Boston Marathon

I was supposed to run the Boston Marathon on Monday. How I’m honoring the race instead.

I wish I could be there on Monday, though being home means a whole different gift.

A no-stopping sign in Hopkinton during a previous Marathon Monday. Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe

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On Monday, more than 30,000 runners were due at the starting line of the 2020 Boston Marathon. They sacrificed sleep and racked up blisters, turned down social events (when we had them), choked down protein bars and dreamed big. I was among them. Perhaps you were, too. 

Instead, I’ll be taking on a 26.2-mile hero’s tour. (Spoiler: I’m definitely not the hero.) There will be no friendly volunteers, no invitations to chug a mid-course brew with the Boston College students, no 500,000-strong cheer squad.

The course I’m charting out is 1,378 miles from Boylston Street. It’ll be isolated, complete with a mask and strict adherence to distancing orders. And while I always wave at people along marathon courses, this time’s different: I’ll be waving to people I love, really hoping I’ll see them again.

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As strange as this year is, my track record in Boston is anything but typical. The first year I qualified, I badly broke my leg just days before the race. The next year was 2013; I ran while pregnant and was stopped less than a half-mile before the finish line when the bombs exploded. In 2014 I missed my start while pumping in the medical tent. In 2018 I finally requalified only to collapse across the finish line with acute hypothermia. The 2019 race was everything I’d been dreaming of – complete with pizza from The Salty Pig. Even in the tough years, it has been a gift to watch your incredible city take care of runners and each other. I wish I could be there on Monday, though being home means a whole different gift.

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If all goes as planned, I’ll set out from my home near the western border of Minneapolis, charting an off-the-beaten-path route to St. Paul. First stop on the hero tour: my childhood home, a modest but magical 1916 bungalow. My father, whom I called the original human Wikipedia, has Alzheimer’s Disease. For now, his wit and eye twinkle are mercifully hanging on, but the decline is devastating.

Dad and Mom (his wife of 49 years and his care partner) will stand on their screen porch. I’ll wave and shout that I love them. I’ll wish I’d hugged them more the last time I saw them, and every day before that.

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Author Ellen Hunter Gans.

Next I’ll head a few blocks south to a no-frills brick apartment building for seniors. From the parking lot, I’ll wave hello to my grandparents. These heroes of mine have lived through the Great Depression and a World War, and are equally enamored with each other and pragmatism. They logged umpteen daily miles on their bikes well into their 80s and not much scares them.

They’ve made a pact to not seek medical attention if either contracts COVID-19. Their logic: “No point in further exposing medical professionals or using up supplies that could go to other folks.” It’s tough to think about, but extremely on-brand for these still-flirty high school sweethearts.

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 Again, I’ll wish I had doled out more hugs before.

On my way back across the Mississippi River, I can wave at two more heroes: my big brother, who gave up his job to provide part-time respite care for our dad through a program called Rumi. And his wife, a dedicated school administrator who’s working around the clock to facilitate distance learning plans and advocate for students.

Another hero wave as I wind through Minneapolis: This one to my husband’s sister, a labor and delivery nurse trying to keep new moms safe and uplifted as they bring babies into a terrifying world.

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After 26.2 miles, I’ll come home to two young sons and my biggest hero of all: my spouse, who’s still showing up to work every day, in person, as an essential worker who organizes care for vulnerable adults. He has bags under his eyes but hasn’t complained once – and he’s still supporting me in undertaking the indulgent, wholly self-absorbed privilege of running a marathon.

I kept up my training schedule after the race was postponed, often running on the treadmill late at night to work around daytime solo parenting, distance learning for the boys, plus trying to save my business. I trained for my mental health as much as physical health, and to sustain a shred of normalcy while – as with so many others – my income was virtually wiped out and a dystopia set in. For me, running fosters gratitude. And I have a lot to be grateful for.

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This might be the most isolated but least lonely run yet. I hope it’s okay that I take you with me– the energy of all 30,000 of you who signed up to run. “We’re all in it together” is a platitude that fails to capture the gravity of the pandemic, or the inequities that it’s highlighted. But there’s comfort in knowing that 30,000 of us are united in a willingness to face a daunting task and do our best to get through it one step at a time.

It might be a while before the hugs at the end, and that’s if we’re the lucky ones. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. This isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon.

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