Boston Marathon stays strong

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Marathon Monday in Boston reaches into the dawn of my childhood when memories blur. But the annual cavalcade of runners huffing down Washington Street in Newton Lower Falls on those verdant April Mondays are vividly etched into my memory as though a half a century ago was only yesterday.

I recall one year when we stood nearer our home near Rt. 16 in Wellesley and heard the deafening screams of Wellesley College women cheering on the marathon runners. Now called the “Wellesley Scream Tunnel”, that deafening blare on the route, easily heard a mile away, is yet another custom in a ritual bound institution within a tradition bound city. These were just part of the great fun of Marathon Monday.

Every Marathon Monday, the Red Sox play a home game in Fenway Park, starting at 11:05, so by the game’s end the fans can flood into Kenmore Square to cheer the runners on in their final mile of the race.

Most of the course wends its way downhill, meandering like the Charles River toward Boston, but for the infamous Heartbreak Hill on Commonwealth Avenue. As a twenty year-old runner, who knew everything, I scurried up that hill wondering what the fuss about Heartbreak Hill was.

Boston Strong forever. (Douglas Christian)
Boston Strong forever. (Douglas Christian)

After all Heartbreak Hill is a gradual incline rising less than 100 feet, and for a runner on a short jaunt, that climb is almost meaningless. But for a marathoner sprinting for 26 miles and 385 yards, Heartbreak Hill comes at mile 20.5, when a runner’s glycogen is depleted and hits “the wall”.  At that point, Heartbreak Hill is well named and truly formidable.

Merely running the Boston Marathon makes one a champion. Seventeen runners have won the Boston Marathon multiple times. John “Jack” Caffery, the first multiple winner in 1900 – 1901, sadly succumbed to the 1918 flu pandemic. Throughout the 1920s, Clarence DeMar won seven Boston Marathons in an age before steroids. In the late 1930s and through the 1940s, Canadian Gérard Côté seized the winner’s trophy four times.

In 1950, Korean runners Kee Yong Ham, Kil Yoon Song and Yun Chil Choi came in first, second and third place to win a trifecta. This didn’t sit well with old line Bostonians who then banned Koreans from running the Boston Marathon in the ensuing years. Walter A. Brown, President of the Boston Athletic Association, stated, “While American soldiers are fighting and dying in Korea, every Korean should be fighting to protect his country instead of training for marathons. As long as the war continues there, we positively will not accept Korean entries for our race on April 19.”

Never forget. (Douglas Christian)
Never forget. (Douglas Christian)

But just as xenophobia, racism and sexism may at times appear to be indelible stains in our national fabric, so too is our perennial capacity to cleanse, conquer and cure ourselves of our lesser traits. Finish, Japanese and more recently Kenyan racers have dominated the Boston Marathon winner’s circle. Kenyans Cosmas Ndeti, Ibrahim Hussein, Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot and Catherine Nyambura Ndereba, all multiple winners, are part of Boston Marathon lore. Philip Hersh of the Chicago Tribune called Catherine Nyambura Ndereba the greatest woman marathoner ever.

Back in 1966, Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to win the Boston Marathon. She won it three times, but back at her home in California, her achievement ran head-on into tradition: “All of the reporters were at my house,” recalls Gibb. “They wanted me to put on the dress and cook fudge so they could say the shapely blonde housewife, which is what they called me, was a real woman.”

And as our concept of an ideal woman has changed, so too has our conception of the supreme athlete. That athlete, was once highlighted in Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi film, Olympia, as an Adonis or goddess with a sculpted body, semi-nude and in slow motion.

Now rapid fire wheelchair racers dominate the early moments of the Boston Marathon finish line as they wiz past the line thirty minutes prior to the first foot racers. Wheelchair racers such as nine- time champion, Ernst van Dyk, are an unmitigated pleasure to watch. So too is Team Hoyt, the father and son team of Dick and Rick Hoyt respectively. Rick was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and Dick pushes him in his wheelchair to the great joy of flocks of spectators who come to Boylston Street every April to catch a glimpse of the legendary Team Hoyt in action. They are redefining our vision of the Ideal Athlete.

