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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Marathon

In the western suburbs, the party starts early because the race starts early. Even so, the first runners won’t go by for at least an hour as we thread our way down already crowded sidewalks, dodging lawn chairs and small children, older kids throwing balls and dashing gleefully into the closed road to retrieve them. At this hour, the road is mostly empty; only unofficial challengers are this far along the 26-mile route. Cyclists, mostly. And small groups of soldiers in fatigues, backs straight under their heavy packs. At the front-yard party that’s our destination, someone asks if there are more soldiers than usual this year. The rest of us shake our heads. They’re here every year, challenging themselves to go from Hopkinton to Boston in full gear. It’s a tradition.

Spring comes begrudgingly to Massachusetts some years. We’re all in fleece or heavy sweatshirts and sweaters. When the sun comes out and the hot coffee goes down my throat, I tie my fleece around my waist. But only for a few minutes. BB is cold in her windbreaker, and begs my jacket from me. She’s eight years old now, and she’s grown several inches this year. But the sleeves of my jacket still dangle down several inches past her wrists, and she has trouble balancing the bagel on her paper plate. I help her, then fumble with the straw on a younger child’s juice box — my picky eaters never did learn to drink juice. But they fend for themselves well enough now at the folding buffet tables with the food and the water pitcher.

Do they tell you in the news that our first excitement every year comes when we spot the police escort accorded to the leaders of the wheelchair race? We shoo the kids out of the street and take positions lining the sidewalk so that we can yell and clap as they approach. So many different kinds of wheelchairs. I see one person sitting ramrod straight in his seat like an old soldier; I see a person or two recumbent and turning pedals with his hands. Some of the racers have their legs tucked underneath them almost invisibly. Some racers have no legs. We cheer them until our throats are sore, just like we do every year.

Later will come the runners. First the elite women go by; then the elite men. Disabled runners must have an early start time, because many of them beat the pack to our vantage point. We see a man on one good leg and one blade. He’s running with a guide on either side of him, and he’s visibly struggling. A pair of able-bodied male runners come up behind them and pass. They’re not on the leading edge, but they are well ahead of the pack, making a time that anyone would envy. One of the pair, an African runner — I don’t catch the country on his jersey — turns around as he passes to catch the eye of the man with the blade. Thumbs up, he signals to the man. The man brightens. We all cheer wildly, for the blade runner, for the kind runner, for kindness and courage.

Do they tell you about the man on stilts or the man running in a pink tutu, the man in a Captain America suit or the man dressed like a bumblebee? Do they tell you what it looks like to see thousands of people running in a line as far as your eye can see, or what it sounds like to hear thousands of shoes hitting pavement? Do they tell you about the children waving signs, hooting into noisemakers, scampering into the road to retrieve discarded water bottles and gloves? Some of the runners have smiles as wide as the sky as they edge to the side to grab a slice of orange from the platters the kids hold out or to give a high-five to a child’s outstretched hand.

So many runners write their heart on their shirts for us to read as they go by. Friends of Griffin, we read on tens of shirts. Griffin must have a lot of friends. We don’t really need to ask why Griffin’s friends are running, why they’re trying to raise money or raise spirits for Griffin. We see stories like this one run by every year. Is there another sporting event that’s as much about celebrating hope and resilience in the face of hardship and tragedy, year after year? I hope there is.

Next year it will be different, god knows it will be different. The front yard parties and packed town commons, the kids who dash into the street, the drummers and barbecues and radios blasting updates from the Red Sox games. It will all be different, constricted, laced with fear and PTSD and tears. There will be people missing who should be there. There will be wheelchair racers and blade runners who once ran with the pack.

But I hope we never stop cheering wildly for kindness and courage and carrying on, 26 long miles’ worth, and the marathon-length of our lives.

(I turned off comments ages ago because I got tired of batting away spam. But I think most of you know where to find me and each other.)