As a five-year-old, I ran my first race at my family’s boys’ summer camp on a winding dirt road lined by a quiet green forest. My heart pounded in my temples, dust clogged my throat, and I inhaled the sweet aroma of swamp water as my skinny legs floated toward the finish line. At the recognition banquet, Grandma handed me a pink ribbon with OUTSTANDING typed in capital letters. I pressed it to my heart. I ran many more races, winning other ribbons, but the thrill of that first race never left me.
As a child, I outran the neighbor boys in kick the can, capture the flag, and tackle the man with the ball. In adolescence, I ran through the emotional upheaval of hormonal rages, unrequited loves and shattered friendships. In college, I raced through setbacks, devastating losses and future uncertainties. After graduation, I jogged down the wide boulevards of Washington DC, the cobblestone streets of Paris, and the winding alleyways of Marburg lined with half-gabled houses dating from the 15th century.
Running represented freedom. Like many other athletes worldwide, I dreamed of one day running in the Boston Marathon.
This year’s Boston Marathon, synonymous with the spirit of the American people, was held on Patriots Day at the historical city that represents the democratic values we hold so dear. When I first saw bombs explode on TV, I gasped for air as if my lung had been punctured. Immediately, I wondered, where’s Tina; my best friend – a runner- repatriated back to Boston. Twelve years earlier, we squeezed hands for support in Switzerland as we watched the Twin Towers disintegrate on September 11, 2001 setting the stage for a new era of terrorism.
Like everyone else, as the newsreel in Boston unfolded, I thought first of my friend, and her family. Even after I found out that she was all right, the anxiety didn’t subside. Instead it rippled out in waves, while I went through the motions of my day teaching multi-cultured, multi-colored students in Switzerland’s tranquil countryside. I kept replaying the scenes of pandemonium, knowing that today someone’s life was shattered. Forever. Someone lost a leg. Someone lost a life partner. Someone lost an eight-year-old son.
Running is the great equalizer: anyone at any age can run anywhere. Out the door. Into the street. Across the fields. Over the hills. Through the woods. You don’t need to rent a court, pay club fees, own special gear or earn a specific income.
Air is free. Breath. Oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. Runner’s high. The benefits are immediate… until a bomb strikes the Boston Marathon on an American holiday reminding us that our streets, and fields, and hills, and woods are not safe.
Over the week, as the news unfolded of the manhunt for the perpetrators, I watched in horror a city under siege in lock-down. Until the capture of the second brother, soldiers patrolled sleepy suburban streets; snipers perched on the rooftops and armed tanks rolled through the trendy neighborhoods of Watertown and Cambridge.
Though my running days are long gone, as I walked to my international school where I encounter a hundred different nationalities on a daily basis, I wondered what has gone wrong? Why can’t we get along?
Running, freedom, bombs, all blur into a nightmare of disbelief, replaced by uncertainty, anxiety, fear.
We will always run free!