Running together

The marathon is a test of individual endurance and will, but also community. Nobody truly runs alone. Never more so on Monday.

At mile 16 of the Boston Marathon, a spot that comes a few minutes before runners approach the punishing segment known as “Heartbreak Hill” and a few hours before a pair of bombs shattered the event forever, all that is great about the race was on display.

But it wasn’t the head-to-head battle between the two female runners leading the race up the steady grade.

It was curbside.

A spectator picked up a leading racer’s just-discarded energy drink bottle. Another approached and asked for the container, marked with a name, pleading that it had belonged to her idol. The conversation was emotional and honest, the sort of exchange that comes from deep desire and ends with hugs of gratitude.

Marathons are open events. The world’s best runners pass within arm’s reach. Casual competitors, if that can be used to describe any marathoner, share the road with the monastic greats who dedicate every waking hour to becoming the fastest humans on the planet.

The events themselves, be it in Boston or elsewhere, are a model of both commerce and also camaraderie. They embody so much of what is great about our society. Charities raise tens of thousands of dollars. Strangers cheer people who they will see for a moment, and almost certainly never again. Families crush their loved ones with hugs as runners break stride to connect with what gives them the strength to complete one of the most arduous challenges we find socially acceptable today. Racers, and their families, sacrifice for something difficult and elusive, but certainly meaningful.

By late afternoon Monday, Boston was caught in the shadow of something awful. People learned that few things are more humbling than scouring the Internet for signs that a friend or loved one is alive.

Next year at mile 16 the runners will be back, girding for battle against one another and the rolling hills ahead. They will return as much out of defiance of those who want to isolate and enfeeble us as out of dedication to a shared experience of overcoming. Among the family and friends, fanatical fans and onlookers, loss and gratitude will compete for our hearts.

But nobody will be on their own that day.