BOSTON – Marathon runners have long been the cause of fascination, as much for their endurance as for their motivation. But this year, in this city, there was a shared purpose for many athletes as they ran in the footsteps of those who witnessed the bombing of the Boston Marathon course 12 months ago.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona was attending a meeting hundreds of miles away in Washington, D.C., when she heard the news. Two explosions ripped through the side of the Boston Marathon finish line on Boylston Street on April 15, 2013, killing three people and injuring more than 260 others.
She told herself: “‘I need to go run Boston next year and send the message that Boston is strong, and that as a country we will overcome this,’ ” Sinema, 37, of Phoenix, recalled in an interview with msnbc. Sinema finished the race in the late afternoon with a time of four hours and 48 minutes.
She was among 102 runners (chosen from nearly 300) on Team MR8 to represent the Martin Richard Foundation, named for the eight-year-old boy who was killed at the marathon one year ago. The Richard family and friends officially established the charity in January, and Sinema vied for a spot on the team. Other teammates included a first responder, a nurse, a Paralympian, and a deployed civilian contractor working in Afghanistan. They ran as ambassadors, raising money for the three pillars of the charity: education, athletics, and community. The team raised more than $1 million in funds. Sinema pledged to raise $20,000 for Team MR8, which incorporates Martin’s initials, age, and favorite number.
“It’s an incredible honor to run in memory of Martin Richard,” Sinema said. “He was just dedicated to the concept of friendship and peace and working together to solve problems, which has been a part of my own life…reaching across the aisle to solve problems.”
A snapshot of young Martin holding a sign that read, “No more hurting people. Peace” became an iconic photograph after the attack, a message from an innocent child to end violence.
Members of the Richard family not only lost Martin, but now suffer from physical and mental injuries. Daughter Jane lost her left leg, mother Denise experienced the loss of sight in one of her eyes, and father Bill’s eardrums ruptured. Their oldest son Henry escaped serious wounds but lives with the images he witnessed after the bombs exploded.
The two suspects, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, also allegedly killed Sean Collier, a police officer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, during the manhunt in the days that followed. In addition to Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell and Lingzi Lu were also killed by the explosions. Tamerlan, the older brother, was killed in a shootout with police. Surviving Dzhokhar was wounded and remains in custody about 40 miles from the bombing site at the federal prison at Fort Devens in Ayer, Mass. He awaits a November trial.
The city buzzed with anticipation on Monday morning as crowds, heightened with energy, began to line the streets of Boston and its suburbs. About 36,000 official runners from more than 70 countries participated in the 118th Boston Marathon, the largest field size since the Centennial Boston Marathon in 1996 that had a starting field of 38,708 entrants. In recent years, the size was limited to 27,000 participants.
Race officials increased the field size to balance the influx and traditional combination of qualifiers and charity runners, as well as accommodating athletes who were prevented from crossing the finish line in 2013.
One police officer lined the steel barricades every few yards nearing the end as runners, dripped in sweat, slapped the hands of encouraging spectators and strove to finish in temperatures that flirted with 60 degrees by the early afternoon hours.
Bostonians call it “Marathon Monday,” an annual event held on Patriots Day when state residents get the day off from work and school to commemorate the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord. The race is the world’s oldest annual 26.2-mile stretch. “Marathon Monday” means inspiration, triumph, and charity. It means New England’s harsh winters have finished, and spring is finally here. It means rooting for the city’s beloved Red Sox during a late morning game, scheduled early enough each year so that fans can proceed to nearby Boylston Street to catch a glimpse of runners finishing the last leg of the journey.
American Meb Keflezighi and Kenyan Rita Jeptoo won the laurel wreaths for their respective races. South African Ernst Van Dyk won the men’s wheelchair race, and Russian-born Tatyana McFadden the women’s. But to many, the heart of the race is about the underdogs, the recreational runners. This year, it was an emotional day for many. Some runners finished what they started and couldn’t finish last year; others for the sport and competition; others for a cause close to their hearts.
“I was really shocked and angry that anyone would bomb an event as joyous as a marathon because it’s supposed to be a celebration,” Sinema said prior to the race. “What I’m looking forward to is showing the world that Boston Strong and the Boston spirit is stronger than the bombs that the terrorists launched last year, and that we are all together.”
This was a big moment for Boston. Spectators and international media returned to the city when the blasts still felt raw. Last year’s scene of jubilation lost its innocence. It struck right at the city’s core: Copley Square, a nerve center of Boston in its Back Bay neighborhood, was shut down for days.
The New England city has seen a lot over the last year as it worked to rebuild. The businesses on Boylston Street reopened; others moved locations. At the area’s numerous universities, another class of college students graduated and another round entered. Massachusetts gained a new senator and Boston a new mayor. The Red Sox are world champions.
“It is difficult to believe it has only been one year. It feels like only a few weeks, and we have a long road yet to walk,” Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a dancer-turned-amputee after the bombing, said last week during the marathon tribute.
“Our city, our state, our nation, and our sport are uniting to show that we don’t give into such things and that we honor those who were most affected by it,” the Boston Athletic Association said in a statement. The organization hosts the event.
What happened in Boston was personal for its residents. “I would defy somebody to come into this town and find somebody who didn’t have some kind of connection with somebody who was directly impacted by those bombings,” Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen recently told msnbc.
When the bombs hit and the cameras re-focused, viewers saw a row of flags from across the globe line the route for the runners. It is an international event. The marathon belongs to Boston, but also to rest of the nation and the world.
Even people like Sinema, from a section of America thousands of miles from the finish line, and who didn’t know anyone affected, still the tug to react.
Democratic Reps. Joseph Kennedy III and Stephen Lynch, both of Massachusetts, also participated in the race.
“Thousands of people cheering on thousands of people who they don’t know and they will never see again…I’m excited to be a part of that pack on Monday, and I think it’s going to be a pretty special day,” Kennedy, 33, told msnbc prior to the race. He ran for One Fund Boston in his first-ever marathon. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino created the charity last year to assist the victims and survivors of the tragedy.
Kennedy, whose goal was to finish, completed the race in just under four hours and three minutes. “There was a promise last year that this race will be run again,” Kennedy said. “And it will be run again next year.”
For Sinema, who said she ran in high school “but not very well,” and thousands of others, running serves as her daily escape before beginning a busy work day. She regularly runs with a bipartisan group of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. “For me it’s actually a wonderful opportunity to just reflect on my own life and the work I am doing,” she said. “Whenever something difficult comes up, running is a great time for me to work through it and make decisions of where I want to go.”
Crossing that thick blue and yellow finish line on Boylston Street Monday afternoon marked Sinema’s completion of 10 marathons. After passing the eight cities and towns along the route, she hoped to reach a personal record of four hours and 15 minutes. Her current best time is four hours and 29 minutes.
After the race, Sinema said her body had wanted to stop after Mile 10, but her mind kept her going, as well as the spectators wearing T-shirts that read “Boston Strong,” “We won,” and “We all run Boston.” She finished after her goal time, but reflected on it being the most incredible and meaningful marathon she has run.
“Today is the day for history,” she said as she waited for the remaining Team MR8 members to cross the finish line on Monday afternoon. “The 2013 marathon will live on. The 2014 marathon will live even longer. It shows the strength of the city, the strength of the country, and the strength of runners.”