Last May, on a work trip, I sat at a conference table in Washington D.C. with a man named James. During our meeting, he told me he ran the Boston marathon and finished roughly 40 minutes before the bombs went off. At this point, I put down my pen and sat back to listen as he told his tale of Boston 2013 -- the ambulance sirens, the lock-downs in hotels and restaurants. He described a feeling of complete bewilderment and confusion. He described the quiet ride home.
I asked him if he would go back.
"We have to," he said. "If we don't go back, we're letting them win."
I now realize that of all the moments in this past year that made me want to start running, this was the big one. I knew I wanted to be a runner when I left that building.
Moments before I left that conference room, he said to me, "You should do it. Even if you only run one marathon and never do it again. It's something you should do at least once."
When I saw that Hal Higdon's book, 4:09:43: Boston 2013 Through the Eyes of the Runners, had hit the shelf, I immediately got my hands on a copy. With Boston 2014 approaching, I wanted to understand more fully how that day felt, especially after running a few marathons myself, now knowing what a corral is, what "gun time" means, and what the finish line of a race should look like.
4:09:43 was not an easy book to read. The news media did a thorough job of covering the Boston facts, the profiles of the two alleged bombers, and the powerful stories of those wounded. Those stories were gripping, many of them sealed in my memory forever, but they left me at a distance from the race, detached and analytical. 4:09:43 placed me right there on the course, in the drumming of footsteps and the ticking of the watch, my heart beating and my eyes darting, page to page, hoping for something to stop this inevitable ending. It was exhausting and exhilarating. It gave me an experience, the way a good book should.
I asked author Hal Higdon if he would discuss the book a little further with me. He kindly agreed. Here's what we discussed:
M: What was it like gathering stories from runners? Did you reach out to find them, or did the runners come to you?
H: The 75 runners featured in 4:09:43 came to me, although they may not have realized it at the time. It began with posts to Facebook, links to blogs about Boston 2013. Once I committed myself to writing a book, I then reached out to runners, asking them on Facebook and Twitter to send me their stories. Others who returned home after the bombings talked to members of the media. Those stories fell into my grasp. Within a few weeks, I had collected approximately 75 riveting stories of what it was like on the course before and after the bombs.
M: Did you conduct each interview on Facebook chat, or were some stories posted publicly?
H: After identifying the 75, I worked mainly by email. My role became collector and organizer. The better you research, the better you organize, the better you write. Writer’s Block does not exist for me. Using email, I checked facts and added to descriptions. Some runners provided a single quote; others lengthy stories. I can say that 4:09:43 is more than 75 separate stories. It is a single narrative as though told by a single person with 75 pairs of eyes.
M: Hearing about your writing process reminds me a bit of running training: There's so much work that goes on outside of the actual running -- and writing -- that brings a book to its shelf or a runner to the finish. How has running informed your writing process? And, has your writing discipline informed your running?
H: Running always has provided both a break from work and an opportunity to open my mind, to let my thoughts spring from my body and circle unencumbered overhead. I got the idea for one book 17 miles into a 20-mile workout. Nothing about running: Pro Football USA, interviews with players describing how they played. It sold 300,000 copies.
Although Boston is reserved for a certain caliber of runners, the book really delivers a wide range of athletes, from fast-finishers to easy-pacers coming back from injury. Did you aim to gather a variety of stories, or did it just naturally happen that these stories were as varied as they were similar?
H: It pretty much happened. I did not chase the elite runners as much as mid-pack runners. Only a few elites have an odds-on chance of winning Boston, whereas thousands behind achieve individual victories. The elites were long gone when the bombs exploded
M: As a reader, I felt so connected to the Boston Marathon after I followed the course and experienced so much detail -- sound, sight, color. Did you get a similar sense while you were writing these stories?
H: I cried a lot while writing 4:09:43. It was an emotional experience for me, and I suspect reading 4:09:43 will provided an emotional experience not only for those who ran Boston 2013, but for those who witnessed the explosions on TV. We were all there. We all felt the impact of the bombs on Boylston Street.
M: It does seem like the bombers on Boylston Street momentarily redefined the Boston Marathon. But just as quickly, millions went to work to redefine Boston again, either by registering in record numbers, sharing their stories, or raising funds. Will Boston 2014 be yet another reinvention of the race?
H: Boston reinvents itself each year. After the 2010 computer meltdown, the BAA changed registration procedures. Now you can’t bring bags to either the starting or finish lines. Some runners complained this is inconvenient. Well, it’s inconvenient to have your legs blown off. All the major marathons have needed to look in the mirror.
M: We've all heard the argument that social media disconnects us as much as it connects us. What's your take on this? Specifically, how does social media affect the running community?
H: When was the last time a runner submitted a paper entry blank to a major marathon like Boston or New York or Chicago? The Internet has changed our lives as runners as much as changed our lives as people. When I first ran Boston in 1959, there was no Runner’s World telling me how to train. It took me five years before I figured it out after a series of DNF’s. Runners today don’t need to wait five years. They can download my 18-week program off the Internet. Social media brings us together.
M: I think it's interesting that Boston is nobody's first marathon, due to the qualification requirements. In all of your research, did you come across runners who walked away from running after Boston 2013, decidedly finished with marathon running? What was your general sense of those runners you interviewed? Were they hesitant to ever go back, or ready to rally again?
H: I wrote 4:09:43 immediately after the bombings. The people I interviewed were still looking backwards. Boston 2014 had not yet entered their minds. But I recently interviewed runners for this year’s program. One revealed that when friends asked would she return, she said, “Never!” But she slowly changed her mind and will run Boston again. “I need a Do-Over,” she said.
M: Has this process changed the way you'll approach future books? What's in the plans ahead, writing-wise?
H: Future books? I’m so wrapped up with 4:09:43, first writing, now promoting, I can’t look past Boston 2014. But I never expected to write this book until it happened. The bombs changed the lives of many. Is this my final chapter? I don’t know yet.
Thank you, Hal Higdon, for discussing the book! If you'd like to order a copy, you can get one directly from Hal's website, from Amazon.com, or from Barnes & Noble. If you're in the Jacksonville area, your local bookstore may carry it, and it's great to support local bookstores!
To all runners running Boston this year: Good luck, and thank you for reinventing one of the most sacred running events in the United States. May you all have an amazing race, every step!
Where To Catch Me