Improbably, the remarkable performance of disabled racers presages the heroism of racers entering the 2014 Boston Marathon after 2013’s ineffable tragedy. The bombing made no sense, and we continually ask why or how this was even possible.

Flying shoes. (Douglas Christian)
Flying shoes. (Douglas Christian)

Except for Boston’s legendary passion for sports, Boston is a gentle town, and the marathon is an exquisite celebration of all our heroes around us, from our next door neighbors, to Team Hoyt, to Bill Rogers, and the infernal idea that some bomber would destroy that great good will was simply inconceivable until April 15, 2013.

Boston’s Back Bay, like the Mall in Washington, DC, is a place where people behave themselves. It is too elegant, graceful and gorgeous for misbehavior. It’s a place for contemplation rather than unruliness. Office workers eat their lunch on the lawn of Copley Square and enjoy the warm air. Even when crowds converge in Copley Square on Marathon Monday and First Night, the elegance of the area reminds everyone they are heirs to a rich history.

The Boston Marathon finish line sits on Boylston Street, bisecting the Boston Public Library on the right, and up Boylston Street to the left is the neo-gothic Old South Church, heir to the Old South Meeting House on Milk Street, where revolutionaries Samuel Adams, William Dawes, Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Sewall congregated.

And a few feet further into the intersection, where Boylston Street crosses Dartmouth Street into Copley Square, my old office (until 2012) looks back down Boylston Street to the finish line. From that window, one can look straight across Copley Square to the Copley Plaza and the John Hancock Tower beyond. To the left is Richardson’s American cathedral, Boston’s Trinity Church, graced with John La Farge stained glass windows and sculptures by Daniel Chester French and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Needless to say, my office had one of the finest urban views in the United States!

When I think of that magnificent view, I chuckle to think that despite how stunning the venue is, the John Hancock Tower was deeply controversial when it was first built. Members of the Trinity Church were severely offended when the John Hancock Insurance Company decided to plunk a modern 60 story tower less than 100 feet from their Romanesque 19th century church.

The whole world sends their love. (Douglas Christian)
The whole world sends their love. (Douglas Christian)

To make matters worse, if The Hancock was to be a spectacular architectural statement and a modernist monolith in a traditional setting, hundreds of its 4’ x 11’ window panes initially fell from the building to the sidewalk below, causing an unsightly hulk laden with plywood for five years during the mid-1970s until all the windows were replaced.  The painful eyesore earned a variety of scornful nicknames, from I.M. Pei’s Pig’s Eye to The Plywood Palace. The Plywood Palace stuck.

Despite the ugliness, disarray and chaos The Plywood Palace caused, the wait was worth it. It ended up being a stunning architectural achievement, displaying colorful reflections of Trinity Church off its mirrored glass surface and providing an unusually splendid venue for Copley Square. It’s modern, yet timeless, mirrored but seemingly transparent as if were created before skyscrapers existed.

I drove to Washington, DC on Saturday, April 13th, as I was anxious to be with my wife. However I was somewhat sad to miss the Boston Marathon that year, as I had seen it most every year prior. It was with frustration and incredulity when I heard of a pair of bombings at the finish line a few days later. “Why?” I thought. It made no sense.

Then I heard of the unbelievable devastation and injuries these bombings had caused, and it seemed unreal. Witnesses said the degree of devastation and bloodshed was unbelievable, from amputated limbs, to nails and shrapnel lodged in victims’ brains, to three deaths, including that of an 8-year-old boy.

Did we lose our childhood innocence that day? It certainly felt like it! Were we Bostonians delusional, somehow assuming we were immune to the strife and conflict ubiquitous in war zones throughout the world? The concept of the Back Bay and Copley Square, as a war zone seemed inane. Still I shake my head NO at that notion.

