Many of my favorite memories ever involve the Boston Marathon.
As a kid growing up in Brookline, I’d walk with my mother to Coolidge Corner and Mile 24.
I thrilled to see the top runners zip by, their strides free and easy as if they were out for a brisk jog.
I admired the grit of the wheelchair racers who would zoom through, just two miles from the finish line.
Seeing Boston legend Johnny Kelley finish his 50th marathon remains a treasured experience.
So, too, does being a witness to the grit and sheer determination of the sea of runners who streamed by in the minutes and hours after the leaders, their strides shortened, their shoulders hunched and their eyes squinting with the pain caused by what they were asking – no, demanding – that their bodies do.
When I was in seventh grade, Joe Santino, our Science teacher, ran Boston for the first time.
Bearded and stocky, with curly hair and thick thighs, he went out too hard and paid the price on Boston’s fabled Heartbreak Hill.
But he did finish in a very respectable time of 3:25.
I ran nearly every day of seventh grade. Through Mr. Santino’s example, I hatched a goal of someday running Boston myself.
It took me a decade and three training efforts, but I did it.
I ran the race in honor of Dr. D’Angelo, my best friend’s father who had died of chronic leukemia just two week earlier.
I wore a t-shirt with an image of Dr. D. next to Hank Williams and had told Mrs. D., his widow, that I might pass by Star Market on the corner of Beacon and Tappan Streets around 3:00 p.m.
Like Mr. Santino, I had been too enthusiastic and started walking and running at 20 miles.
Nevertheless, it was almost exactly 3:00 p.m. when I got to Star Market.
Mrs. D’Angelo was there, standing on a wall against the overcast sky. She gave me a silent and gentle waved as I passed.
I almost started crying.
I saw my best friend’s brother Gus in the crowd as I rounded the corner and headed for the finish line.
While I could not remember not running when I got there, I vividly remember the feeling of crossing the line and knowing that I had completed a goal that had seemed utterly unattainable for a full 10 years.
Eleven years later, I did it again.
This time, I ran in honor of Paul Tamburello, my fourth grade teacher, mentor and friend who had contracted a non-fatal version of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
My brother Mike jumped out of the crowd at Mile 22 on Commonwealth Ave. and guided me home the final four miles.
As opposed to the first time, I had trained more and paced myself better.
This combination allowed me to sprint the final 50 yards and reach the finish line, hearing Mike’s cheering voice as I thrust my fist in the air and started yelling.
In addition to my own personal feelings of triumph and vindication, the Marathon has always meant so much to me because it’s been a shared event. Crowds three, four and five people deep line the course from the very first steps in Hopkinon to the final stride in Copley Square, cheering, celebrating and enjoying the festive atmosphere.
It’s a deep part of what makes us Bostonians, a fundamental part of the fabric of the city and the entire New England region.
It’s one of the best parts of us, too, the piece that accepts champions from Kenya and Ethiopia and Germany as openly as from other parts of the United States. (“Boston Billy” Rodgers always had a special place in the city’s heart.),
We rooted as vigorously for women in wheelchairs as the able-bodied male runners, understanding, in the word of three-time runnerup Juma Ikangaa on Marathon Day, everyone is a winner.
Which is why today’s fatal explosions and the gruesome carnage with accompanying heartwrenching details about children and adults killed and maimed are so horribly disturbing.
I talked to Mom tonight.
She said that she was watching the race on television and even been feeling a little badly that she hadn’t again gone to Coolidge Corner, even though the crowds can be too much.
Then the explosions happened.
Mom said she’s never heard the sound of so many ambulances blaring as they dashed, one by one, by her house on the way to nearby hospitals.
I know that we are now experiencing what has already come to so many other communities.
I also understand that the death toll could have been a lot worse.
But that unfortunate solidarity and grim knowledge of what could have been are scarce comfort to those who have lost loved ones today or for a region that is again forced to confront the lengths to which some twisted individuals will go to destroy life and defile what previously had been sacred ground.
Whoever did this will not succeed, but today marks a profoundly painful shattering of what has been in place and strengthened for generations.