Taking Back the Marathon: For Resilience

The Boston Marathon has traditionally been a day of partying for local college students, with little focus on the running of the race itself. However, the tragic bombings that occurred on April 15, 2013 have inspired many to run in 2014. Taking Back the Marathon features Boston College students who are planning to run in the 2014 Boston Marathon, along with the stories behind their motivation to make this year’s race one to remember.

Charlie Spencer-Davis, A&S '15

"That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road…when I got there I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town…"

It was January 10, six days into my semester abroad in Paris. I decided to go for a run that day. I ran down my side street and to the main road—Boulevard Sebastopol—that went due south to the Seine and Notre Dame. Mumford and Sons echoed between my ears and I felt the burn in my hamstrings and the awkward stiffness in my knees and my ankles. I had not run in quite some time. In the fall semester I had run stadiums in Alumni until mid-October. I had played pickup basketball with infrequency at the Plex. On occasion I had lifted weights with my friends.

The summer before junior year I was working a lot back home in Seattle, and never really wanted to run. Maybe it because I was tired. Maybe I was lazy and just wanted to eat bowl after bowl of Cinnamon Life cereal until my stomach hurt. But when I started running in Paris on January 10 I realized I had been avoiding something. Or at least training my mind to evade a memory.

The memory being April 15, 2013.

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Training for a marathon requires dedication, perseverance, and mental fortitude. Sophomore year I decided to test my limits by running the 2013 Boston Marathon for BC’s Campus School. When spring semester started so too did my training. Three mile runs, then four, then five. On Sundays—following the training plan given by BC—I started to air it out to seven, eight, nine miles. My legs felt stronger: they moved more efficiently. My body was learning.

Prior to that January I had never been a runner.  I only did wind sprints and shuttle drills and pyramids for football in high school. Training for the marathon became my competition, my drug. I ran because it felt good. I ran because it made me smile. I ran because there is nothing quite like a runner’s high— where your mind drifts off and you run in rhythm with your heart and each cog in your body syncs to that rhythm. Running gave me time to think about whatever struck me in those quiet moments: life, school, love, success, failure, pain.

However, it wasn’t all nose to the grindstone. I wanted to share my joy of running with the people around me. Thinking through it all in January I decided the only way to do that properly was to dress up for the marathon.

But as what? Whom?

Forrest Gump. One of my all-time favorite movies, one of my all-time favorite actors, one of my all-time favorite characters. How better to express my joy for running than looking like a man who four times crossed the Mississippi River over three years, two months, 14 days, and 16 hours of incessant running? I started growing out an unsightly beard. I went to Goodwill and found short red shorts and an ugly yellow shirt. I bought a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. hat off Ebay. For three plus months I trained and visualized the 2013 Boston Marathon. The day came, the Campus School runners were bussed to Hopkinton, and before I knew it we were sneaking into the ranks of qualified runners. All of us bandits on a mission.

Charlie Spencer-Davis/Facebook

Photo courtesy of Charlie Spencer-Davis/Facebook

Thick with short-shorts and dri-fit tee shirts the route meandered west towards Boston, towards Boston College. When I hit Heartbreak Hill I was feeling good and confident.

The hill broke me.

Not half a mile from BC my left leg started seizing up with more and more frequency. I proceed to clench my fist and beat my quad into submission. The catharsis was raw—I was so afraid. Not afraid of not finishing, but rather of not getting the chance to run through BC, the chance to prove to myself I could accomplish something beyond myself. My eyes teared up—I tend to be more overtly emotional than most when I run—and I willed myself to the top of the Hill teeming with drunk, happy, supportive Eagles.

I was exhausted and ready to quit. But those faces ignited my spirits; my closest friends hopped into the street and ran with me all the way down the hill, yelling and screaming in support. Someone shouted, “Run Forrest, Run!” and all I could do was give a blind thumbs up. BC was my fastest mile and I could taste the finish line.

The blue and yellow mile 25 mile marker loomed large over my head. Spectators were still cheering but I couldn’t hear them. My leg had seized up for good it seemed. I was under the sign stretching and cursing at my body’s weakness. Finally I felt loose enough to move again. I started to get my rhythm back as I approached an overpass bridge less than a quarter of a mile from the finish.

A golf cart came racing towards me from under the bridge. It stopped in the middle of the street and Boston PD and Marathon volunteers scattered across the road and stopped the runners dead in their tracks. I was one of the first held up.

It got cold quickly. There was no water and no blankets. No one knew what was going on; droves of spectators were moving quickly our way along the fringes of Comm Ave. I caught sight of a dear friend—Sullivan McCormick—who was moving with the masses. I yelled to get his attention and he jogged down to me in his goofy headband, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and aluminum blanket.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“They didn’t tell you?”

I shook my head. No.

“There were two explosions at the finish line. Chaos. It blew up and ambulances are everywhere. It’s a nightmare back there.”

My heart stopped, and the first thing I did was pull my phone from my back pocket. Already 16 text messages. I called my mom, working at the hospital back in Seattle, and left her a voicemail so she would know I was safe. As Sully and I talked he pulled the marathon medal off his neck and handed it to me. “I only ran five miles and the lady forced it on me. It’s not for me. You deserve this.” I hugged him and smiled through the tears I did not intend to shed.

After the marathon and the uncertainty the following week, I stopped running. It was all so surreal. I was heartbroken by the pain so many felt. The joy, for a time, was sucked out of my running ritual.

There were so many stories of resilience. Of the spectator who held the artery in a man’s leg shut while he was taken to the hospital. Of marathoners who crossed the finish line and kept running to the hospitals to donate blood. Of people throughout the city offering food, water, warmth, and shelter to those runners stranded on that temperate April day.

It wasn’t until January 10 while I was running along the Seine that it finally made sense to me: running in itself is an act of resilience, an affront to weakness and a testament to the fortitude of the human body and spirit.  It is at mile 21, it is in the cold winter mornings, it is in the cramps and injuries and dehydration that everything you have is tested.

Boston was tested on April 15. And though the city is still recovering, the 2014 Boston Marathon will reinforce the power of unity and community.

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Since January 10th I have been training for the Paris Marathon. I am running for the French Red Cross, an organization that provides emergency medical care. It gives me a little extra motivation those mornings I’d rather sleep. Sure, I run alone, but I am not running for myself anymore.

Like Forrest Gump said: I just felt like running— but it’s no longer that simple. There is something more to it all now; more than just pride in striving towards something miraculous—running 26.2 miles.

In my heart and in my head I will carry the fortitude of a city, the resilience of thousands of people, the unconditional love of strangers. And, of course, the Eagles who went above and beyond to train again and run the 2014 Boston Marathon.

The resilience of this community, the unity in the face of adversity, is nothing short of inspiring. Each BC student is an individual united under the commonality of community and love. Like runners in the race they support each other, urge them forward to the finish line. To be spirited and never quit regardless of obstacles.

On January 10, 2014, I just felt like running. On April 15, 2013, thousands were forced to stop.

I will not be stopping any time soon.

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