Marathons Don’t Have Finish Lines

The following is a transcript of a speech delivered on March 11th, 2014, as part of the Amherst College Speech Competition.

You might not know it by looking at him now, but my dad was a pretty good athlete back in his day.  Up to a few years ago, he was always pushing himself, always taking on new physical challenges.  But I have to admit that even I was surprised that morning in 2006 when he told me that he was going to run in the Boston Marathon.

I asked him, “Dad, how come, what’s driving ya?”  And he replied, “I dunno, I think it’s time.”  Then he turned to me, fourteen years old at the time, and asked, “Will you run the last couple miles with me?”  I said,  “Of course.”

I remember turning onto Boylston Street, the final stretch run leading to the finish line.  I remember the crowds, the cheering.  My dad was struggling, but he was gonna make it.  To his right was a guy with a fake hot dog attached to the front of his hat, leading him on as he ran.  And we were running in with a couple other people around us, but there was one runner, one image in particular that I’ll never forget.

To our left, was a woman with her hands spread wide, head tilted up, wearing a t-shirt that, on the back, had a picture of a beautiful, smiling, bald young girl.  Below the picture was a name that I’m sorry to say I don’t remember, the years 1998-2005, and the letters “RIP” – rest in peace.  And below that, in bold type, a line that read “Marathons Don’t Have Finish Lines.”

Marathons don’t have finish lines. At 14, I remember thinking to myself, what does that mean?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Boston Marathon, on many levels, it is the defining sporting event of Boston.  For a city hardened by long and frigid winters, the Boston Marathon at the turn of spring marks the warmest day of the year, an event where the entire city crowds the streets in support of its runners.  For every Bostonian recognizes that committing to and participating in running the marathon alone are acts worthy of celebration.  Whether grounding motivation in raising money for cancer research or striving for new personal heights, the runner knows that his or her conviction will be tested in a grueling course, culminating in the legendary “Heartbreak Hill,” a torturous climb that begins at mile 20.  It is the collective embrace of the challenge that is the Boston Marathon, both on the parts of the participants and the supporters, that revives the spirit of the city every year.  The Boston Marathon asks all of us to come together to become something greater than we would otherwise be.

That’s why the bombings last spring didn’t make sense.

How could the assailants not know.  How could they not see the beauty, how much pain their attacks would cause.  Call me naïve, but I didn’t think it was possible.  The Boston Marathon was the one event that was protected, by, I don’t know, pure intentions, by love, by morality.  It is perhaps more than in the obvious sense, then, that the bombings were devastating to me.

On an even more personal level, the attacks last spring coincided with a cascade of events in my life that I was still struggling to understand.  My grandmother had out of nowhere suffered a heart attack on a flight back home to Japan.  My grandfather, while driving 30 mph on a main road in Lexington, MA, had been struck head-on by a driver who had swerved across that lane reaching for his cell phone, and had been thrust into a coma for weeks.

This past summer, as I attempted to reconcile these events in my life, insomnia ensued, and my thoughts swirled every night trying to find understanding, trying to find something good out of what was happening.  Each night, a new idea was slowly becoming embedded in the back of my mind – that my grandmother’s heart attack, my grandfather’s coma, the marathon – that none of it made any sense.  I was beginning to feel that, at the end of the day, nothing really mattered.

In the fall, I found myself falling further into a depression.  As I tried to find meaning in my world, my thoughts became consumed by my own thoughts.  I no longer cared what other people were saying, what other people were feeling.  None of it mattered. Yeah, I had figured it out.  It was all fake, none of it was real.  And it was all bad – at this point, even my liberal arts education began to haunt me.  Where previously I had seen opportunity, where previously my classes had illuminated ways that I could bring light to the world, make it better, I now began to see darkness – I was only learning about new problems.  And they were problems that were inescapable, that had no solution.  Just look at the news!  Government, inequality, war, terrorism; we can’t fix any of it.  I began to hurt.  I was feeling chronic anxiety where previously, I hadn’t a clue what anxiety felt like.  I had tightness like a rock in my throat at all times.  I was on edge, I felt angry, despair, lost, and most of all, deeply, deeply lonely.

After a difficult fall semester, back home over a cold winter break, I tried to pretend that I was fine to my family.  I found that I had become pretty good at fooling people – I’m not sure if even my parents truly understood what was going on.  But there was one person who I couldn’t fool, the one person dearest to me in all the world, and who in so many ways is my role model, my 15 year old brother, Ray.

We were playing Diablo 3, an Xbox 360 video game, one night when mid-game, my brother turned to me and said, “Hey, you’re not smiling as much anymore.”

“What!?”  I said with a laugh, smiling as widely as I could.  “Don’t you worry about me, Ray!  I’m fine! I’m good, I’m okay, I’m okay.”  But I was scared.  Could he tell?  What if my pain had rubbed off on Ray?  What if Ray, the sweetest kid in the world, realized how I was truly feeling?  My heart raced, my throat tightened.

After a paralyzing few moments, Ray paused the game, put down his controller, turned to me and said, “Listen, you know I love you – no matter what.”

“I know, Ray.”  No matter what.  What does that mean?  The words were spinning in my mind.  No matter what.  No matter what.

Finally, I heard myself reply: “Thanks Ray, I love you too.  No matter what.”

For the first time in a long while, the tightness in my throat subsided.  I could feel my body, my mind at ease.  In reflecting on that winter day, I realized that in those few moments, Ray had reminded me of a simple truth that I had somehow managed to forget.  The hurt, the pain that I had felt just a minute before that conversation, began to fade.  For I knew, I knew with absolute certainty, that right then and there, sitting with Ray, I was deeply, deeply happy.

Hopefully somewhere in the next few days the temperature will rise and the snow will start to melt, if only because I know that somewhere out there, a record-number of participants, people, are training in preparation for the Boston Marathon this year, just one year after the bombings.  While it can’t be easy, training in the snow, according to my father, and I quote, “It’s all part of the experience.” I’m sure he’s right.

While I’m personally looking forward to some warmer weather, I know that even after a stretch of 50- or 60-degree days, announcing the arrival of spring would be premature.  Because for me, hope springs eternal when the city of Boston gathers on that fateful April morning, in full support of the runners standing at the starting line, all staring down Heartbreak Hill and the road ahead, all standing together, in unison, in embrace of the idea, or perhaps the dream, that is:

Marathons don’t have finish lines.