It happened at the finish line.
It wouldn’t have been any less horrific if it had happened at mile 2 or mile 10 or mile 17, but the fact that the bombs exploded where they did at the Boston Marathon on Monday made the brutality even more symbolic.
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The words “the finish line” have been woven through the news of the bombings like the refrain of a song, and those words resonate especially for runners, who recognize the finish line as a lot more than a stripe in the road.
My friend Julie, who has run six marathons, got me to thinking about this.
“The finish line is a symbol,” she said. “It’s like they bombed a really sacred place.”
For runners, a finish line is a purpose, a meaning, a mood.
That line on the ground represents joy after suffering. Accomplishment after pain. A payoff for effort and endurance. Proof of life’s possibilities.
Crossing it can be a beginning as well as an ending.
“A finish line for a lot of people,” Julie said, “is a start of a whole new way of looking at things.”
What happened in Boston was terrible beyond words for the families and friends of people who died or were hurt.
The damage ripples next into the lives of the people of Boston and on out into the lives of millions of distant strangers.
Runners are apt to feel the attack in a particularly personal way.
When Julie heard about the bombings, she immediately thought of how much work the runners had invested in the race — step by step, breath by breath, hour after hour — in the hopes of making it to that long white line on Boylston Street.
She thought about the roadside signs that cheered the runners on even when their sides cramped and their legs howled and they wanted to throw up.
She could imagine the mental tricks the runners used to keep themselves from quitting before the 26.2 miles were done.
The bombers, she thinks, understood that. They seized the power of the finish line.
“They waited until the runners were expecting a triumphant, wonderful moment,” she said. “Maybe they were trying to make a point about the insignificance of running.”
It remains to be seen why they did it or why they put the bombs exactly where they did. Since Monday, the predictable speculations have swirled. The safest prediction is that when the truth arrives, it will be a mix of something we might have anticipated and something that just seems crazy.
In the meantime, in the midst of death and injury and fear, come finish-line survival stories.
There was the 78-year-old man from Washington state who was knocked down by the explosion then got up and walked across the finish line and on to his hotel.
There was the 65-year-old woman from California who approached the end of the race just as the bombs went off and finished anyway. She was the 17,112th runner to cross the finish line.
Another 468 crossed it behind her.
Were the last finishers brave or just addled by exhaustion? Going forward by competitive reflex or because moving straight ahead seemed the best way out?
Whatever the explanation, they made it, and there is consolation in that fact.
By the standards of history and the world, we still live in an unusually safe place and time. That’s hard to believe on days like Monday, and in an era when the worst of what human beings do to each other is instantly seen around the globe.
And it doesn’t diminish the cowardice and cruelty of Monday’s attacks.
But in violating the hope of the finish line, the bombers may have given it new symbolic power.
A finish line is where ordinary people summon strength they couldn’t have been sure they had.
One more time, that’s what we’re all called upon to do.
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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