The finish line of the Boston Marathon is where agony meets accomplishment. It’s hallowed ground and where you hurl on the ground after the course has exacted its pounds of flesh. It’s the intersection of heaven and hell for those who complete this fabled 26.2-mile test of endurance and resolve.
Life could use more finish lines. There are too few. When are we ever really finished? You finish school. When you retire, you finish working. Then, of course, there is the ultimate finish line that no one is in a hurry to cross — death.
A finish line not only symbolizes what you’ve accomplished, but how far you’ve come to accomplish it. The famed Boston Marathon finish line on Boylston Street is the end point of a journey that is measured in months, not just miles, in strain, not just strides. Running or pushing the Boston Marathon is a triumph of heart, body, and mind.
The times for the elite runners and wheelchair athletes are always faster. But the enervation and elation of finishing the 120th Boston Marathon was the same whether you were men’s winner Lemi Berhanu Hayle of Ethiopia, finishing in 2 hours, 12 minutes and 45 seconds or Scott Warsheski from Boston’s West End, crossing the line in 4 hours, 35 minutes and 36 seconds.
That shared accomplishment and pain between the elite runners and elite wheelchair athletes and the pavement-pounding recreational entrants is part of what makes the Boston Marathon such a special sporting event and a civic celebration. A select few don the winner’s wreath, but the event produces thousands of people who win simply by arriving at the finish line.
Finishing isn’t a fait accompli, no matter how talented a marathoner you are. The defending women’s champion, Caroline Rotich, dropped out of the race at the 4.5-mile mark. Hayle was so fatigued after his winning run that he was unable to speak during his live post-race interview.
“It’s never easy. No matter how fit you are, how good you are, it’s never easy to run 26 miles, and it’s always going to hurt at the end,” said Zachary Hine, the highest finishing American male with a 10th-place finish. “You’re just hoping and crossing your fingers that finish line comes before the body gives up.”
Hine, who grew up in South Hadley and attended South Hadley High School, was an unlikely top American male finisher. At one point in the race, the 28-year-old wasn’t sure he would finish at all. Hine was really struggling the final 5 kilometers.
He repeated a refrain in his head that was the mantra of many marathoners on this April day.
“You’re just mentally where it’s just one foot in front of the other. I want to say you draw on all the training, but it’s really like, ‘I’m at 22.5 miles, get to 23. I’m at 23, now get to 23.5.’ You just break it up as little as you can. You just do little things to get yourself through when it’s hurting that bad.
“It’s just get to the finish line. You’re coming down the homestretch, and it’s a long finishing stretch. It didn’t seem to get any closer, but I looked back and there was no one behind me. I was just holding on, praying my body held out for 200 meters.”
You don’t have to be on foot to have a finish that tests your will and your mettle.
The men’s wheelchair finish featured a three-way sprint for the finish that was exhausting just to watch between Marcel Hug, Ernst Van Dyk, and Kurt Fearnley, all of whom crossed the line with official times of 1:24:06. Hug nudged out Van Dyk and Fearnley to win his second straight Boston Marathon.
Fearnley was asked to describe the frantic finish — “Pain, pain, pain,” he said.
But crossing that line in Boston hurts so good, so good, so good.
Hine described the surreal feeling that all runners gasping for the Valhalla of the finish line feel. As they’re getting closer to their end point, it actually starts to feel like it’s farther away.
When Hine finally arrived at that painted stripe of sanctuary he keeled over and vomited.
“I was physically just spent,” said Hine. “I was barely lucid. I was just like, ‘All right, I’m done. I think I ran pretty well. I think I placed pretty high, and it’s over.’ ’’
The natural question is why anyone would push themselves to that point?
The answer is because they seek the finish line and its sense of achievement, its feeling of attaining what should feel unattainable.
The euphoria that awaits crossing the finish line is like a siren song that keeps so many entrants like the 41-year-old Warsheski plowing onward. Warsheski’s determination brought him back to Boylston.
Like Hine, Warsheski’s race was arduous. His fourth Boston Marathon was his toughest, thanks to temperatures that reached above 70 degrees on the course. The toll of dehydration was evident as he sat on the curb on St. James Avenue, but so was his immense pride.
Warsheski, who was running to benefit Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where his father is receiving treatment for leukemia, said he never looks at the finish line when he takes the famous turn on to Boylston. “It looks close, but it’s not,” he said with a smile.
Instead, he focuses on the faces around him, not his final destination.
What went through Warsheski’s mind when he finally crossed the line?
“The first thing is, ‘I can’t believe I did it again,’ ’’ he said. “Then it’s a matter of thanking all of your friends and family and the people who helped get you here. Then it’s just the excitement of a huge sense of accomplishment. Like I said, I was never a good runner growing up. To think I could do this and do it as many times as I have without being a runner or having a runner’s body it’s a huge sense of accomplishment.”
It’s a sense of accomplishment that only comes from reaching a finish line.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.