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A Seat in the Bleachers: A jarring, sad scene in Boston

Wednesday, April 17, 2013
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I’ve lost track which year it was, but I’ll always remember those drums.

Three extraordinarily gleeful dudes from Kenya ferociously beating away non-stop to make sure the rest of the world knew they were there, and that their runners — their country — would be coming. Soon.

They carved a spot in the middle of the wall-to-fence crowd on the corner of Boylston and Dartmouth, a half-block past the finish line for the Boston Marathon.

Moments like that not only stick, but become part of an uninterrupted collage of memories if you’ve been exposed to an event like this enough times.

I haven’t covered the Boston Marathon on-site since 2007, but have been there on assignment 18 times and felt like I was watching an old friend wounded and bloodied on public display when two bombs blew up on Monday.

In 116 years, that roaring corner had always been a place of joy, heartbreak, triumph, good humor, desperation, pride, exhaustion, exaltation and exultation . . . never horror.

That unbroken line was rattled and snapped to pieces on Monday.

The prediction and suggestion here, though, is that next year, except for some level of heightened security procedures and extra vigilance by everyone involved, the Boston Marathon will and should remain intact and very much what it always has been.

It’s easy and natural to rush to everything-is-different-now conclusions, but, really, what are you supposed to do with a venue like this?

One of the greatest and historic sporting events in the world does not take place in a bowl or a building, where you can control who gets in, who goes out and what happens within the relatively tight confines of your arena.

We’re talking about 26 miles of public streets through small towns that get bigger and bigger until you reach the city and its familiar

beacons, the giant Citgo sign at Fenway Park, the Pru, the John Hancock Building and many others. The runners go past open businesses and homes, not in circles past a grandstand with finite occupancy.

The number of marathon spectators, estimated to be about a million people along the length of the course, gets a jolt when the 11 a.m. Red Sox game lets out, and is bolstered by Patriots Day, a state holiday marking the start of the Revolutionary War.

The Back Bay bars have waiting lines well before the elite wave of the race leaves Hopkinton at 10 a.m. The Sam Adams reserves take a frightful beating, and you see at least as many wobbly people on the sidewalks as you do in the race. Each runner, fast and slow, is treated like a precious piece of gold by the crowd, then wrapped in silver mylar blankets as soon as they finish.

In the face of all this, the police, course marshals and medical staff at the Boston Marathon have always been exemplary, and showed their true skill and devotion under unprecedented circumstances on Monday.

One of the most important aspects of marathon training and racing is establishing a rhythm, a stoic maintenance of your physical and mental faculties in the face of extraordinary demands.

As Mike Roda of Albany, who ran Boston for the first time on Monday, said, it’s almost a separate sport unto itself.

It’s one of many qualities that allowed Uta Pippig of Germany to win her third straight Boston in 1996 despite a persistent trickle of diarrhea and blood from between her legs.

It’s something that 61-year-old Dan Larson of Queensbury discovered when he was an undergrad­uate at Yale University and ran his first Boston Marathon.

Forty-four years later, he has started every one and failed to finish just one — because of a 102-degree fever in 1975 — running his finish streak to 38 on Monday, one of only a few dozen runners in the world who can claim that. He still wears his Yale track singlet, which is a little scruffy and still (pretty much) fits.

These are all parts of my only slightly threadbare collage.

The murderous trash who planted those bombs on Monday shook the Boston Marathon out of its rhythm and will leave a sickening, heartbreaking blot on the glorious history of the race forever.

Marathoners push on, though.

Some of my favorite memories include 2000, when I saw a guy finish the race with a rod attached to his head and a beer can dangling, carrot-like, in front of his face.

That same year, I wrote an advance story about colon cancer survivor Mary Pat Devine of Water­vliet, who wasn’t a partic­ularly fast runner, but competed as part of the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge.

Halfway through, she spotted Doug Flutie on the sidelines in his hometown of Natick. “I was running, and I was feeling real good at that point and was on a good pace, but there’s Doug Flutie, so I’ve got to go over to him,” she said. “I said, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ and he gave me a hug.

“I might not ever get another chance to hug Doug Flutie.”

In 1999, it was Buffalo Man, a guy with buffalo horns and “Peace in Yugoslavia” printed on his T-shirt.

And lovely Uta Pippig blowing kisses to the crowd on Boylston Street in 1996.

And those drums.

They just never stopped that day.

 

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