After the Marathon: We Contain Multitudes

April 17, 2013 | 1 6 min read

This past Monday, I watched the Boston Marathon. I live in Newton, so I went over and watched it about a mile from my house. I was standing a little before mile 19, from about eleven that morning, until about one. So nothing had happened yet except the marathon itself.

Patriots’ Day is always this particular Monday, closest to April 19th, which is also always the first Monday of school vacation. I haven’t seen a marathon for years, because we’ve usually been away. But this year I was here, and I felt pretty silly that we have been living so close by for so long and I hadn’t gone to watch. I knew there would be a festival sort of atmosphere. I knew it would be one of those heart-warming community events that make you feel good about humanity, although I didn’t know exactly how it would work. On Monday, I woke up feeling a little fizz of excitement, to be honest.

One child was away on his school vacation, with my husband; one child was asleep, because she’s a teenager; one was going to come with me but reneged at the last minute. So I biked over alone. I was feeling sad about that, but then lo and behold when I got there and parked my bike, I realized that across Comm Ave.—on the other side of the course—were my brother- and sister-in-law, who don’t even live in Newton and could have been spectating from anywhere along the 26.2 miles, but were instead precisely where I was. I crossed over. “God didn’t want me to be alone at the marathon,” I said.

It was early; I didn’t realize how early, marathon-wise, it was. There were a few wheelchairs, and a few of the elite women. Most of them had already gone by. We were now waiting for the elite male runners. Before long there was a phalanx of motorcycles, and photographer trucks, and then, finally, a small pack of slender men. “Oh,” breathed Teresa. “Oh. They glide.” We marveled at the efficiency of their strides. Their faces didn’t show strain but, rather, authority. Then they were gone.

Following the leader pack was the rest of the elites, more spread out. A kid near us had a vuvuzela, which nicely punctuated things. We could see each individual runner; clap and cheer; and then chat some more. We talked about how my husband—one of four brothers—ran the marathon in high school, and how a couple of years later no one in the family was running it and so another brother, Sam, called John, the brother I was standing with now, on March first and said, “You training yet?” That was back before you had to qualify. They both ran it, that year, in four hours.

John—no longer a runner, but a dedicated walker—said he started wearing Rockports after he saw a guy running in them one year. We saw a barefoot guy go by. A few Vibram sock-shoe guys.  On the edge of the other side, Marines, in full gear, were walking the route. My nephew is a Marine; Teresa said his pack, in basic, had been seventy pounds. We hollered, “Thank you!” to them. They waved back.

There was still an anticipation I couldn’t identify; all the elites had passed. Whoever was going to win had come and gone.

Then I noticed my bike, which I’d left on the other side, was about to tip over. So during a lull I dashed across to fix it. There was a lemonade stand there, and I bought a chocolate chip cookie. I took a bite and then felt sort of ridiculous, being surrounded by these low-BMI types, so I stuck it in my pocket. Then I waited for a chance to cross back. But it didn’t come. The flow of runners was steadily increasing.

I waited five, ten minutes. I was stuck. I shrugged theatrically, across the four lanes, at my brother- and sister-in-law.  I was alone again, but the woman I was standing next to, who had her two kids with her, was very nice. She was one of those people you just start talking to—and marathon day is one of those times you just start talking to people. But we didn’t talk much, because our business now was cheering. The runners were constant now. At first they stayed, decorously, in the right lane, next to us. I thought of calling to John and Teresa to come over to me, because I was closer. I could see the runners’ faces, their shirts.

The shirts were the thing. You began to want connection. You began to read the shirts. “Go Children’s Hospital!” “Go Brazil!” “Go Denmark!” “Go Chile!” “Go Friends of Griffin!”

Some smart ones—repeats, probably—had their names magic-markered on their fronts. “Go Kelly!” “Go Doug!” “Go Manuel!” “Go Chris!”

Some people were in costume. “Go hamburger!” “Go bee!” “Go Wonder Woman!”

There’s a guy from my church who’s run two dozen Bostons, always in costume. This year he was going as Prince William. I kept watching, but never saw him. I thought it would be impossible to miss him; but I hadn’t realized, really realized, how many people there would be. They had now spread across Comm Ave to all four lanes. We had been standing in the street since the lemonade stand was behind us, but now we had to get up on the curb, to make room. They filled the whole road edge to edge.

