The best time to spectate the Boston Marathon? 3:45 PM. Trust me on this, I’ve watched a time or two before.
The crowd has thinned considerably because if you had a 6 a.m. wake-up call, you’ll probably feel as fatigued and dehydrated as the runners by this point. Most of my friends had succumbed to the temptations of French fries or a nap by then, but I could not be budged or bothered. After all, the marathon is magnetic.
I could not pull myself away and return to my dorm knowing that this incredible triumph of the human spirit and body that only happens once a year was ongoing just a stone’s throw away. My competitive high school track self might have once said that seeing the elite runners hurtle by at an astonishing pace was my favorite part of the race, and my first instinct would tell me that it’s when the volume of runners is highest that I feel most riveted, but I think the late afternoon rush is my actually favorite part of it all. This is because these runners need us as much as we need them. Long gone are the seemingly unreal athletes that barely break a sweat as they embark on their 22nd mile of the day on cruise control. Here, you encounter the high-fivers, the crowd-rousers, and the runners who will start running again as soon as you tell them, “you’ve got this.” Best of all, more often than not, they’re running for someone or something other than their ego. At 3:45PM around Mile 21 on Marathon Monday, you’ll witness people who grapple with suffering, and keep going anyways.
Growing up less than an hour outside of Boston, Marathon Monday has rivaled Christmas for the title of “best day of the year” my entire life. Each year, my parents would take the day off from work (they still do) and bring my siblings and me to Boston’s greatest event. We would park the car under Boston Common, visit the Make Way for Ducklings statues, walk past the towering arch of the finish line, and stake our territory up against the metal barriers of Boylston Street or, more likely, try to find an elevated surface to stand on to see over the sea of heads that got there before us. The ringing of cowbells, the deafening cheers, and the sea of Marathon jackets and thermal blankets colored my childhood memories. Marathon Monday was always a clear harkening of springtime in the city, and we would return home with tired voices, full stomachs, and inspiration sparked within us that we too could do conquer the most daunting of tasks and achieve anything we put our energy into.
As we all got older and busier, we naturally started to miss some Marathon Mondays. My siblings went off to college, and friends of mine took their places next to me on Boylston Street. We found new lunch places and skipped over the Make Way for Ducklings stop, but despite these changes, one thing remained the same – Marathon Monday was still the best day of the year.
Years of spectatorship solidified three certainties in my mind: that the later in the day it is, the better the race, that one day, I want be on the other side of the metal barrier, completing my own Boston Marathon, and most importantly, that it will be my goal to be at the Boston Marathon ever year, no matter where life takes me. Silly as it may sound, I could never really see myself going to college outside of the Boston area, partially for that reason. I’ve always been drawn to this city and its unique spirit, which is never more evident than on Marathon Monday.
The 2013 Marathon Monday started off no different from the rest – the best day of the year. The year’s crew included my parents and four best friends. We planted ourselves along our normal spot by the finish line, cheered on our favorite elites, and waited in excited anticipation to see my friend’s mom to complete the race. In a single moment, however, tragic events changed the day for the entire Boston community forever.
In the aftermath, we had to find our own ways to come to terms what had occurred both on an individual level and communally. Questions swirled around me. Why would anyone do this? was of course at the forefront of them all. Later, What does this mean for our city? and Will the Boston Marathon ever be the same again? Or will the weight of tragedy forever prevent this from being the “best day of the year” ever again?
Four years later, I’ve found an answer to some of these questions, but there are some of them I never will. I’ll never understand the motivations for a terrorist attack. As for the city of Boston, it certainly didn’t leave us unscathed. We lost invaluable individuals that day whose lives can never be restored or replaced. People lost limbs, and with them, dreams and opportunities. But resistance always answers injustice, and Boston resisted. So no, the Boston Marathon would never be the same again. It would be a little different. No matter where you are watching the race from or who you are with, the impact of April 15, 2013 will always be with us. But does this mean it could never be a joyous day again, a celebration free from grief? No, I don’t think so.
Last year was to be my first Marathon Monday at Boston College, which most, if not all, BC students will tell you it is indeed the best day of the year. As I heard each and every upperclassman fondly recall their freshman Marathon Monday – how early they woke up, how much they drank with their friends, and how many high-fives they dolled out before taking the nap of all naps – I was left internally at odds. On the one hand, this sounded like a blast and certainly an unmissable rite-of-passage for any BC student. The other part of me, of course, was still trying to make sense of what the hallowed event meant to me now, and I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready to commemorate this emotionally charged day with intoxicated celebration. In the end, I partook in some early morning festivities with friends, but knew that my place was at Mile 26 with my family and joined them there.
That made this Marathon Monday my first at Mile 21, and I have nothing but gratitude and amazement for the enthused yet respectful environment. I soaked in each and every moment of the day, but at 3:45PM, it all made sense to me. Here, after a long day celebrating with others, I had a moment to myself to recognize how truly beautiful an event this is. I finally understood that our celebration doesn’t take away from or disavow the pain that’s been endured, but it does unite us as one community in a way that no other event, though they may try, can. And that’s exactly how it should be.
So cheers to old traditions reborn, the strongest city, each and every runner, and of course, the best day of the year. I’ll see you next year: same time, same place.
Photos courtesy of the author