I remember the Boston finish line in slow motion.
For all 26.2 miles, the finish felt too far away, as if my whole body was trapped in unresolved conflict. Uphill then downhill, inhale then exhale, cheers then silence, the Boston Marathon is a cadence of hills, breath, and noise.
Two years ago I ran with tired muscles and a broken hip, eventually shuffling down that finish-line straight away with cheering crowds flanked on either side. The finish line felt completely unreachable until the moment I was on it, then over it.
I knew that Mike, my deployed Marine, was rooting for me from Afghanistan, staying up the whole night to cheer for me from a desert tent in the heart of war. He tracked the race online in between patrol shifts, between all-day searches for terrorist explosives. While he fought terrorism, I ran the Boston Marathon.
The two felt completely unrelated.
My sister and mom were the gravitational pull towards the finish line. They were in Boston with me, cheering and carrying me home.
I finished only because I didn’t run alone.
An hour before the finish line, at mile 21, my sister Rachel jumped over the spectator guard rail. Ignoring a hollering police officer and weaving through other stalwart runners, she reached me in a blur of black yoga pants and familiar running shoes.
She got to me while I was trying to quit the race, while I was walking to a halt. Rachel put her arm around me as I started to cry and then wouldn’t let me finish the sentence, “I don’t think I…”
In the aftermath of Heartbreak Hill, Rachel whispered in my ear. “Mike is here with you. He has been e-mailing from Afghanistan. He has been tracking you online. He’s cheering too. You’re almost home.”
And in that moment, warfare seemed like a bigger obstacle than a marathon. I thought that since he was fighting, I should too.
I began to run again and Rachel went back over the aluminum guard rail. I shuffled on until I saw those tall blue flags blowing in the wind and the dense black race clock measuring the seconds to the end.
Then the noise.
From over the guardrails, from people I didn’t know, came affirmation that I was nearly, almost, and finally… finished.
I did it.
Then I bent over the guard rail…and threw up.
Within a few minutes, I collected my race bag and pulled out my phone just as it began to ring. It was Mike, calling from Afghanistan. After seven months of unreliable communication, Mike managed to call me at the finish line with phone in hand.
I lingered around the finish line sipping Gatorade, stretching my calves, chatting with the Marine, and glowing in his praise. When the conversation wound down, I concluded with a familiar phrase, “I love you. Please stay safe.”
I remember that conversation clearly, standing at the Boston Marathon finish line, watching other runners finish, feeling that danger was so very far away from me, but so very close to him. I remember worrying about him embarking on his next patrol. I worried about his proximity to explosives.
I had that conversation in the very shadow of where the explosions occurred today.
Like everyone, I am horrified and heartbroken by the explosions at the Boston Marathon. Mercifully, I was not there today, but two years ago I memorized those miles, those guard rails, those cheers. Once you’ve run Boston, it becomes a part of you, a memory that never ages into archive. It feels perpetually familiar.
The year I ran I felt so safe. I’m sure the runners felt the same way this morning.
As I write this, we know very little about who did this or why. It’s an act of terror from an unidentified source; terrorism without a villain.. yet.
It is impossible to make sense of it all because there is so little we can do. Sometimes the fight and the heartbreak transcend the strongest guardrails. The problem of terror is one with an impossibly far finish line, a state of traveling in unresolved conflict.
I hesitate to draw a grand conclusion in the wake of a heartbreak like Boston. It’s not so simple as to assume that restoration will come if only we could be nice to one another, bring the bad guy to justice, get a handle on gun control, improve marathon security, and so on.
But when Mike was at war, I learned one thing quickly: there was almost nothing I could do.
I could not worry him into safety, nor control a single circumstance that might prevent injury.
I could worry myself sick.
I could read the news and mourn the loss of every casualty as if it were him.
I could self-destruct every. single. day.
I could fight the war against fear, since fear is the most effective tool the enemy uses for self destruction.
I could run and finish the race set before me.
I could run.
I could keep running. One foot in front of the other. Uphill. Downhill. Breath in. Breath out. The cadence of endurance.
And most of all, I could cocoon myself into a God that is sovereign.
I could cocoon myself into a God that is sovereign.
I will cocoon myself into a God that is sovereign.
That is all I can do.
This is all I will do.
I will finish because I won’t run alone.
“Even though I [run] through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…” Psalm 23:4
My love and prayers are with you, Boston. Praying for grace and peace.