This is how celebrations of the human spirit end in the 21st century:
Police sirens wail, and aid cars scream to their destinations. TV stations interrupt regular programming, and reporters describe limbs blown from bodies. The president delivers a hasty address on the latest act of terrorism.
Monday, this was Boston, when a gloriously sunny day, brisk and just a little breezy — near perfect for the running of the 117th Boston Marathon — turned grotesque and unthinkable. This time, the killers didn’t just get innocents, they managed to dial up a brutal incongruity. They made a day of triumph for so many of the 27,000 competitors one that will forever be recalled for its tragedy.
We came back here to see our son Brett, a former runner at Gonzaga University, run his second marathon. Several of us gathered on Heartbreak Hill, another a mile from the finish line downtown.
Like a lot of runners, my son approached the event with a religious ferocity, training through the most begrudging parts of a Seattle winter, watching what he ate, intent on maximizing.
On Heartbreak Hill, he was fairly breezing, and the electricity of the event — a course solid with spectators for 26 miles — lifted him through the sag of the last several miles. He ran 2 hours, 34 minutes, 7 seconds, 111th among males.
My sister and I wove through a neighborhood near Boston College to catch a train six miles east into the city for a post-finish rendezvous. It took a seventh train before we could squeeze on.
Downtown, we hit Boylston Street, where four-hour runners were coming in. Near the finish, the sidewalks were stifling, onlookers a few deep and foot traffic both ways. We came to a stand of VIP bleachers. In about 20 minutes, those people would be rocked by explosions in front of them.
By then, we’d made our way to a bar called Clery’s on a cross-street, Dartmouth, maybe three blocks away. Downstairs, Brett was forcing fluids with a couple of old college roomies. It was a sprawling place, crammed with runners and supporters and the glow of celebration.
“Look,” somebody said. A big-screen TV behind us had the dreaded label, “Breaking News.” Bombs in Copley Square. Dismembered bodies. Crazily, the soundtrack to the video initially stayed hooked up to a country-and-western song for several minutes before they sync’d up the news audio to the TV.
Suddenly the party was over. People looked vacantly at each other. A Samuel Adams “26.2” — brewed in honor of the marathon — sat untouched.
An hour after the bombings, the streets were thick with uncertainty. Cellphone service was interrupted for fear the perpetrators were using them to orchestrate more violence, panicking callers concerned for those in the area.
Fire trucks and ambulances and police cars roared through every street near the finish. This, while runners made their way gingerly down sidewalks, wrapped in insulating space blankets.
Some train service was suspended for a couple of hours. Transportation personnel kept cool, handled inquiries with aplomb and nobody got charged for riding a bus or a train.
It wasn’t the first time terrorism had struck a sporting event. Arab terrorists stormed the Olympic Village in 1972 and eventually killed 11 Israelis. There was the bomb detonated at Centennial Park at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
But sports has generally been apart from such evil, remarkably so, given 80,000-seat football stadiums and the often-relaxed security. I carry a bag with four pouches and can’t count the times one of them gets searched, three go unchecked and you’re waved through.
Now we were headed south to Rhode Island. A brilliant red-orange sunset painted the western sky. Four and a half hours after the explosions turned a magical day macabre, I realized I didn’t know who had won the race.