Anyone who has witnessed the Boston Marathon even once knows what it means to that city, as a rite of spring and affirmation of life. What may seem a foolhardy endeavor, running more than 26 miles for no apparent reason (since less than one percent of the participants are professional athletes with a reasonable expectation of winning prize money), in fact is a feel-good statement applied to Boston runners and spectators alike for more than 100 years.
Monday's bombings devastated more than 100 lives, and possibly changed the event forever. Whatever security measures must be taken in the future, the two-way affection that exists between runners and spectators is hard-wired into Marathon Day. And must be preserved.
Massapequa Park musician Sal Nastasi, whose 2:35:26 time made him the fastest of the Long Island entrants in Monday's race, spoke of "giving high-fives [to spectators] the whole way until I was too tired to stretch my arm out. You can't do that to A-Rod at a Yankee game. That's the coolest thing about a marathon."
There is no sports event, apart from the major big-city marathons, in which rank amateurs partake in the same competition on the same playing field as the world's elite, and Boston has been doing it since 1897, longer than any other such race.
Some non-running citizens have been known to grumble about how the marathon causes traffic snafus and other temporary inconveniences every Patriots Day in Boston, but just as many have called the event a physical muse, motivating them to take up a jogging regimen and, sometimes, the commitment to try a future marathon.
This was my experience in 1973, when I covered the first of 14 or 15 Bostons for Newsday and met Johnny Kelley. He was 65 at the time, running his 42nd of what eventually would be a record 61 Bostons -- the kind of streak that can't help but serve as a dare to onlookers.
Kelley had won the Boston Marathon in 1935 and 1945 and continued running the entire distance until 1992, when he was 84. He became such a celebrity, waving to the cheering crowds along the route with a white handkerchief, that race officials encouraged him to jump into the race for its last seven miles until he was 86. (He died in 2004, at 97.)
He didn't recommend marathoning for everyone, "but for those who are in shape and can run the thing," he said, "I think it's the greatest race in the world. I hope it goes on forever."
Boston's race has grown exponentially in the last 40 years, with almost 25 times the number of runners this year than in 1973. It could be argued that the enormous crowds -- and the carefree, festival atmosphere -- are what made it more attractive for evil terrorist theatrics. A soft target.
But you can't have Patriots Day, the third Monday of April celebrating the first battles of the American Revolution, without crowds filling the village of Hopkinton and kids dangling from trees to get a better view of the marathon start; without the college women at Wellesley shrieking encouragement to passing runners halfway through the race; without lawns filled with beer-drinkers and kids with water hoses to cool passing runners at Heartbreak Hill, on the doorstep of Boston College 22 miles into the run; without the great crowds forming a corridor of noise for hours and hours as the runners reach the Boylston Street finish line.
No one will forget how two bombs shattered that finish-line scene on Monday. But the spirit of Johnny Kelley will live on. It's the coolest thing about the Boston Marathon.