Something magical happened at Boston this year.
As some may recall, a year ago I wrote about how I was only a half-mile from the finish line when two bombs exploded and tore the city apart — killing three innocent bystanders and maiming dozens of others. Last week, I returned to the exact spot I was stopped, and then turned a corner not only on my own marathon course but also on a journey involving redemption for a whole city and indeed, an entire country.
In a show of endurance and healing, everyone came together to prove that the Boston Marathon could not be stopped by anti-American hatred. Led by American runners Meb Keflezighi and Shanane Flanagan, we discovered what it meant to be Boston Strong.
What comes to mind is the word community. It has often been used to describe what Japanese Americans formed as a result of enduring a time of great sadness and difficulty during WWII. It came from a collective consciousness that understood the meaning of gaman.
The city of Boston became a similar community on that warm Patriot’s Day holiday. Five hundred thousand people overcame their sorrow in a communal show of strength that embodied the power of the human spirit. From Gov. Deval Patrick to the last of the 10,000 volunteers, the support was palpable on every street corner, in every face, and on every outstretched hand. Everyone knew they were part of something bigger than themselves.
This year, I traveled to Boston with a record 35 people from my track club and another 25 friends from the L.A. Leggers running group. Word had gone out that we needed to show our support for a race known as the most prestigious in the world. Requiring a qualifying time in order to even be considered, many of these runners — some of the fastest in L.A. — had no trouble beating the time qualifications, while others had to find the fastest marathon courses to help get them in under the required times to compete at Boston.
The added enticement for me was that I would be running with my friend Parker, whom I had met at the Tokyo Marathon a month earlier. Whether it was luck, fate or serendipity, we discovered we were both stopped at the same point when the bombs went off the previous year. Determined to return — he from Tokyo and me from L.A. — neither of us had ever been that close to a tragedy of this magnitude.
We joined Parker’s 25-year-old daughter Catherine, who had lived practically her entire life in Boston. Her enthusiasm for the city and for this race was infectious. The crowds shouted our names almost from the moment we took off from Hopkington, and Catherine’s fingers must have brushed every outstretched hand that greeted the 32,000 runners at the start.
The first few miles were filled with excitement as months of training and screams from the crowd helped make it feel easy. I realized around mile 8 that it was going to be tough keeping up with my two speedy partners, so I told them I was going to slow down. I felt my first twinges of cramps at mile 10, the same cramps that had kept me from ending right at the finish line a year earlier when the explosions went off.
Throwing ice on my legs, chanting to myself to relax, and breathing as deeply as I possibly could, I slowed down to a pace I could sustain, but I knew I was in trouble when I got to Wellesley just past the halfway point and didn’t have the energy to stop and kiss a student who held a sign that read, “Kiss me, I’m Amasian.”
It was at the top of the notorious Heartbreak Hill that cramps struck like lightning. I can honestly say it was the worst sustained pain I’ve ever felt in this or any marathon. I watched as a double amputee passed me, but I knew I wasn’t alone as the cheers of the crowds kept urging me to stay strong. By the time I passed the point at which I was stopped last year and turned onto Boylston, the cheers were deafening.
With my name emblazoned on my bib, I heard it reverberate through the crowd like I was a champion in the middle of the Coliseum. Walking was humiliating, but I saw many concerned faces in the crowd as we reassured one another that I could endure the pain just a few minutes more. Several runners also turned around to urge me on.
It was the kind of day we held each other up, not giving a thought to finish times. Later, I read an account of several runners who literally picked up a man who had fallen down only feet from the end to help him as he struggled to finish.
When I finally seemed to crawl over the finish line, I burst into tears, knowing this race was not just about me. It was about the triumph of an American male who won for the first time in 31 years, and the perseverance of an American woman who led the pack to a course record. It was about the victims whose names Meb Kaflezighi wore on his race shirt. It was about the bomb survivors, some of whom finished the race in wheelchairs or ran part on prosthetics. It was about the 31,931 who completed the race at a record finisher rate of 98%. It was about the hundreds of thousands of people in the streets making sure that those who struggled to cross the finish line knew the whole city was behind them.
It was about community, and knowing we were part of the country whose name we heard chanted loudly in the streets: USA, USA, USA.
On a sad note, and one that should not be overlooked: I was told by two Indian American friends that they were stopped repeatedly by policemen asking to see their race bibs, clearly a result of racial profiling. Some may call it understandable; I say it’s shameful. It’s vivid and all-too-familiar evidence that racism is still very much alive in this land of the free and home of the brave.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey, and can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.