Saturday, April 27, 2013

My Boston Marathon

Boston is my hometown, I have spent more of my life there than anywhere else and even though I moved to Europe in 2009, Boston remains the place I feel most at ease at, home. I am not a Boston native, I was born in Cairo where I spent my childhood, when I first moved to the US, I lived in California, which, I loved, but contrary to my own expectations I have become a Bostonian. It is the Boston Red Sox that I follow, WBUR that I listen to on the web and Boston trends I look at on Twitter; home! 

I was on a business trip in Australia, on that saddest of days, the day of the cowardly, cruel attacks on the Boston Marathon. It felt like disaster has struck my immediate family, I was in deep shock and disbelief. The distance from Boston, from my family, along with the massive jet lag and associated sleep deprivation added to my deep sadness, a sense of void in my heart, hollowness in my entire being. I hardly watch TV and rely on Twitter as my primary source of news. The very nature of following such horrible news on social media, naturally, added to my anxiety and tension.

The vast majority of the tweets were from the Boston Globe, other Boston media, CNN, few tweets of eyewitnesses and hundreds of tweets from people in shock and sadness expressing their grief or anger. Some tweets I saw emphasized bigger tragedies in other parts of the world and objected to Boston Marathon bombing dominating their timelines. An Egyptian tweep, mockingly stated that the Egyptians know one kind of running, away from an aggressive dog, or trying to catch a bus. Even though @el_Shazli tweet was of the self-deprecating type, it added to my sadness and actually angered me; how could someone crack a joke at a time like this?

It is a sad fact that many young Egyptians are smokers; a small tiny minority is active in sports of any kind. This generalization applied fully to me up to my early thirties, when I finally quit smoking and attempted to start running. Shortly after that, I moved with my family to Boston, where gradually I started running once or twice a week. I still remember an event that had a profound effect on my life, it was a Monday, Patriots Day, an official holiday in Massachusetts, commemorating early events of the American Revolution. Patriots Day is hardly known or observed outside of Massachusetts; it is celebrated on the third Monday in April and exactly at midday, the Boston Marathon starting gun fires.

I lived in Newton, MA, very close to the route of the Boston Marathon, but it was only after several years of living in the Boston area that I happened to be at home on Patriots Day, what a day it was! The 100th running of the Boston Marathon, a record number of runners, well over 40,000 were allowed to run that year. My kids excitedly took me up the street to the Marathon Route, the road was closed, hundreds of people on both sides, virtually all of our neighbors were there with beach chairs, or just sitting on the curb, lots of people of all ages, a total carnival atmosphere. I looked to the right and left up and down the route, the festival clearly stretches on for miles, all waiting for the runners to arrive.

Suddenly, police sirens, lots of commotion, very loud applause, a couple of police cars pass by and an older man in an open car, standing and waiving cheerfully left and right. I am told this is Johnny Kelley, the Grand Marshall of the Boston Marathon. Just a mile up the road there is a statue I run by of two runners, they are John Kelley, a younger and an older John Kelley. Kelley took part in the Boston Marathon 61 times, completed it 58 times, amazing! I have been running by that statue and now I have seen the man himself in the flesh. Few minutes later, the wheel chairs racers arrive, first the men, then the women … the focus and determination on the faces of these elite athletes close-up is hard to describe. Nearly half an hour later, the main event …the fastest men, fifteen minutes later the fastest women … .and then non stop runners, hundreds and hundreds of runners keep on passing by. The carnival on the street never stops, people offering water, energy drinks and oranges to the runners, cheering, yelling, clapping, lots of high fives. I walked back home for some lunch and some work phone calls, this after all was an ordinary working day for the rest of the country.

Two hours later, I walked up my little street to the Marathon route, still the carnival atmosphere, but with fewer spectators, the runners, were slower obviously, some were older, some were heavier, but plenty of young and athletic looking types too. As time went by there were more tired looking runners, some were clearly suffering from muscle cramps, some were bloodied from falls or the painful bleeding nipples, a common affliction of distance running, that I had not heard of before that day, I also saw plenty with dried salt on their faces, a result of lots of sweating, dehydration and wind. Some of these runners had their names on their shirts, so people would yell out come ‘on Pat or Rick …. others had other messages like running in memory of a father, mother or friend, or for cancer or autism. I stood watching these amazing people, cheering them on; their faces spoke of determination.

