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Matthew Bernstein

Runners, the marathon does matter

A runner reacts near Kenmore Square after the explosions.Getty Images

After two explosions rocked the 117th Boston Marathon on Monday, a runner was interviewed near the finish line. Asked how it felt to have completed the race, she paused and said that that didn’t matter anymore.

But of course it matters. It must. And not just finishing. For thousands more runners who were prevented from proceeding to Boylston Street, it mattered that they got as far as they did. It mattered that they lined up Monday morning at the Hopkinton start. It mattered that they trained in the first place. It all matters.

In the best of circumstances, running a marathon is a punishing experience. But it’s not one we normally associate with survivor guilt. Yet it’s not unimaginable that some runners might feel as if their personal path to fulfillment has been cheated. This should not be confused with selfishness.


Now that the Marathon has been overtaken by grave physical injury and unbearable loss, it may seem beside the point to take full measure of the psychic tragedy suffered by runners and their supporters. It certainly seems too soon. That’s why it’s especially essential for the runners to do whatever possible to preserve the experience as one they can be proud of, even as they recognize that the achievement will always be sullied by the unspeakable.

I was struck by the worldview of a parent quoted in a recent magazine article: “I try not to look backward . . . because if I did I’d be a mess. ‘Pull out the rearview mirror and throw it away.’ ” The prescription for Monday’s marathoners is to do the opposite, to ask themselves, for example, what they were doing just before 2:50 p.m. on race day.

Were they, like my friend Harry, minutes from the finish line — spared from the blast, yet agonizingly close to the end? Were they struggling up Heartbreak Hill, finding the mantras to propel them forward, oblivious of the roadblock ahead?

The image of 78-year-old Bill Iffrig, knocked to the ground by the force of the explosion just 15 feet from the finish, has been viewed over and over worldwide. He got up to complete the full 26.2 miles. But will he be able to recover the feeling he had when he was 30 feet away from his goal?


Runners, retrace your steps further. Go back to Monday morning. You were lying on a damp Hopkinton field, trying to gather your thoughts, and your strength, for the day ahead. Would this be your first marathon? Your 10th?

Was this the first year you had met the rigorous standards to qualify? Or did you earn your bib number by raising thousands of dollars for a cause you believed in? Did you do both?

Go back to the snowstorms of March. What did it take for you to pull on the extra layers and get out there for your long run? You could have banked the previous week’s miles and taken a day off. But you went out.

Do you remember the beautiful blankness of all those runner’s highs — how clear your head became after the first 10 or 12 miles on a February morning?

Keep turning backward in time, to the idea itself, the notion that, finally, you would pursue this remarkable goal. You had never run more than 6 miles in your life, but you believed it was possible.

Where was the spark that set you on this course? Maybe you went to the finish line on a sunny afternoon long ago. You missed the leaders by hours, but you stood in the packed crowd and watched runners of all ages, shapes, and sizes, people in agony and exultation.


First you thought: I could never do that.

Then you thought: Someday, I’ll do that.

The lesson here is not to dismiss, even for an instant, the shared heartbreak that will forever mark our experience of this particular 2013 day. But runners need a way to honor the hours, the miles, the sweat, the discipline, the achievement of running beyond their capacity to continue.

The takeaway is to celebrate what can never be taken away.

Matthew Bernstein is the Globe’s letters editor. He ran the Boston Marathon in 2005 and 2006.