People ask me why I run and it's the hardest question to answer. In fact, I never have an answer. I usually just shrug and smile, or say "I don't know". I do know why I run, but it's a reason that I cannot put into words; no metaphor is good enough for the sport, let alone the lifestyle. People often say "It must be a great endorphin rush" or "I've heard runner's high is pretty awesome". I don't get 'runner's high' anymore, I just get the comfort of my life being in order. It's like pouring my coffee or putting in my contacts - it's just what happens when my day starts.
My life revolves around my training. What I eat, how much I eat, what I can and cannot drink, when I sleep, how often I sleep. Papers that I write don't dictate when I can run, running dictates when I will have time to write the papers. If I'm not running, I'm thinking about my training - what my weekend will look like, who can I sucker into doing a long run with me? I sit at my computer and type and read and study and write papers and watch movies and roll a lacrosse ball under my foot because my feet hurt every god damn day. I reach my arms and legs out to stretch when I wake up and immediately draw in a sharp breath because every god damn muscle in my body hurts, I get out of bed and can't walk right away, I spend five minutes on a foam roller before I feel limber enough to start my day, sometimes my breakfast is a gu packet, and I wrap my blisters carefully before slipping my shoes on. Sometimes I stare into my coffee wondering why I'm awake at this hour, going through this process. The comfort of knowing that I am not the only one has kept me going many times.
People, far too often, talk at me like I don't think a marathon is a very far distance. "Oh, to you that's nothing," or "...not that a marathon is anything on your scale". They seem to think that because I'm training for a 100 mile race (and find great pleasure in it) that I think of 26.2 miles as a piece of cake. It's not. Especially if you're racing it. This is also why racing a 5k, to me, is miserable. I'd rather jog all day in the woods than slam concrete and push my body for 20 minutes or a few hours. I applaud those who are successful at the distances they run; road marathoners are a lot stronger in a sense that I am not.
Camaraderie is, at best, only a start to try to begin explaining the running world. Everyone runs for different reasons - to stay in shape, to try something new, to fill an addiction, to lose weight, to reach a personal goal, to say they 'did it'. Marathoners are of a different breed. The Marathoner lies somewhere between shrieking muscles and fading vision; in the uncomfortable balance between work and play and a few levels higher on the intensity scale. We flock to each other because we understand each other, even though it feels like no one else can comprehend why we do what we do. The amount of pain that the runner goes through is unimaginable to people who do not run.
Running takes away humility. It's getting the shits in the middle of a run and having to stop abruptly and barely make it off the trail, it's having a breakdown in the middle of training and not being able to remember why you started, it's dry heaving until you feel like you're going to pass out, it's having to walk the uphills, it's having to walk the flats, it's having to lean on trees on the downhills. We do this because we have to, because we want to. There's nothing like pushing yourself through a race, feeling like you're on the edge of bonking (or, shit, maybe you have bonked), and hearing the faint sound of the finish line. It's a combination of a fluttering heart, a swelling of tears and success just steps away. It's seeing the people that are cheering for you, seeing the medal you're about to get, knowing that it's going to feel so amazing once your foot touches that rubber mat and your time is official.
A lot of runners at Boston didn't get that. Instead, they got a tragedy. They put in the work, the hours, the sweat, the inevitable tears and the blood (there's a lot of blood that goes with training). I feel like my world has been attacked, and I wasn't even there. My world has been attacked and I feel like I can't even handle it. That is what the running community is like, and I honestly believe that you cannot understand it if you are not part of it. You may sympathize, or even empathize, but it's impossible to really feel it - unless you're a runner. I relate this to the Newtown shootings because I was devastated by the shootings, but I know I cannot really relate because I don't have a child; I can't wrap my head around losing a child because I don't have one, because I have not experienced that kind of parental love. The most simple sport that the human can engage in, relying on nothing but, when it comes down to it, your own body working. The Boston marathon is what so many runners strive for; it becomes the ultimate goal for most. Runners traded in their hard work for blood not from their blisters but for spectators limbs being blown off and flesh ripped open; they traded finishing bells and whistles for emergency sirens; shouts of encouragement turned into shrieks of terror.
In light of the tragedy people have pointed out the strong sense of humanity that came about as soon as the bombs went off. Volunteers, spectators and racers went running to the victims, not knowing if another bomb was about to go off. The immediate rush to those in need cannot help but give hope to the pessimist. The first story I saw covered on CNN was about the race volunteers who leapt towards the wounded, and all I could think of was well yeah, duh, of course they did. Because this is the kind of people that race volunteers are. They put others before themselves. Do they like standing at an aid station for hours on end? No, probably not. How about during an ultra when it's cold and raining and windy? No. Do they like dealing with the jerks that don't even thank them because they're too involved with their own pain? No. Standing there filling my handheld while they are trying to keep warm by just standing there for at least 12 hours, offering me hot soup or a sandwich or ANYTHING. I once had someone give me Oreos from their car because they could tell the last thing I wanted was more gu. It's not that I expect race volunteers to run into a bomb scene, it's that I'm not surprised that they do. This is the kind of people they are. They are amazing.
The bombings at Boston, like all tragedies, have brought the running community even closer - as if we could be any closer. It's a reminder that not only are races not to be taken for granted, but nor is any step we take, nor any mile we clock. Many questions will go unanswered, I'm sure, but they always do. What will this mean for races to come? How do you police 26 (or more) miles of spectators? How do you make an open event safe? I argue that you can't, and I'm sure someone is waiting to argue against me. The most prestigious race of our sport has been attacked, and it will never be the same.