I was there for over an hour clapping and encouraging. The sheer determination of these ordinary, these slow runners amazed me, here I was close to Mile 18 of this 26.2 mile route, those runners if they finish, may only get to the finish line after dark, and they were still going and going defying pain and fatigue. I had only been running few miles, but right there and then, on that day, with these slow but determined people passing before me, I decided that I would one day run this Boston Marathon, maybe it would take me two years to do it, but I would run the Boston Marathon!

It took me a while to investigate signing up for the Marathon and after sometime I registered as part of the Kids At Heart team, raising money for the Boston Children’s Hospital. I started training harder, building up the miles. I was running five to six days every week, taking just one day off, I would get up early to run for an hour or so before work and have at least one long run on the weekend. My job required extensive global travel, so I was running everywhere in hotels on treadmills, on the hilly streets of Hong Kong, the crowded waterfront in Bombay, in Hyde Park and along Thames in London and of course along the Boston Marathon route itself when I was home.

Building up to the Marathon the Children Hospital team had organized training runs that were getting longer and longer and I run the New Bedford Half Marathon in March and a 20 Mile race from Maine to Massachusetts in brutally cold conditions. It felt, like I was running all the time, regardless of the cold and snow or even the heat if I was traveling. Three weeks before the date, I eased off on the training and gradually reduced my weekly mileage. I still remember a motivational event organized by Children Hospital where one of the patients spoke. Katie Lynch was in her twenties, but still had the body and voice of a child and hence still a patient of Children’s Hospital dealing with various complicated health issues from her rare genetic disorder. Few years later, this beautiful young woman did something, she never did before … she managed, unassisted, 26 steps, she nearly fell at the end, this was her marathon, years in the making.

Finally, Patriots Day! I woke up early and my, ever supporting, wife drove me the eighteen miles to the west, to Hopkinton, the small town where the Marathon starts. The streets were overflowing with thousands of runners, a short while after I arrived, the roads were closed to traffic, it must feel like some sort of an alien invasion to the residents of this sleepy town. It was a cold day, there was no place to sit, so people kept pacing up and down to keep warm, the lines for the porta-potties were getting ridiculously long, hard to accommodate all these runners hydrating and requiring toilets to the very last moment.

I finally handed my small carry-on bag with my official number stapled to it, the organizers would see to it, that we all receive our bags after the finish line. I went to line up towards the back, I expected that I would finish the marathon in over four and half hours; I wasn’t racing to beat others. We heard the cheers for the start of wheel chairs race and after what felt like forever, at exactly midday the starting gun. Lots of yelling and shouting, screams of excitement and joy, but we didn’t move an inch, after more than ten minutes we started moving slowly and it took me close to fifteen minutes to cross the Starting Line. We were still inching forward and it took another five minutes or so, before enough space opened up and I actually started running ..Finally!

It is hard to describe exactly how I felt then, I was excited for sure, but more I was apprehensive, I had many fears. I was worrying that I would trip up in the crowd, others did; I worried that I would have muscle cramps, that I wouldn’t finish the Marathon after training so hard for it. I had to focus on not starting out too fast, I have to pace myself; the route is mostly downhill for the first fourteen miles and this pounding can be brutal on leg muscles later. I had to keep hydrated even if I didn’t feel thirsty. The crowds on both sides of the road were so thick, cheering us wildly as we went through Hopkinton, then Ashland and Natick … and then we hit scream alley .. what an amazing experience running by Wellesley College whose students for decades have established this amazing tradition of making every single runner feel simply extra special, with their loud cheers and high fives, the young women of Wellesley College organize waves of cheerers so they never get tired.

Nearly five miles later, I made it to Newton and soon, the Newton hills! I run up the first hill, past the fire station and get closer to the spot where I was, not so long ago, standing cheering the runners. I heard my daughter shouting my name, then my son, my wife was there too, so were the neighbors, all cheering me on, my wife shouted that they would meet me near the finish line. I felt stomach cramps, I felt cold, but I went on and headed up heartbreak hill and down past Boston College, with loud music cheering us on.  This is where people normally hit the wall, right around the 20-mile mark, many people just can’t keep going beyond this point. Apart from the cold and my stomach cramps, which were getting worse, I knew that I would be able to finish, so I run on.

