What Boston Taught Me

It all started as a sixth grader on the middle school cross country team. I wouldn’t have considered myself a runner at the time; I was just a shrimpy basketball player who wanted to get in shape for hoops season. But somewhere deep in my psyche, a seed had been planted. 

Since then, running has been a consistent part of my life. From the track to the road to the trail, I’ve found solace for 25 years in the steady rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other. It’s not just about signing up for races with cool swag or having a convenient excuse to eat more than I probably should. It’s about self-discovery and solitude. It’s about accepting the invitation to enjoy sacred communion with my own body and my own breath. It’s about forging meaningful connections to all that surrounds me – the streets, the sidewalks, the fields, the trees, the neighborhoods that make up my home.

Most people have a pejorative outlook on running. They see it as a pointless diversion for the mentally unwell or an evolutionary relic from ancient times when survival depended upon being able to escape from the hungry pursuit of predatory creatures. And to be fair, they’re not entirely wrong about either hypothesis.

But as crazy as it may sound, running is one of the few reliable ways in which I’ve consistently found a sense of peace and happiness in life. Never mind that I’m not very fast. Speed isn’t necessary to enjoy what running has to offer. All it takes is showing up and paying attention.

And that’s exactly what I resolved to do when I stepped to the starting line for the 126th running of the Boston Marathon last week, my first time participating in what is arguably the most iconic race in the world. More than anything else, I wanted to be able to enjoy the experience. I wasn’t worried about nailing certain splits or hitting a specific time. My primary goal was to be fully present for every step of the 26.2-mile journey from Hopkinton to Boston, soaking it all in and remaining grateful for the opportunity to do something that many people don’t get the chance to do.

Within the first mile, I could tell that my legs weren’t sharp. Whether it was the result of mistakes made in training, being on my feet too much in the days before the race, or just the fact that I’m getting old and creaky, I knew early on that it wasn’t going to be a performance for the ages. Every runner has days when it’s easy to settle into a groove that feels smooth and effortless; this clearly wasn’t going to be one of those days. 

But because I had gone into the race with a goal that transcended my performance, I wasn’t flustered by not feeling my best. I just dialed in to a comfortable pace, and then I did what I came to do: enjoy the journey. I looked around. I listened to the cheers. I smiled at the hilarious signs. I noticed the landmarks. I thanked the volunteers. And I kept telling myself over and over, “Dude, you’re actually running the Boston Marathon right now!”

Shortly after cresting the dreaded Heartbreak Hill, fatigue started to set in. I had traversed some 22 miles of hilly terrain, and my legs started to send me the message that they were no longer having fun. On any other day, it would have been a great excuse to ditch my cheery attitude and grumble my way through the last leg of the race. But I was steadily closing in on Boylston Street, and I was determined to savor that famous final stretch. So I started thinking about my wife who had traveled all this way to cheer me on, about my parents who were back in Indiana taking care of our kids, about the friends and relatives who had sent me messages wishing me luck. They were each invested in this moment, too. The least I could do was enjoy it.

And I did. My legs were empty as I made that legendary left-hand turn and headed for home, but my heart was full. Fighting back tears, I ambled across the finish line with a mediocre time and an unremarkable 3,768th place finish. But finishing in 3,768th place is still finishing. And no matter what the time on my watch said at the end, it couldn’t rob me of the experience I had in getting there.

As I nursed my sore legs and hobbled back home the next day, I reflected on the race in my typical philosophical fashion. I didn’t regret a single part of it. My commitment to mindfulness may not have landed me a new PR, but that was never the goal. Instead, it gave me something much more meaningful. It empowered me to find appreciation for an opportunity I’m not promised to have ever again.

Somewhere in there, I suspect, is a lesson applicable to matters far beyond recreational running.

For most of us, it’s frighteningly simple to turn life into a competitive performance. Like a runner whose eyes are glued to his watch, we can easily become obsessed with things that distract us from the simple beauty of the present – how we measure up to others, what we’re able to accomplish, or who we think we’re impressing. Before long, we find ourselves so busy trying to win at life that we’ve forgotten to actually live it.

I’m a pro at this. Case in point: For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a tendency to be stubbornly fixated on the next thing. When I was in high school, I couldn’t wait to get to college. When I was in college, I couldn’t wait to get to graduate school. When I was in graduate school I couldn’t wait to get on the job. And so on and so forth, at every stage of my life – always planning, always looking ahead, always finding a reason to be dissatisfied with my present circumstances.

Now that I’m nearly 37 years old, time is starting to feel like a runaway truck speeding downhill with no brakes. The more I want to stop it, the faster it seems to go. I’m seeing flecks of gray in the mirror, I’m baffled by the existence of things like TikTok, and my kids are far enough in school to be doing math problems I can’t figure out. At this point in my life, there’s way more road in the rear-view mirror than I’d like to admit. It all makes me wonder: How much of this journey have I failed to appreciate by restlessly looking too far ahead? 

I guess that’s the problem with constantly wishing for the next thing; you always end up getting exactly what you wish for. One season of life inevitably gives way to the next, a string of precious moments slipping into an irretrievable past like pearls tumbling from a broken necklace. 

It’s easy to summon an attentive regard for life’s special days: the birth of a child, a school graduation, a bucket-list experience. But how much richer could life be with an intentional commitment to enjoy all the other days, too? What if I wasn’t so eager to wish them all away?

When I think about how I want to live my life more consciously and gratefully, I think about the guy near me in Boston who was swerving erratically all over the road with less than a mile to go. At first, I thought he was a victim of complete physical exhaustion, his muscles no longer able to carry out the commands his brain was issuing them. But then I saw the great big smile on his face, and I realized he was just out there having the time of his life. Firing up the crowds, giving people high-fives, doing something that roughly resembled dancing – this guy was completely immersed in the joy of the experience.

In some ways, I envy him. I’m way too self-conscious and reserved to imitate his actions, but I’m a big fan of his attitude. He gets it. He knows that in a few minutes, the race will be over. He could sprint across the finish line and shave a few extra seconds off his time. Or he could say “screw it” and have some fun before it all ends.

As a husband, father, and teacher, I want to live more like that guy every single day, enjoying the here-and-now before it becomes the there-and-then. Someday soon, my kids will be gone, my marathon days will be over, and there will be a funeral home with my deposit on hand. When that day arrives, I hope I won’t have any questions left unasked, any love left unshared, or any memories left unmade. 

I only get one shot at “now.” Soon enough it will be gone, and I’ll be left to wonder why I didn’t hold it more dearly while I had the chance.

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