders for a familiar face. When I saw Radek with the children, my heart lit up. Their handwritten “Go Mommy” sign and exclamations of surprise at spotting me along the route helped me push on to the finish.
This past year, in a moment of self-doubt, I actually encouraged Radek and the kids to stay home. I wasn’t sure if I could finish the race, and I hated to have my family waiting out in the cold while I tried to accomplish my goal. But on race morning, I realized that, like it or not, my family was determined to see me through the day’s race. On the way to the race, I fielded questions from the children about whether I’d win the race and if not, then who would. In their winter coats and carrying a “Go Mommy” sign, they left me at the start. I agreed to look for them at the 12km mark and then just before the finish.
By 12 km, I was scanning the crowds hoping to see my family’s faces. I wanted to look as strong and composed as my father always had, when I ran past them. When I caught a glimpse of Samuel’s green coat, I thrust my arms up in the air in a victory symbol. The race was only halfway over, still when I saw the children’s faces, eager with anticipation and replete with the thrill of watching thousands of runners push their personal limits, I couldn’t help but feel like a winner. The feeling was multiplied tenfold when I finally saw them again near the finish. Their shouts of “Go Mommy” echoed in my ears as I pushed through the final kilometers. When I met them after the finish, they grabbed eagerly at my medal and the post-race goodie pack, just as I had years ago.
While driving to work, Radek called me early Tuesday morning saying that he’d heard of a bombing at Monday’s Boston Marathon. I immediately got online and tried to learn what I could about the bombing that had turned the finish of the Boston Marathon, a place that should have been a buzz of celebration, into a scene of death and carnage. Pictures of the injured, the blood-spattered streets and sidewalks and the chaos of the moments that followed, accompanied the news stories of the gruesome terrorist act.
Three promising lives lost in tragedy. Martin Richard was 8 years old from Dorchester, Mass. Krystle Campbell was 29 and lived in Medford, Mass., Lingzi Lu of China was a graduate student at Boston University. Each of the victims had come to the Boston Marathon to enjoy the spring day, to cheer on their friends or neighbors, to encourage thousands of runners that they didn’t even know to run hard, to do their best. They’d come to the race to celebrate life.
While citizens of Boston grieve for their city; the victims and their families, and the hundreds of injured, including 13 with one or more amputated limbs, citizens around the world grieve with them. News sources have posted ongoing updates in the search for those responsible. I have also read accounts of the bravery, resilience, grit and determination that have emerged from the tragedy.
In an op-ed piece for the New York Times called Messing with the Wrong City Dennis Lehane, a journalist and resident of Dorchester, writes, “When the civilian bystanders to the attack ran toward the first blast to give aid to the victims, without a second thought for their own safety, the primary desire of the terrorists — to paralyze a populace with fear — was already thwarted.”
In the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy, I’m reminded of those who live in troubled areas of the world when bomb threats are a constant reality. I also think of children like Martin Richard and young adults like Kystle Campbell or Lingzi Lu who won’t ever stand on the sidelines to cheer on another race. I think of all of the lives that have been changed forever by this senseless act of destruction.
On Saturday May 12, the Prague Marathon will be held in downtown Prague. My heart goes out to all who are running the race, as well as each person standing on the sidelines cheering them on in their race of life. We must reaffirm that events such as these, which celebrate life and the need for loving support in order to reach difficult goals, will never be hijacked by terrorists; as a community we must prevail.