Devesh Khatu ran the Boston Marathon twice—once in 2009 and once in 2010.
This year he was not running the race. But ever since the bombs went off at America’s oldest and most iconic marathon, his phone and Facebook wall have been flooded with anxious messages.
Khatu once set himself a goal of 12 marathons in 12 months. His marathons have taken him all over the world—London, Berlin, New York, Mumbai. But Boston, he says, is special.
“You have to qualify to be able to run in it,” says Khatu, who lives in San Francisco. “Running it is considered an accomplishment. It’s like, say, getting into Harvard Business School. Even non-runners know about it.”
That’s what makes the attack on the marathon so heartrending. That’s what exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen does not get when she sneers on Twitter “Hey Americans! Don’t cry like 9/11, #BostonMarathon is not like 9/11. Come live in South Asia, bombs are like everyday fireworks.”
There’s no point getting into a race-to-the-bottom competition of death tolls. The fact that many more were killed in Iraq on the same day as the bombs went off in Boston (and indeed on the day before and probably the day after) does not mitigate the tragedy of what happened in Boston any more than the daily gun violence in America’s inner cities diminishes the horror of the Newtown elementary school shooting. A story about 30 members of an Afghan wedding party being killed by a U.S. bomb is making the rounds of social media as if it happened at the same time as the Boston attack. People forwarding it assume that, though it is actually from 2002. It does not excuse it. It’s just this is not the time to discuss blowback, what America deserves or does not deserve or speculate about who might have done it. “People shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts,” Obama rightly said. “But, make no mistake, we will get to the bottom of this.”
Leave aside the iconic nature of the Boston Marathon, that it happens on a state holiday known as Patriots Day marking the battles of Lexington and Concord and is thus imbued with a sense of American-ness despite the runners who come from all over the world. There is just something “particularly devastating” about an attack on a marathon, writes Nicholas Thompson in the New Yorker:
It’s an epic event in which men and women appear almost superhuman. The winning men run for hours at a pace even normal fit people can only hold in a sprint. But it’s also so ordinary. It’s not held in a stadium or on a track. It’s held in the same streets everyone drives on and walks down. An attack on a marathon is, in some ways, more devastating than an attack on a stadium; you’re hitting something special but also something very quotidian.
That’s why the choice of a marathon as a bomber’s target is so baffling. It’s not a symbol of a country’s pomp, military might or financial wealth. It’s always been about the endurance of the human spirit. And it’s been open to all in a way few sports are.
Khatu says he started running marathons in 2005 because he was very unathletic during school and college in India. His focus had always been on excelling in academia. But marathons seemed like a challenge he could take on. So many different kinds of people, many who had shown no aptitude for other sports, run the marathon.
“Few things compare to the sense of accomplishment that you feel after running the 26.2 miles to finish a marathon,” he says.
That’s pretty much what Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, said about it as well.
“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon,” she said.
Dave Zirin tells her story in a moving blog for The Nation about the Boston marathon. He mourns that now “(l)ike a scar across someone’s face, the bombing will now be a part of the Boston Marathon.”
But he writes that while you cannot ignore the scar, you have to remember it’s “only a part” of the whole. Kathrine Switzer is also a part of that same story, disfigured as it might be now.
In 1967 she snuck into the marathon by registering under the gender-neutral name of KV Switzer. But five miles into the race, an irate marathon director jumped off a truck and tried to force her to “get the hell out of (his) race.” The men running with her fought him off.
That story is moving because it shows that race does not belong to anyone. It was not the marathon director’s property and it’s not the bombers’ who tried to put their deadly stamp on it.
Zirin writes the bombing now “marks us” like a scar. “But like a scar, we may need to wear it proudly.”
Khatu has changed his profile picture on Facebook to his runner’s tag from the 2009 Boston marathon—runner number 8130. “I vow to requalify and run Boston again,” he says.
Otherwise, as Switzer implies, you might as well lose faith in human nature.
Sandip Roy is the Culture Editor for Firstpost.com. He is on leave as editor with New America Media. His weekly dispatches from India can be heard on KALW.org. This article was first published in New America Media and First Post.