I hugged the walls of the Hampshire House, chandeliers hovering over my head, silently swaying and threatening. Books in every cranny. Tables adorned with candles and champagne flutes, wine glasses and scotch tumblers. Everywhere was gold and mahogany, piercing and sparkling with light smoke musty through the thick air. A woman tapped me on the shoulder.
“So this here is Johnny Kelley.”
A woman led me to the chair the night of the 2003 Boston Athletic Association pre-Boston Marathon dinner. This frail man seated at a chair was Johnny Kelley. His demeanor calm, his face shining bright, he was like a boy in the clothing of a ninety-year-old shriveled man. Yet he was ninety-five. And as people ushered away from him and the woman drew me close to him, I could feel that my heart nearly leaped out from my chest. This man, frail and small and seated on a chair, was a thousand times larger than I, this eighteen-year-old schmuck.
“Hello,” said Johnny Kelley, extending his hand in slow motion. I returned the favor and asked him something. It might have been about the honor bestowed upon him that evening. I’m not sure.
“What’s that? You’ll have to speak up,” said Kelley. Evidently I asked him about being grand marshal of the Boston Marathon, which was a few days away.
“Oh it is great. I still get to be a part of the marathon though I can’t run anymore.”
Kelley first ran the Boston Marathon in 1928. Yes, 1928. That was seventy-five years before this conversation. He won the Boston Marathon twice in 1935 and 1945. The Irish lad with freckles and blonde hair, thinly muscular of labor tradition, born in nearby Medford, Massachusetts, ran his final Boston Marathon in 1992. Yes, 1992. That’s sixty-four years after his first running. He was eighty-four.
I had already been awestruck by this scene. Roberta Gibb, the first woman to run the entire marathon, was there too. She spoke about accomplishing her daring feat in 1966.
“I trained for two years for the marathon, and when I applied, they said women were not physically fit to run the 26 miles. How could you prove them wrong if you couldn’t even try?”
The Hampshire House itself struck me down. Walk down the steps from the Hampshire House and out the door, and you’re standing under the white awning that for years served as a place setting for “Cheers.” Yes, I was standing inside the fictional Melville’s, speaking with the first female Boston Marathon finisher, and the most celebrated Boston Marathon runner of all-time, and I was eighteen, and a freshman at Boston University, and I had tickets to that Monday’s Patriots Day Red Sox game, and I was dumb, and innocent, and idiotic, and yet wrapped up completely and utterly in the gritty beauty and boastfulness that is Boston, Massachusetts. I hadn’t quite fit in yet. I was merely a beginner in journalism, writing my first ever newspaper piece two months before. But here I was in this hallowed house speaking with living legends on an eve before the biggest day in Boston. I still can’t believe I was there that evening.
You have heard that today, at nearly three in the afternoon, two explosions rocked the finish line at the Boston Marathon. You have heard that the explosions killed at least three people and injured more than a hundred nearby. Limbs lost. Blood spilled. Bodies falling to the blacktop of Boylston Street. The blue-and-yellow finish line that has long symbolized human triumph against nature’s will – that finish line is now soiled with blood and tears and unspeakable grief and shock and hate and anger.
I watched the videos. The one of the explosion from far above ground. The one of the Boston photographer intrepidly running into the damage – a heroic moment in journalism. I viewed the photos. The one of the man whose leg is half intact, the crimson bones piercing out from the shell. The one of the red scarcity, the ruptured furniture and tossed banners. The brutality of it all snaps me in half. I stood at that very spot. Six years ago I stood right there.
I dated a girl named Rachael, and she determined to run the Boston Marathon. She ran in 2006 and again in ’07, and that year I waited for her at mile 25, near Kenmore Square, and cheered and clapped and wailed. And then something took hold of my body. Maybe it was the booze. Maybe I was blindly in childish love. Whatever happened, I found myself running beside Rachael at mile 25, glancing in every direction at every drunken college student, every happy onlooker, every police officer and city official and who I could steal for a moment with my eyes. I clapped and leaped, squealed and boasted as my girlfriend finished her marathon. Every once in a while she’d turn to me, panting:
“I hate you! Stop it!”
I didn’t care. I was in love with her, in love with attention – of course – but in love with Commonwealth Avenue and the Mass Ave. underpass, in love with the turn to Boylston and in love with the home stretch. And as we galloped down Boylston, the convention center and fire house at our sides, the taller buildings stretching high giving way to sharp sunshine, I felt nothing but enormous pride. I yelled “Come on! Come on!” as I clapped, and the hundreds lining Boylston cheered with me, cheering for Rachael as she reached mile twenty-six. The finish line came into focus, and as we made out that blue-and-yellow stripe, I smiled, and she – well maybe she smiled – but at any rate, we were happy, and we were proud, and I felt Boston everywhere. Humanity overcoming nature. Humanity in full bloom.
