THE BOSTON MARATHON always has been a celebration of doing a very hard thing better than most. New runners, or at least runners wanting to run their first marathon, scan maps looking for cities and races with gentler geography, for the easiest introduction to 26.2 miles, as if that exists. They think about running in Milwaukee or Orlando or Ottawa, on courses that are forgiving and flat. Boston doesn't enter their thinking because it can't. The Boston Marathon, like Boston itself in some ways, doesn't welcome just anybody. You have to prove yourself worthy.
It remains the only American marathon for which you must qualify by running a lesser marathon fast enough. All those runners you saw, being knocked to the pavement by bombs or searching frantically for loved ones, every last one of them wanted to be in Boston with all of their heart. Their bib numbers spoke to a level of commitment that surpasses even most of their fellow marathoners -- only about 10 percent finish other races in time to put Boston on their horizon. For a man between 18 and 34, the qualifying time this year was 3:05. That's roughly a seven-minute mile for 26.2 consecutive miles. For most of us, that's an impossible pace.
If you watch the footage from the moments after the bombings, if you go back to that awful Monday afternoon and force your eyes away from the fire and smoke, you will see runners still running, blind to everything but the finish line. That's the sort of person who makes Boston, and who makes that race what it is. Much has been made of the fact that Bill Iffrig -- the 78-year-old man in the orange singlet, laid out at the feet of a trio of police -- got up and finished his race. Marathons have always been custom-made for metaphors, but when people are struggling to find the right words, it's sometimes simplest and safest to point to someone like Iffrig, or the man in the cowboy hat, or another of that day's sudden icons, and say: them. That is the best of us, even in the middle of our worst.
Those people are always there, at the end. And they will be again next year. The Boston Athletic Association has already announced that in some form, the race will go on, run by people who push themselves to their limits, cheered by people whose love and support make that possible. The finish line of a marathon, of every marathon, is like a temporary city unto itself, founded on sacrifice, fortified by hope. It is perfection.
Only in Boston is that city also walled. Most people, including runners who could never qualify, will tell you that Boston should stay an exclusive race. It should not be like every other marathon, because no other marathon has Heartbreak Hill. But in the wake of that tragic, surreal, oddly triumphant week when Bostonians wondered whether their city, let alone their beloved race, would ever be the same, I did wonder: Maybe for 2014, maybe for one year, the marathon shouldn't be the same. Maybe we should fight our instinct to build taller walls and instead the walls should come down. Maybe next year it shouldn't be up to the clock to decide who runs.
We will never be able to defend 26.2 miles of open road from madmen and their pressure cookers. All we can do is try to overwhelm their desires with ours. After the bombings, there were so many people, helpless, removed, who wanted to do something for Boston and its victims but did not know what they should or could do. So they ran. They ran their slow, steady pace on their ordinary legs, on back roads and cinder tracks across the country, each runner another lonely spot of light. Maybe we should gather as many of them as we can next year in Boston, at one of America's great gatherings, and then release them, wave after wave of runners, tens of thousands of runners, more runners than ever before, runners wearing pictures of Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu and Sean Collier on their bibs, all of them racing toward that same finish line on Boylston Street, toward that beautiful city at the top of the hill.
Maybe that's how we make sure the Boston Marathon remains more truly what it always has been: a testament to the power of belief in the face of pain and fear; a literal triumph of life over death.