Five years ago, a neighbor and I were cheering at mile one on the Boston Marathon course when a runner stopped and removed her long pants, revealing shorts underneath.
“My address and $5 are in the pocket,” she said. “These are my favorite pants. Will you mail them to me?”
We were happy to help. Later, when we couldn’t find the address, I tracked down the mystery runner by contacting a running magazine, which ran an article that the woman, a San Diego professor, saw. She and the pants were reunited, we became friends, and we meet at Legal Sea Foods during Marathon week each year.
When I mentioned all this in a Globe column a couple of years ago, one conclusion seemed obvious: Road racing is the friendliest sport that exists. In no other contest can spectators reach out and touch athletes in competition: slap a hand, exchange a kiss, wear home a sweatshirt that a competitor tossed your way. But last Monday, all that changed.
In Hopkinton last week, a runner gave a local businessman a package, along with a $20 bill, and asked him to mail it to him, just as the San Diego runner had done with me. “However, as the events unfolded in Boston, the Hopkinton man had regrets and called authorities,” the website Hopnews.com reported. A photo showed two policemen and a fireman standing at a wary distance from a white parcel about the size of a newspaper. (It was later mailed to the owner by the Hopkinton Police Department.)
And so it will go in the future — in the unlikely event runners ask spectators to mail anything at all. In 15 seconds of chaos and smoke, 4/15 became 9/11 for runners.
On running websites across the nation, the comparisons fly. A women’s running website designed a graphic with the winsome unicorn of the Boston Athletic Association, ringed with a heart, with the words “Run on! And never forget 4-15-2013.” Ubiquitous too, is a post- 9/11 phrase, tweaked gently to say, “We are all runners now.”
“It feels like 9/11 all over again,” said Laura Gorjanc Pizmoht, cofounder of the website Saltyrunning. (I have contributed to the site.) Her sister, New Yorker Kyle Gorjanc, designed the graphic “because I am scared people will be afraid to run.”
“I want us to never forget that, no matter the adversity, we run. That is what we are, what unites us, what makes us great,” Gorjanc said.
Is it too much to compare, even faintly, the Marathon bombings to the still-throbbing wound that is 9/11? Maybe, but the Marathon bombings will have the same effect on road racing that 9/11 did on airports. Handoffs to spectators will end; no one will bring backpacks to find at the finish; the bulky old sweatshirts that runners wear to cast off will be eyed with suspicion.
But runners will adjust, just like American travelers did. If it takes a little longer to go through airport security still, and if fewer people are allowed to linger at marathon finish lines, we’ll be OK. An appealing part of running culture will be lost, to be sure, but it won’t kill the sport.
If anything, we may even see the third running boom.
Yes, it’s a painful pairing of words. But “running boom” is a common term, used to describe the popularity the sport assumed beginning in the 1970s. The second one is said to have occurred over the past 10 years, as participation in road races broke records despite the hobbled economy.
The third began April 16, 2013.
Last week, people who have never run farther than their mailboxes participated in memorial runs in cities like Charlotte, N.C.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Omaha. Prediction: More people than ever will want to run Boston next year.
We may need to call this something else, perhaps running’s third wave. Whatever it takes to keep going, the running community will bring it; athletes who hand their pants to strangers know something about adapting — and taking leaps of faith.