For 123 years, the Boston Marathon has taken place on Patriots’ Day — the third Monday of April. The 124th running would have occurred this past Monday, were coronavirus not ripping its way through the world, the United States and particularly East Coast cities like New York and Boston. The Boston Athletic Association has since rescheduled the race to September.
I grew up around Heartbreak Hill between miles 20 and 21 of the course, and the marathon has always had an almost mythic character for me. Each year nearly half a million spectators and over 30,000 runners from all over the world descend on the Greater Boston Area. This mass migration makes the marathon the largest sporting event in New England. As runners battle the final, big uphill stretch at Heartbreak Hill before the closing leg, the noise on Commonwealth Avenue is deafening. Bells, horns, plain old yelling and maybe even the occasional vuvuzela — that someone still has from the 2010 World Cup — combine with the thronging crowds, pressed up against the partitions and toting signs urging the runners on, to create an overwhelming sensory experience. The absence of all this fanfare and joy on Monday was equally deafening in its sweeping silence.
The oldest annual marathon in the world, the race itself is a testament to persistence, drive and the enduring power of tradition to illuminate and strengthen a community. After watching nearly 20 races in person in what has become a personal rite, I have seen how the interplay of the fans, the runners and the route that extends from rural Hopkinton to Copley Square in the center of Boston highlights the connectedness and unity of the human experience.
If this phenomenon was always implicitly at work on Marathon Mondays, it became explicit after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. That year, two bombs exploded at the finish line, killing three people, injuring over 200 and shattering the atmosphere of a normally triumphant afternoon. For the next few days, a massive manhunt ensued. Much like now, the streets were empty; people stayed at home; and fear, anxiety and uncertainty gripped people’s hearts and minds. I remember my school being canceled while police searched for the terrorist. The news showed tanks parked at a mall near my home. But after police apprehended the culprit, the city could begin to recover, and the slogan “Boston Strong” was born.
This mantra of unity carried the city forward through one of its darkest moments, and other Boston sports teams from the Red Sox to the Bruins helped amplify the message. On Monday, even as the streets lay uncharacteristically deserted, the spiritual force of the Marathon continued. Some members of the wheelchair division staged a virtual race in their own homes from all over the globe. Another runner ran her own marathon through Boston right around the finish line and traced out “Boston Strog” — she unfortunately forgot the “n” — with her path.
Barring the ill-advised continuance of the Belarusian soccer league and YouTube marble racing, for over a month, coronavirus has starved the world of sports. Without them, we have lost a valuable source of human connection. But as the Boston Marathon shows, sometimes it is when things are violently and cruelly taken away from us that we can act more resolutely on the values they held all along.
We can still draw on the community and togetherness of sports even in their absence. In fact, we must as a way to maintain our social bonds as quarantine drags on. We are part of a bigger and longer race to end this crisis right now. Not having the Marathon on Monday stung, but as the Boston Athletic Association wrote in a message to all the essential workers keeping life running: “We’ll wait to start until you reach the finish.”