Marathon is more than a national tragedy

“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.” — Kathrine Switzer

Marathon is more than a national tragedy

The dead. The injured. The anguish. All the result of bombs that were set to explode at the finish line just over four hours after the start of the Boston Marathon. Right now the sane among us will suggest caution. We’ll suggest restraint. We’ll suggest the giving of blood. There will be time to mourn. We will mourn the dead and injured. I also mourn the Boston Marathon and how it’s now been brutally disfigured.

The Boston Marathon matters in a way other sporting events do not. It started in 1897, inspired by the first modern marathon, which took place at the 1896 Olympics. It attracts 500,000 spectators and over 20,000 participants from 96 countries.

Every year, on the big day, the Red Sox play a game that starts at the wacky hour of 11.05am so people leaving the game can empty onto Kenmore Square and cheer on the finishers. It’s not about celebrating stars but the ability to test your body against the 26.2-mile course, which covers eight separate Massachusetts towns and the infamous “Heartbreak Hill” in Newton.

On Monday it was altered forever. I spoke to my friend Jim Bullington who has run in four Boston Marathons.

He said: “For me and to any serious marathoner the Boston Marathon will always be the runner’s Holy Grail. Runners train and train and train for this race. If you qualify for the marathon you get the honour of running through all the beautiful outlying towns, you get to temporarily lose your hearing as you run by what seems to be thousands of deafening screaming women at Wellesley, you climb Heartbreak Hill, you run by all the college parties, you pass the CITGO sign and know you have one mile left, and finally when you make the final turn, you sprint by thousands of cheering people towards the finish line. Nothing is like it. Nothing. I just can’t imagine this. What is the most joyous occasion has turned into a tragedy of epic proportions.”

Like a scar across someone’s face, the bombing will now be a part of the Boston Marathon, but also like a scar, we have to remember it’s only a part. If this bombing will always be a part of the Boston Marathon, then so is Kathrine Switzer.

I want to tell the story of Switzer because it’s about rem-embering the Boston Marathon as something more than the scene of a national tragedy.

Through 1966, women weren’t allowed to run the gruelling 26-mile race. But in 1967, a woman by the name of Kathrine Switzer registered as KV Switzer and, dressed in loose fitting sweats, took to the course. Five miles in, one of the marathon directors actually jumped off a truck to forcibly remove Switzer from the course, yelling: “Get the hell out of my race!” But the men running with her fought him off. For them, Switzer had every right to be there.

When the pictures from the marathon were transmitted across the globe, the world saw two opposing models of masculinity: The violence and paranoia of the marathon director versus the strength and solidarity of the other male runners.

And at the centre of it all, the resolute focus of Kathrine Switzer. In that moment, sports bridged the gender divide and gave the world a glimpse into what was possible.

This week we saw not the world we’d aspire to live in, but the one we actually inhabit. Instead of the triumph of the individual amid the powerful throngs and inspiration of the collective, we have tragedy and fear. Like a scar, it now marks us.

But like a scar, we may need to wear it proudly. We will run next year because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

*Dave Zirin is the author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love.

Copyright © 2013 The Nation — distributed by Agence Global

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up