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Column: Marathons, Especially Boston’s, Are Special

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Sportswriters exist in a kind of creative tension. Pulling us in one direction is the desire to draw deeper meaning from the events we cover. Pulling us in the other is the realization that sportswriting isn’t social commentary.

So we tend to see the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s gold medal as a triumph of democracy over communism, or the Iraqi national soccer team’s advancing to the semifinals of the 2004 Olympic Games as a metaphor for the resilience of an oppressed, war-ravaged people. Meanwhile, we also realize that athletes shouldn’t be made to stand for anything beyond what they do or don’t achieve as athletes, and that coaches — whether verbally abusing their players or inspiring them to greatness — don’t reflect some enduring model of masculinity. Sports, in other words, are just sports.

Until they aren’t.

At the time of this writing, the circumstances behind the attack in Boston remain unknown, and we don’t know why the perpetrators chose this particular event to plant bombs that would kill three and injure more than 170.

We don’t know. But we do know a lot about marathons, and they are nothing if not drenched in symbolism.

The marathon itself was born of a war in 490 B.C., the Battle of Marathon, between the Greeks and the Persians. According to the mythology, the messenger Pheidippides ran all the way from Marathon to Athens with news of the Greek victory. It has been argued that this was the beginning of modern civilization.

Marathons are intimate, emotional events. Ordinary runners mingle with the world’s elite. Athletes aren’t confined to a stadium or a track. They follow a course that weaves through the fabric of the city. Spectators crowd the sidewalks to watch and cheer. Marathons may be athletic competitions, but I’ve never heard anyone booing at one.

And then there’s the Boston Marathon, which was first held in 1897 — one year after the first modern marathon at the inaugural 1896 Olympics in Athens. History was made in Boston in 1967, when a runner named Kathrine Switzer broke the race’s gender barrier, competing in baggy grey sweats under the name K.V. Switzer. Several miles in, one of the race’s directors tried to stop her, but Switzer’s boyfriend fought him off. The next year, the marathon was open to women.

Whoever the bomber (or bombers) turns out to be, it’s hard to ignore that the Boston Marathon is always held on Patriots Day, which commemorates the first battles of the American Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord. As part of the annual festivities, the Red Sox play a home game that starts in the morning, so the throngs leaving Fenway Park can get to nearby Kenmore Square in time to cheer on the finishers.

The race itself begins in a suburb only 26.2 miles from Boston but so New England bucolic — the starting line is next to the town common — you might as well be in Vermont. Before the race, participants gather on the high school football field. (They once sat and waited in the gym, but the race has grown, and you can’t fit 26,000 runners in a high school gym.) You are then on your way, running, or at least trying to, down a narrow road not exactly designed to accommodate 52,000 sneakers.

This being Boston, college students are a big part of the tradition. The women of Wellesley can be heard well before they are seen — three and four deep behind the barricades for what seems like a quarter of a mile, all screaming to be kissed. (Or holding signs to that effect. Among this year’s: “Kiss me, I’m gluten-free,” and “Kiss me, I’m sexually frustrated.”) About eight miles later, you reach the campus of Boston College, where, as is the custom, students offer you beer. Soon enough — or maybe not —you’re entering the long straightaway of Commonwealth Avenue, and then turning onto Hereford Street, for the loud, grueling, final quarter-mile.

Are marathoners any more noble than Sunday-morning soccer players or weekend cyclists? No. But there is something unique about their vulnerability, both emotional and physical, especially at the finish line. Here is a group of people in the throes of the exhilaration and exhaustion of having just run 26.2 miles. And there are the hundreds of thousands of spectators — participants, too, in this singularly communal sporting event.

Which is to say that if you’re a coward, you couldn’t pick a better time and place to expose your own insecurity.

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning and Death Comes to Happy Valley.