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The Third Monday in April

Without the Boston Marathon, how do we know it’s spring?

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I was aimlessly scrolling through social media at this time last year, as I did too often during those first pandemic weeks of 2020, and I stopped on a two-year-old tweet resurfaced by somebody else—one that I remembered made me laugh in the days following Desiree Linden’s historic victory at the 2018 Boston Marathon.

“Caitlin K.” had set the television footage of the final stretch down Boylston Street to Celine Dion’s “Titanic” soundtrack hit, “My Heart Will Go On.” Linden is fist-pumping toward the jubilant crowds, making her way to the finish line tape through the most absurd monsoon conditions, and into the congratulatory arms of American marathon legend Joan Benoit Samuelson, followed by an exuberant embrace from Linden’s husband, Ryan, and her agent, Josh Cox. 

“And now the drought is over,” Paul Swangard calls over the broadcast.  “An American woman wins Boston for the first time in more than 30 years.”

It still gives me chills, but something about the cheesiness of the music, the audaciousness of the weather that year, and the sheer thrill of Linden’s win once made that 45-second clip kind of hilarious and ridiculous. In 2020, though, it just made me sad. I watched it probably two dozen times before I figured out why something that had once seemed funny, then left me with a lump in my throat. 

That hollowness turned out to be a combination of nostalgia and grief, sitting in my family room on COVID-19 lockdown at the moment when thousands of us should have been boarding planes bound for Boston. And here we are again in 2021, home instead of heading to Massachusetts. It’s the annual trek that marks the change of seasons, the 124-year-old anchor in the rhythm of our running lives. When the markers of time are taken away, it’s disorienting—even now with the 125th Boston Marathon moved to October 11. Even with hope on the horizon, without the Boston Marathon, how do we know it’s spring? Up until COVID-19 swept around the world, the third Monday in April was always the most reliable day of celebration for fans and runners everywhere.

With time, vaccines, advancements in treatments, and testing, the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer now. But I  understand what we have been collectively mourning—and what struck me about that footage of Linden’s win three years ago. It’s the freedom to run without fear or face mask, to high five little kids cheering from their front yards, to absorb the deafening shrieks of the Wellesley women up close, to hug each other at the finish line, to have a medal hung around your neck with the unique care and kindness and appreciation only a Boston Marathon volunteer can offer. It’s the proximity of fellow runners with 30,000 different stories about how they earned their spots on the line in Hopkinton, collectively enduring the unpredictable conditions of spring in New England over those fabled Newton hills. Right on Hereford. Left on Boylston. 

Over the past decade, the third Monday in April is the only day I’ve run a 26.2-mile race with a smile on my face from start to finish. It’s the day I heard two explosions from the media room and sat in a terrifying lockdown for eight hours with a hundred other sports reporters scrambling to tell a far more tragic story than we ever imagined. It’s the day we gathered again a year later, to reclaim that finish line with the resolve and strength and triumph punctuated by Meb Keflezighi’s improbable, glorious win. The third Monday in April is when we looked out the window at the torrential rain and heard the gusting wind and just knew it would take a special athlete to beat Mother Nature, with the perseverance of a woman who’d tried five times before to break that tape.

As I again drift down a rabbit hole of Boston Marathon moments and memories, I remember the speech then-President Barack Obama gave at the 2013 memorial service for the victims of the bombings. In it, he quoted scripture: “Run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

“Even when our heart aches, we summon the strength that maybe we didn’t even know we had, and we carry on; we finish the race,” he said. “We finish the race, and we do that because of who we are, and we do that because we know that somewhere around the bend, a stranger has a cup of water. Around the bend, somebody’s there to boost our spirits. On that toughest mile, just when we think that we’ve hit a wall, someone will be there to cheer us on and pick us up if we fall.”

The race that has been set before us for more than a year is one for which we haven’t had a training plan. It has required a kind of patience and duty to society’s greater good that no marathon has ever asked of us—to stay home, run by ourselves, and give our frontline healthcare workers a fighting chance. It required us to think not of ourselves, but of each other, understanding that our choices and actions directly affect the wellbeing of our communities. Endurance has taken on an entirely new meaning for all of us. We’re allowed to grieve what we’ve lost, but I know that I—and so many of us—have done so from a place of great privilege.  

Of course we will run the Boston Marathon again—hopefully on October 11, 2021. The experience will surely differ from any race that came before it, in ways we can’t know yet. But we will relish the opportunity to gather again not only to run, but one day to also hug, high five, and have that celebratory post-race beer with as many friends as we can find. We won’t take any of it for granted—nothing will seem like a small gesture anymore. 

“And this time next year, on the third Monday in April, the world will return to this great American city to run harder than ever, and to cheer even louder,” Obama said, in 2013. “Bet on it.”

Until then, I’ll remember that the Boston Marathon requires the best of us to rise to the occasion, whatever the conditions may be. And I’ll look forward to the next time we’ll celebrate each other and the sport that connects us, strengthens us, and allows us to give life and vitality to the places that feel like home.

You can, indeed, bet on it.