Like many of you, I just didn't have words last week. I will never have adequate words about the suffering of those wounded or killed. But I have wanted to write about the truly awesome defiance of the running community in the face of such heinous acts. If reading this helps you, great. If not, that's ok too.
As some of you know, I grew up in a small town in West Virginia. I am a third generation West Virginian, and I'm very proud of that. I am passionate about Appalachia and will defend it any where. I'll also be the first to admit that there are things about its socioeconomics and its sociology that are difficult for outsiders to understand. I've found it difficult, for example, to explain to people the state's motto, "Montani Semper Liberi," or, "Mountaineers are always free," and what that fierce independence means to West Virginians. I've found it difficult to contrast that sentiment of independence with the suffocating social norms of my hometown. I've found it difficult to describe the conflicting realities of startling generosity and nail-toughness, both of which are by-products of the devotion to independence. Independence, and a heritage of tragedy, both man-made and beyond man's control.
The tragedy. My best friend loves Felicity. She has carried this quote around in her head for years: "I'm convinced that tragedy wants to harden us, and that our mission is never to let it."
My bff is the most amazing woman. She has embodied this quote. And yet I've never been sure if our fair state (we grew up together) has. Where we grew up, I always had this feeling that people believed that the best times were behind us.* From the outside, I heard a professor at Penn State tell us one day that "life in that part of Appalachia is hard." What did this mean? That if you face tragedy for long enough, you harden.
I think as a consequence of this, when the massacre happened at Virginia Tech (where I got my Masters just a few years prior), I was afraid that people would see Tech differently, would disinvest in it, that it would become marked. It did not. When the bombings happened last week, I was afraid that the Boston Marathon would be marked. I was afraid that other runners, like me, would think twice before asking their plus-ones, children, nieces, and nephews to cheer for them at the finish. It had been only a week since my precious family stood at the 13.0 mark cheering for me! How could I not be, in retrospect, terrified?
The Lola Papers has it right in her tribute for Boston. The attacks were meant to make a mockery of freedom, and they failed. I heard her read this essay before the STL Unity Run for Boston. She's also right that the spirit of running cannot be broken. She's said all this so well, I will not repeat it.
What I will say is that I got into distance running because grad school part deux was kind of awful for the first few years, and I needed some diversion if I was going to avoid giving up on humanity. Team in Training, and with it my first half-marathon did just that. And now, almost exactly 6 years later, distance running has done that again--renewed my faith in humanity, and my faith in hope, in a drastically more significant way. The response from the running community has been incredible. Arm bands at the London Marathon. Unity runs all over the world. The Boston One Fund, and all sorts of companies donating proceeds from various sales to the fund. Fundraising pages for victims. Runners coming out of the woodwork more determined than ever to qualify for, and to run Boston. It's undeniable. It's unavoidable. It's awesome.
In some part, this is why we run. We are part of this. Running is my freedom, a freedom I have defended. It has been a place to preserve my own humanity and to see the best in others. For that, I have nothing but thanks.
*there are certainly exceptions to this. Wow, are there.