We stood there, right by the explosion site, as more runners filtered into the finish and Rachael recovered, a blanket draping over her shoulders. There were hundreds there. Drinking, clapping, cheering, smiling, breathing. Some breathing hard while tired, others breathing free and purely glad. Thousands cross that finish line every year, and thousands reach personal goals, private goals, public goals. Charities earn millions. Rachael ran for Dana Farber, an organization dedicated to cancer research and treatment. They run to help people live. To keep people from dying. That’s why they run. Some folks run because their family members died a year before, or because they lost weight, or because life hits hard, or whatever the reason, they run because they feel they can make it to the finish line. Because humans want to win. Because humans want to be better than what they thought they can be. That’s all.
And somebody, who knows the person, but somebody decided to suspend those hopes and dreams. Somebody decided his or her aims were higher than the aims of thousands who actually faced life in the mirror and said “No. I will win.” Somebody – some coward – decided that his or her aims meant more than the aims of humans only wanting to help others, or help themselves, or just be better people. You have to stand there at Beacon Street and see the faces as they run by. They’re sweating and panting and glassy, but damnit they’re smiling. They’re euphoric. They’re doing it. Accomplishing what they set out to accomplish. They’re actually doing it. And some coward took that away.
Johnny Kelley finished sixty-one Boston Marathons because he loved the Boston Marathon. It’s what he lived to do – run the Boston Marathon. Nothing made him happier than to be part of the marathon, and when he could no longer run, when the man became confined to a seated position, they gave him grand marshal, and he was happy about that. It’s Boston, and Boston celebrated their own, a thinly muscular boy from Medford who happened to become the most storied American runner of the twentieth century. He was a kind man, a beloved man, a Bostonian through and through – tough as nails, determined to finish, running until he literally could no longer run.
Today isn’t fair. It shouldn’t happen. Not in Boston, a city that never asks for this sort of mindless tragedy. It’s a close city, a small town weaved together by universities and a color-coded subway line. Everybody has the same accent. Everybody has the same fighting spirit. You gotta be a tough nut to beat Boston. You gotta be like Johnny Kelley. I could tell that in one meeting with the legend, one awestruck meeting where I wish I really knew more about the guy. I wish I could have seen him run. Instead I saw the pure green Irish eyes, heard the bright words slowly stream from his mouth, and understand that it takes a certain person to capture a city so perfectly true to itself.
That night in 2003, Thomas A. Kershaw, owner of the Hampshire House, presented the Boston Athletic Association with the Johnny Kelley bobblehead. Kershaw joked that Kelley would be available for photos with his twin. But Kelley had no twin. No bobblehead could accurately define such a local legend. He exemplified Boston. And Kelley died a little more than a year later, at age ninety-seven.
These days the Boston Marathon is defined not by the winners, usually from countries other than the United States and celebrated for their blinding speed, but by people like Dick and Rick Hoyt, the 72-year-old father and 51-year-old quadriplegic son who have run the marathon for over thirty years. Consistently the Hoyts receive the largest cheers during the race. Their story is heartbreaking and inspiring, the purest combination of grit and adversity and triumph that can only be found in a race such as the Boston Marathon. The race isn’t about the fastest, but it’s about the Johnny Kelleys of the world, the Roberta Gibbs of the world, the Hoyts of the world, and the thousands more who for one day in April, a usually cold and dreary Monday, run the entirety of Boston and its suburbs seeking a springtime of their own. The race is about the love of Commonwealth Avenue, the Mass Ave. underpass, the turn to Boylston and the home stretch.
So today happened. It was horrendous. After a while I couldn’t watch. My stomach churned and my head dizzied. I needed air and I needed to speak to the ones I love. A hole inside me. Boston was my home, if only for a few years, but it’s always felt much more like a permanent piece of my heart. Maybe it’s the constant need for springtime within me. Maybe it’s the little Irish kid still awestruck by the Hampshire House. Maybe it’s because I found myself on the streets of Boston, and I broke free near that finish line and felt overjoyed with love and pride. I don’t know. They all seem like small reaches of emotion, but to me they’re still real. And when I saw the videos and the photos and recounted my life there on Boylston, I couldn’t swallow the imagery and I wanted to wail. The Boston Marathon has always meant more to me. It just has.
But it will run again. Next year for certain. If Johnny Kelley was alive and able, he would run it again, that’s for sure. And so would Roberta Gibbs and, you’d better believe it, the Hoyts. They’ll be there. Because they define the marathon. The triumph of humanity over nature, and most of all, over our darkest moments. Because that’s the best thing about the Boston Marathon. It happens on a Monday in April, usually just as the air is growing warmer and the clouds are beginning to subside. It’s spring. And the Red Sox play in the morning and the city closes down and celebrates. And it’s spring. And another group of thousands will attempt triumph once again. Like all the greats. They will return. And so will I. It’s just too much a part of me.