BOSTON -- The four young guys had played this game in other years. You could tell. They scoped out a place maybe 10 feet away from Doyle and me Monday afternoon on the grass median on Commonwealth Avenue, right near the beginning of Heartbreak Hill in Newton, and they pulled out the beers from a black backpack and slyly poured them into nondescript cups because drinking alcohol was supposed to be forbidden on the city streets. Too bad. This was a game that involved drinking alcohol.
"One chug for a recognition," the heavyset young guy said. "That's for an acknowledgement of any kind. A word. A wave. A look. Anything."
"Two chugs for a high five," the young guy with the glasses said. "Three if all of us get high fives from the same person."
"Four if we make someone who is walking start running again," the heavyset guy added. "That's the most points of all."
And so the game began.
The elite runners in the Boston Marathon, both male and female, already had passed. The champions probably already had accepted their medals, had those olive branch wreaths placed upon their heads. The runners who came past now were the ordinary pounders, the ones you see in your neighborhoods every night, now part of a big sloppy mass that formed the bulk of the field of 23,326 runners. These were people who were working on their own goals for their own reasons, many of them dedicating their runs to deceased relatives or sick friends. They were alone with their inner struggles, their muscles starting to cramp a bit, their minds starting to wander, everyone a stranger in a crowd, 20 miles into the route, the hardest six miles to follow.
The voices from the side of the road were a surprise.
"Mike. How to go! Keep it up."
"Michigan! Let's go Michigan! The Wolverines!"
Information would be read off a runner's shirt or face or demeanor by the young guys; then returned in excited, exuberant voices. (More excited, more exuberant as the number of chugs accumulated.) Sally would notice and smile. (Chug.) Mike would deliver one, two, three, four high fives. (Three chugs.) Michigan would plod straight ahead, no recognition at all. (Booo.)
When a runner would come past walking, the young guys would clap and chant "walk, walk, walk…RUN!" When the runner would continue to walk, nothing more would be said. When he or she would smile and start to jog again, there would be a VJ-Day kind of cheer that would make Larry Bird or Bobby Orr feel proud, followed by a four-chug celebration.
All of this continued for an hour and half, maybe two hours, as the runners continued to pass. An old timer, a runner, put it into perspective.
"I know what you're doing," he told the four young guys as he went past, listened to their noise. "I was young myself once…"
* * *
Doyle and I have stood at the same spot for the Boston Marathon, on and off, for 30 years. It's our little tradition. We park on the same side street. We stand at the same bend in the road, watch the show. There was a time when we knew a bunch of the runners -- my doctor, a runner, once jumped out of the pack, grabbed me as I lit up a cigarette and said "I told you those sons of bitches are going to kill you" -- but that has pretty much passed. We root for people we don't know, root for their ambition, their pluck.
We arrived early enough yesterday to catch the first wheelchair racers come past, a lot of young men in that category now, inducted into the sport after service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Next were the present soldiers, some of them from the Massachusetts National Guard, some from local ROTC programs, walking the route in fatigues with full backpacks. They usually start around midnight. They look like they are whipped. They always get a cheer.
The elite women came next because they get a head start at the race's beginning in Hopkinton. (When they started at the same time as the men, the leading women would be lost in the middle of a pack of men. Now they have their own spotlight.) A woman named Ana Dulce Felix, which is what the card on her shirt read, ran alone in the front, more than a quarter mile ahead of maybe a dozen pursuers in a group. Logic said Felix was going out too fast and the group would catch her. (Which it did.)
Then the elite men came, a half-dozen tiny black men from Kenya and Ethiopia, beautiful as always, gliding more than running, covering the ground in a whisper. There is a feeling that these men weigh no more than necessary. How much does a heart weigh? How much does a femur weigh? How much does a tooth weigh? Add the necessary weights, no more. That is how much these tiny men weigh. They are magicians.
The parade evolved from there. Doyle and I like to notice the bizarre and so we say things like "there's the first guy running in a tutu" and "there's the first guy with a Mohawk" and other informed opinions. How many tattoos on that character? Where's the first person dressed as Groucho Marx? This year we counted guys who ran the entire race dressed as a cheeseburger. There were 12 of them. (Some company must have a promotion, but we couldn't figure out who or what it was.) There was one guy dressed as a banana. One guy wore a tuxedo. There was no Groucho. Alas.
We saw at least three runners with at least one of those Oscar Pistorus artificial limbs. We saw four, maybe five blind people running with guides. We saw one dwarf, the woman, but never did see the other one, the man, who had been profiled in a pre-race story. We saw every style of running, some of them taking from a Monty Python special, I presume. We saw people struggling mightily.
"He's struggling," I would say.
"He's struggling," Doyle would confirm.
Seventeen years ago, I actually ran the race. Doyle stood in the usual spot, accompanied by his son, the state trooper. ("He's struggling," Doyle told his son. "He's struggling," his son confirmed.) The next year I was back at my spot on the sideline.
For a finish on our Boston Marathon day, we always go to a small dive bar in Brighton to drink beer and find out how the Red Sox fared in their morning game on Patriots Day and to watch local highlights of the race on television. That was what we did yesterday. We waited to see Ricky Hoyt being pushed by his dad, always part of the tradition. (Dad was struggling.) We left the course at 2:30 -- the four young guys were still there, playing their game -- and were in the bar by 2:50. We learned the details of the Red Sox' 3-2 win. The lady behind the bar switched channels to see if she could find some race coverage.
And then the world changed.
* * *
I have been watching and listening to nothing but coverage of the Boston Marathon since that moment. Eight hours, nine, now 10 have passed. I am home. The first bomb explodes and everyone is in shock and then the second bomb explodes and three are dead at last count and 100 or so are injured and then the footage is shown from a different angle and then another one. The mayor and the governor and the President of the United States all have spoken and interview follows interview and there is a sadness that does not go away.
In one of the clips, I can see three guys pushing a paralyzed kid in an over-sized stroller, much the same way Ricky Hoyt's dad pushes him. I remember them. I cheered for them. Now, boom, they are startled, frightened, hurrying away from the finish line.
I can see the runners, exultant, headed for the finish line. I remember that! There's the Boston Public Library. The blue and yellow arch at the end. Exhaustion. Pride. Boom! Fear? Boom again! Panic? I can see too much.
"This cowardly act will not be taken in stride," Boston police commissioner Ed Davis just said again. "We'll turn over every rock to find out who is responsible."
I hope so.
I love the Boston Marathon. I love the fact that my city is in the name. I love the race. I love everything about it. I think this is the most innocent sports event in this country. The big-time runners and the money they make is only garnish. The soul of the race is in the middle of the pack. Ordinary people cheer for ordinary people. Where else does this happen? This is a festival, a salute to the human spirit. The price of admission is nothing, zero. Just show up. Just join the fun.
I don't ever want it to change.
Except I think it just did.