Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Vespers: reflections on the Boston Marathon

(taken from a vespers service I led at Holden on 4/17/2013)

I didn’t mean to sign up for vespers.  Last Wednesday at the staff meeting, when Pastor Scott stood at the podium with a clip board and said he needed a leader for vespers next Wednesday, I thought he said reader.  I watched the quiet response from my perch in the loft and wondered what the big deal was.  Is anyone willing?  Scott repeated.  I raised my hand.  I didn’t realize what I had volunteered for until breakfast on Monday.

Monday morning, I sat down to work intending to talk about my experiences at Quaker meeting, about silence and the space we make for it--but several hours into writing, I read a Facebook post from Aaron Scheidies, a man who still seems like a boy to me because I knew him best in high school.  Aaron graduated before I did but came back to train with our cross country team during the summer--so almost a decade ago we did some morning runs together, chatting and sweating, legs in stride, breathing easy in the mid-July Michigan heat.  After college, Aaron made a name for himself as one of the country’s best legally blind triathletes.  On Monday, he ran Boston in 2 hours and forty-five minutes, a personal record for him, less than a minute off the race record for a blind athlete.  Aaron posted his time; but it was the second post he made on Facebook which gave me pause.   Two sentences: Hey everyone wanted to let you know I’m okay.  Please pray for those affected. When I read what Aaron wrote, my stomach lurched.  I closed my Word document.  I shifted focus.
I don’t quite know how to talk about the bombings that happened in Boston on Monday.  Three dead.  Over a hundred injured.  Images of stumbling bodies and blood-slicked pavement.  The detail that kept coming up in the news was lost limbs.  Legs.  Arms.  Smoke and severed glass.  I don’t want to describe more.  I spent most of Monday sitting with my legs curled under my body, searching Facebook and twitter for word about the people I know.  The community targeted at Boston was my community: retail workers who use their comp time to travel to road races, graduate students who maintain their sanity by claiming the afternoon hours for a trail run, college athletes who wear seventies style short-shorts with vintage singlets, weekend running groups who meet Sunday mornings for fourteen mile pre-brunch “jogs.” 

I’ve been a runner since grade school.  I ran cross country and track in middle school, high school, and college.  I know the rush of lactic acid after the first mile of a 5K and the elated exhaustion of the finish line.  I've used "easy" and "sixteen miler" in the same sentence.  I’ve sold running shoes for nine summers at three different shoe stores.  I’ve joined running clubs and volunteered at road races.  I’ve passed out paper cups of Gatorade and sprinted from spot to spot on a race course, yelling out places and positions. 

I ran my first and only marathon in Des Moines the fall I began graduate school.  I didn’t have a running community in Iowa so I trained for months by myself, running two lane highways, looping the Iowa State University cross country course, and doing speed workouts on the middle school track behind my house.  I missed the camaraderie of college running and the running groups who trained with me in Michigan but the act of strapping on shoes and starting my watch made my new state seem less strange.  I got sick the week before my race and spent the three days before the marathon bedbound, hoping to pull myself together enough to still compete.  I drank dozens of glasses of orange juice and cup after cup of Theraflu tea.  The Sunday of the race, I lined up at the starting line, unsure of the body I’d trained.  When I finished my marathon I crumpled to the pavement, muscles too shaky to lift my legs.  I watched other runners search for their families and friends, many of them still wrapped in silver space blankets we’d been passed at the finish line.  Some seemed bouncy with adrenaline; others were as spent and shaky as me.  

When my mother heard the news about Boston this week she e-mailed me, with her memories of the finish line at Des Moines, the chaos of the crowd of finishers: the struggle she had finding me.  She wondered how the families of Boston runners felt trying to find their runners.  She wondered how Boston runners felt trying to find their families.

Had I run Boston this year in a similar time to time I ran for the marathon in Des Moines in 2008, I would have finished about forty-five minutes before bombs started going off.  I may have been still near the finish line, within seeing and smelling distance of the explosions.  But I’ve only run the one marathon, almost five years ago, and even though I qualified for Boston the year I ran Des Moines, I didn’t register for the race the following spring.  The cost of entry fees and travel became too much on a graduate student budget and the writing schedule I created allowed less time for running.  I changed course.  In some ways, I’ve left the running community I felt so immersed in for most of my life and when I read about the experiences of my running friends in Boston, I feel guilty, guilty for not running or racing the way I used to, guilty for not being in the center of their grief, for watching everything from so far away.

As a writer, I fight loneliness with words, by finding sounds and syllables for the things I feel and experience.  I want to share what I feel.  I want someone else to feel it with me.  But sometimes, words feel too heavy--so I crawl into silence or the comfort of familiar rhythms: a walk or a sit, a song or a prayer.  One of the things I love about running is the cadence, becoming aware of my body’s breath and beat.   Before the Boston Marathon this year, participants engaged in twenty-six seconds of silence for the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting last fall.  I imagine them: shoulder-to-shoulder, in hunched quiet, muscles tight with anticipation, a community of bodies and beings breathing together, sharing the same experience, if only for a half minute. 

My heart breaks when I think of Monday, when I try to imagine the shape the finish took for so many of those runners lined up at the starting line.  I think of Aaron, running a personal best time, before bombs broke his post-race bliss.  I think of the many people I’ve known over the years that have planned their training schedules and flex days around spring trips to Boston.  I think of the runners that dedicated their races to students and teachers shot this past fall and the runners who went straight from the carnage of the Boston finish line to Massachusetts General Hospital to donate blood from their race-spent bodies.  Our lives can change in a minute, everyone in this room knows that, but it’s hard to watch that change happen for someone, even a stranger, and seeing their pain, we wish we could snatch back time to make things better, different for them.  But instead we’re left with the path we have and the race we have to keep running. 

As far as I know, no one I know who ran Boston came away with severe injuries.  None of my friends or family was killed.  Everyone I know who lined up at the starting line Monday left the race with their life and limbs.  But people I know and love saw and heard things I wish they could un-see and un-hear.  As a runner, I’m haunted by the Boston bombings because of the thousands of runners I’ve raced alongside and the hundreds of finish lines I’ve crossed. 

Tuesday I read that in Des Moines, where I ran my first marathon, runners are gathering together in groups to run distances between 1 and 6 miles: a no cost, no fuss show of solidarity for the runners who finished Boston, the runners who didn’t.  Like those runners in Des Moines, I believe movement can be a kind of prayer.  I believe the rhythm of our bodies can bring us solace when words fail us during both times of tragedy and times of transition.  I don’t know if I’ll run another marathon.  But I know that tomorrow morning; I’ll wake early to run the road.  I’ll watch my breath billow in the cold as the sun crests of Buckskin Mountain.  I’ll skim the surface of the frozen dirt with my shoes.  I’ll let my questions hang in the snow-muffled stillness of morning.  I’ll mourn and then I’ll give thanks, for the legs than carry me, and the community that surrounds me, for the day I’ve been given.

Coaching high school cross country at the Holden Village school, Fall 2012