Boston Marathon will never be quite the same

One humbling aspect of teaching college students is the serendipity of it all. The surprises.

Don’t even try to predict how a fiercely competitive soccer player from Wyoming will apply herself to ethical debates in my classroom. You’ll be wrong. If you doubt that a loud student in skeleton T-shirts will kindly share his skills with his teammate on a semester project, guess again.

I’ve actually come to like being wrong.

In my experience, life usually brings good surprises. But not always, of course.

A 21-year-old student in a Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap barged into my office about noon on April 15 and said, “Hear about the Boston Marathon?”

Yes. A guy from Ethiopia won.

My student shook his head. No, the developing story was far more sobering than Americans losing the race again. Bombs and bloodshed at the finish line.

The winner’s finish soon became irrelevant as the day’s saddest numbers piled up: three dead, including an 8-year-old boy; dozens injured; zero suspects. One month later, the list of wounded exceeds 260; two brothers allegedly did the deed; more than $21 million in donations has been raised for victims.

After more than a century of inspiring races, Boston’s 2013 marathon will be shrouded forever in tragedy. The triumphant image of champion Lelisa Desisa, his skinny arms raised, edging his nearest rival by only five seconds, was eclipsed two hours later by senseless acts of cold-blooded terrorism.

“Of course, I am very sad for the victims,” Desisa said later. “It was an attack on our sport and the people who love to run.”

This is already month-old news now. For injured survivors, it must seem raw as an open wound. Many lost legs, and they work hard to rebuild broken bodies. Imagine what courage it takes to get around on a prosthesis.

Even for somebody 2,000 miles away in Grand Junction, Boston’s magnificent race evokes anger. A 13-year-old jacket hangs in my closet emblazoned with a gold unicorn and “100th Boston Marathon.”

Every year in April, I dust it off and wear it to work.

Last month, the old cotton jacket kept out the chill on my walk across campus, half-wishing I was running Boston one more time.

Only 10 percent of the people who complete marathons — this 26.2-mile footrace inaugurated by the Greeks a couple of thousand years ago — do so swiftly enough to “get into” Boston.

Unlike nearly all marathons, runners who enter the Boston Marathon must first complete another marathon fast enough to meet Boston’s qualifying times for acceptance.

As things turned out, I was fortunate to qualify, and run it, three times. Of 37 marathons behind me — including New York City, Pikes Peak and Chicago — Boston ranks among my favorites. It’s special. Being big and slow, it took me years of training to get to the starting line in Hopkinton, Mass.

My memories of the race, including the time my wife was there at the finish line — she was smiling at her 
bone-tired husband — are joyful. But this year, runners have memories most will probably want to forget.

Curiously, this year’s race reminded me of an obituary from long ago. Back in the 1990s, an obit in an Ohio newspaper caught my attention. The man had died of old age. He worked his entire life, raised a family and lived a good life. Nothing too earth-shattering.

But to my surprise, at the bottom of the newspaper column, just before the time and place of his funeral, it noted he had once qualified for the Boston Marathon.

The obit didn’t say whether he had actually taken part in the race. The achievement that deserved notice, his surviving family realized, was qualifying in the first place. His proud moment, recorded for posterity, probably went unnoticed by many readers. Not me.

Did he run it? Didn’t matter. He qualified.

Eric Sandstrom teaches in Colorado Mesa University’s mass communication program.


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