I was reading shirts as fast as I could. I had started clapping, and now I couldn’t stop. How could you stop? It wasn’t like a play with a standing ovation and eventually your hands are killing you and even though the thing was brilliant you have to stop. This was slow, steady clapping, for the steady stream of runners. My hands went numb. I kept clapping, and the runners kept coming.

A guy with a huge head of blue hair. “Go hair!”

Three shirtless guys. “Go shirtless guys!”

More friends of Griffin. “Go friends of Griffin!”

There were all the people raising money—“Go Dana Farber!” “Go Mass General!” You couldn’t really yell, “Go brain cancer!” so you hoped those people had names on their shirts, or instead you yelled “Great job!”

There were municipal running clubs and ballerinas and the Easter Bunny and Anchorage and Kansas City. There was Duke and Trinity and Wayne State and lots of Michigans, for some reason. There was Army and Navy and the Air Force Academy, and there were still the Marines trudging by.

Maybe because—as I now realize—it was still on the early side, meaning these were the qualifiers with better times, I didn’t see a lot of agony. There were a few who would start walking, head down. We said “You can do it,” and “You’re amazing,” which I meant, because I would sooner eat cement than run a marathon. One woman panted, “How many more hills?” but then she was gone. One guy handed us an empty plastic water bottle as he passed and said, “Do you mind throwing this away?” One guy slowed down to shake the hand of one of the walking Marines and said, “Thank you for your service.” The Marine said, “It’s an honor.” I was in the presence of people who could run a marathon and, at mile 19, still talk.

John and Teresa waved across at me and left. An old guy came by selling cowbells and I bought one. I let the kids near me use it for a while and then they gave it back and I could use it instead of clapping, and the feeling gradually returned to my palms.

But I had to keep making noise. Because they kept coming. We were standing at the top of a hill and you could look down Comm Ave. and see a river of people with no end. The excitement and the good cheer were so high and I realized I kept standing there because I was waiting for the climax, the resolution; but of course there wouldn’t be one. Not here at mile 19. I could feel, in the muted exhilaration of the runners, two-thirds of the way there, Heartbreak Hill still to come, how the marathon would be its own self-contained narrative, its own drama, for each of them. It would have its own plot, its own rise and fall of action, and I would be a tiny, tiny part of it, some crazy-lady voice yelling, “Go Cedar Rapids!” somewhere along mile 19, along with all the screaming Wellesley women, all the Boston College kids, all the hands holding out cups of water, all the clapping, all the cowbells; the despair, the nausea, the temptation to stop, the pushing through; the journey up, and then down Heartbreak Hill, and down Beacon Street, and then Boylston, and under the clock, and over the finish line.

I stayed for more than two hours but I finally left, although it felt like leaving in the middle of a movie, because I had errands to run on that day off. Two hours later, I would call my kids, to see whether they liked the crunchy or the puffy cheese doodles from Trader Joe’s, and they would tell me what they were seeing on T.V., and I would hurry home.

What I experienced Monday was an ordinary marathon. The awe at the human effort, the thousands of stories running by, the endurance, the athleticism, the will—it was all run-of-the-mill extraordinary. If there is such a thing. People wiser than I have loved the marathon for years. I just discovered it, really, and next year, without question, it will be different.

As I write this they haven’t yet found who did it. It’s looking more and more like domestic terrorism, and I suspect it’s only a few people, or even just one, someone pathetic who has slid over the line into evil, looking up bombmaking directions online. But even if it’s a larger conspiracy—even if it was some vast international network—it is dwarfed by what I saw on Monday, on Commonwealth Avenue, at the top of just one of the many hills (there are always more, there is always one more): the runners coming, coming, not stopping. Thousands. Thousands. Thousands.

Image: Stewart Dawson

is the author of The Swimming Pool (Doubleday 2010) and is completing her next novel, The Story of the Half-Brother. Her short fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Post Road, The Drum and The Millions, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives with her family outside Boston. More at