I run past Cleveland Circle for a long three miles, strong cold headwind made me feel very chilled, but I kept going, crowds had thinned out, but they were still rooting for us, cheering us on. Finally I passed Fenway and it was not as windy and much more crowded again, then a turn to the right followed by turn to left on to Boylston Street, I run stronger, the Boston Library on my right, I saw my wife standing on the left side of the street, my son is cheering wildly and my daughter shouting Papa! … I run past the finish line four hours and forty some minutes after I started.
Someone puts a medal around my neck and another young volunteer wraped a blanket around my shoulders and undid my shoelaces to retrieve the official chip that recorded my progress along the entire route. I staggered into a large tent where I retrieved my bag to enjoy the relative warmth and eat bagels and drink more fluids. I could hardly walk… around me hundreds of people, many with tears in their eyes from joy of finishing, from pain, or from both; hundred of marathon winners, each with own stories and reasons for running. The fact that the fastest runners crossed the line some two and half hours before us didn’t mean anything at all to me or to those around me, we were each in our own totally private race surrounded by thousands others with their own private races and we all won!

The Marathon in Boston has a special place, it is the world oldest marathon, it is held on this special holiday, that only we celebrate, it is the beginning, the real beginning of spring after our long harsh winter, it is school holiday week. But perhaps, most importantly, it is the personal stories that lead thousands of people to run, it is the amazing carnival atmosphere all the way from Hopkinton down to the finish line at Copley Square. It is a day of celebration and festivities, celebrating our ability, us ….we ordinary human beings who will our bodies to do the extraordinary …it is a celebration of our determination to defeat addictions or old bad habits, our inner journeys to achieve our hopes and aspirations, positive aspirations for no one runs a marathon for a mean or a negative reason. It is all about us, the runners, our families, neighbors, our friends and the entire community come to celebrate profoundly positive emotions and ideals.

A lot has been written about the brutality and cruelty of the bombings and condemnations of the abhorrent act have appeared everywhere. For many people outside of Boston it is still hard to appreciate what this event means to us. I wanted to write my own account as an Egyptian American, a Bostonian of my first Boston Marathon. I run the Boston Marathon twice more, each time, for my own very personal stories and reasons. The thousands that run on April 15, 2013 each had their own story, their own reasons for embarking on their personal journeys to train for and to run the marathon, so did their loved ones and the more than one million people that lined the streets along the entire route.

Weeks after the tragedy, I think of the amazing young woman, Katie Lynch, whose 26 step marathon required her to train, she did it to motivate us to run. Her little fragile body never stopped her from finishing high school and graduating from college and completing her very own little baby marathon. She did all she could do with her God given body until she finally passed away few years after I first saw her. This is what Boston Marathon about, ordinary people willing their God given bodies to do something very extraordinary and having their entire city will them on and celebrate with them. The bombing of the Boston Marathon is ultimately an assault on our humanity … the best of humanity… is a direct attack on the All Mighty God, the creator of these bodies, and it can never, never be of Him or in his Name.

April 27, 2013


Amal Aqul said...

Dear Ayman,
This is a beautiful piece. It brought tears to my eyes! I remember on the marathon day last year early in the morning, Boston looked as pretty as I had ever seen. All the colors were vivid. The sky is as blue as the blue should be, pretty flowers, green baby leaves on the trees just coming to life full of hope, and birds tweeting and singing proud of where they live. I was on the phone with my mom telling her that Boston is probably a piece of heaven. It is very hard to explain but I think you are right, it is a day when All Mighty God is taking pride of how powerful human's will can be and showing off how faith can take you places no one can ever imagine. Since that Brutal attack I have always wondered... Would Boston ever be that peaceful again?!!

AA said...

Thank you very much for your kind comment. It remains a very emotional topic for me to be honest. Glad the Boston you saw was the Boston I always think of and long to