A couple of evenings later, we heard an MIT police officer, Sean Collier, had been executed near Frank Gehry’s MIT Stata Center. The amazing building’s venue seems such an incongruous spot for such a terrible tragedy. The MIT campus is safe. It’s where I lived as a small child, and up until 2013, the worst crime committed by any resident there was by me, who shattered some plate glass windows with rocks I threw at a building in MIT’s married student housing.

Worse, when we discovered that two vagrant brothers living in Cambridge were suspected of committing this atrocity, as well as the bombings, it seemed so wrong and incredibly unimaginable. After all, the younger suspect went to Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, which prides itself on its unique and vibrant diversity. Forget that his family was from war-torn Chechnya, Bostonians pride themselves on embracing the world. One of my neighbors proudly flew a United Nations flag from his home, and we are not adversarial toward immigrants.

The ensuing chase after the Collier murder ended up on the back streets of Watertown. Weirdly enough, that too was in my neighborhood. In 2013, I lived not far from School Street on the other side of Mt. Auburn Street in Belmont.

All my friends and family were in lock down on April 19th after the nighttime explosion and shootout on April 18th. Many friends said that bomb was one of the loudest noises they ever heard. The only vehicles on the streets of Watertown and Belmont on the 19th were police cruisers and armored personal carriers, reminiscent of a war zone, not a suburban neighborhood.

Photos of the Dzhokhar brothers taken on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing (Courtesy of the FBI)
Photos of the Dzhokhar brothers taken on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing (Courtesy of the FBI)

I had been in Washington, DC those days, but had to get back to Boston for a chemotherapy infusion at Beth Israel Hospital (BIDMC) within days. While I was at BIDMC, the younger brother was simultaneously being treated for a gunshot wound in a locked unit above the hematology ward as scores of victims and amputees this young man had injured were being treated elsewhere in the hospital. The BIDMC staff was clearly exhausted as they treated villain and victim alike.

Some victims had already gone to Spaulding Rehabilitation to recover. A year earlier, I had made the same migration from BIDMC to Spaulding, fighting a personal illness. Spaulding’s staff is first-rate, but as I heard from some medical staff later, it wasn’t their capability that was tested, but the sheer number of victims after the bombing.

In ensuing days after chemotherapy, in a daze of cyclophosphamide, I wandered the streets of Boston’s Back Bay. A makeshift memorial had begun in Copley Square, and soon the commemorative memorabilia of flowers, balloons, flags, winged running shoes, photographs, origami angels, tee-shirts, and signed memorial boards, reading, “We love you Boston!” and “Boston Strong”, dominated Copley Square at the intersection of Boylston and Dartmouth Streets. The tulips were in bloom and it seemed so sad that those spring days were dominated with such despair.

Still-frame from surveillance camera video footage that was gathered by the FBI. In a move that authorities later said "was a turning point in the investigation, no doubt about it," they released this and similar photos to the media and asked for the public's help identifying the suspects. The following day, they were identified as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Still-frame from surveillance camera video footage that was gathered by the FBI.The suspects were identified as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Inevitably, a permanent memorial will be built. It might be as lovely and elegant as the Augustus Saint-Gaudens Shaw Memorial on Beacon Street, or it might be as bulky, stultifying, staid and malapropos like the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. Whatever it is, a permanent memorial needs to reflect the unprompted public spirit of Boston Strong, like the initial memorial laden with spontaneous mementos when Bostonians streamed to Copley to show their impromptu support for Boston and the victims of the bombing.

Mags Harries’ bronzed fruit crates embedded in the asphalt of the old Haymarket Square and her bronzed workers’ gloves in the Porter Square train station come to mind as an appropriate type of permanent Marathon Bombing memorial. Her bronze sculptures have the same natural and organic flavor of the temporary marathon bombing memorial of cards, running shoes and memorabilia that intimately showed Boston’s degree of sorrow on those verdant spring days in 2013.

More on the Boston Marathon.