Brian Finnel in the woods of Peninsula State Park

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On Boston

By Myles Dannhausen

The 2012 Boston Marathon should have been a disaster.

Temperatures rose to 89 degrees during the race, and the day before race day, Director Dave McGillivray took the unprecedented step of offering to let runners defer their qualifying entry to 2013 if they didn’t feel safe running in the extreme heat. About 2,200 of them took him up on the offer.

Boston-Marathon-Jacket.jpgOf those who ran, 2,000 sought care in the medical tent and 200 went to the hospital. Door County Triathlon Director Sean Ryan was working in the medical tent and witnessed first-hand the level of preparedness.

“Any other race in the country would have been declared a disaster,” Ryan told me last August. “ER departments in any other city would have been overwhelmed. But it’s a major metropolitan area, and the race is on a holiday where they are able to call in staff.”

I was working on an article for Running Times about runners’ safety and the decisions race directors have to make when facing extreme heat. When I spoke to McGillivray about it last fall, I never imagined he would face a scenario far worse, and far more frightening, just a few months down the road.

“We’re very fortunate,” McGillivray told me. “We have an amazing medical team and we’re in the heart of an area full of hospitals.”

It was one of those things people in his position say all the time. In his shoes, I wouldn’t want to exude anything but confidence, especially when you’re run an event where people are putting incredible pain – and in some cases survival – on the line.

But it turns out McGillivray was underrating his team.

On April 15, when the first of two bombs exploded near the finish line of the race, volunteers and emergency responders swarmed the scene in seconds.

Members of the medial team sprinted out of the med tent – towards the smoke.

We can only guess how much panic they prevented, how much comfort they bestowed on the frightened, how many lives they saved.

The events surrounding the Boston bombing were surreal, gut wrenching, heartbreaking. But for those of us in the running community, it seems to have hit just a little bit harder, knifed a little bit deeper.

We all know the sacrifice it takes to run a marathon. The hours you have to carve out of your free time, out of your relationships, out of your family time. It’s a long journey of months or years, and that finish line means more than you expect it to.

It’s that shared knowledge that creates the bond in the running community, that makes us sign up for run, after run, after run. That makes us dork it up about running over beers at the bar, forcing eye-rolls on those who don’t “get it.”

Boston, as anyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the last month knows by now, is the pinnacle race. The ultimate runners’ club.

Our Door County Half Marathon pace team director, Krista Lawell, has qualified for it and run it nine times. Our co-founder, Massachusetts native David Eliot, has been there to watch every one of them. It doesn’t get old.

It means more than other races, and those that have run it are members of an exclusive club. I’ve seen the silent nod one runner gives to another when they realize each is wearing evidence of a Boston appearance.

A few years ago my roommate finally qualified for it, only to see it fill in just hours, before he could register. He raised $3,000 for charity just to get into the race.

When I interviewed 15-time marathoner Matt Waterstone last fall, he described Boston as a “craze,” describing the risks people will take for a shot at it, including running in extreme temperatures to qualify.

“People want that Boston qualifying time and they will push themselves beyond that breaking point to get it,” he explained.

McGillivray, in fact, only accepted the job as race director with the caveat that he would be allowed to continue his streak of running the race every year. So each year, after all the other runners safely finish, McGillivray runs his own marathon with a few friends on an empty course.

This year, after 40 consecutive Boston Marathons, that streak came to an end.

There is so much sadness, so much pain that one feels when thinking about the tragedy in Boston. It’s such an awful tragedy for humanity that it feels petty to speak of it in running terms. But the attack on the pantheon of running events has shaken us in the running community. 

A couple days after the bombings I went out for a run through Albany Park, my favorite Chicago neighborhood. I felt something different. Every runner I passed gave me a nod or a wave. Several pedestrians waved or gave me a thumbs up.

It seems that sometimes we need something, however small, to remind us how connected we all are, to remind us that we’re all impacted by the tragedies of another. 

For some of us, running is that something. The days since the Boston Marathon have reminded me how proud I am to be part of that community.