Mark Sutcliffe: My Running Life Dreaming of Boston, and Better Days

Dreaming of Boston, and Better Days

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We are running an ultramarathon without kilometre markers or a finish line.

We valiantly throw one foot in front of the other, blindly determined to keep moving. But we know almost nothing of the course ahead, nor the destination. At some point—who knows when?—someone will finally announce the distance, drawing a line on the ground which we will eventually, mercifully, cross.

At the moment, it’s almost impossible to think that far ahead. So we just take a step, then another. As runners, we know from experience how to handle the toughest part of a race. Don’t think about the finish line. Just run to the next corner, then the one after that. We’re used to one mile at a time. Now it’s one hour or one day at a time.

The events by which we normally mark our years, our weeks, and our lives have vanished. Annual conferences, birthday parties, religious celebrations—all wiped from the calendar. In the absence of these mileposts, everything blends together. The normal cycles of the day—packing lunches, getting the kids to the school bus, catching the train to work—are all gone. The weekends and weekdays are almost indiscernible from each other.

Remind me: what month is this?

Right, it is April. And for longer than any living human can remember, it has been the time of the most exalted amateur sporting event on Earth. The last time there wasn’t a Boston Marathon in April, the US Civil War was a recent memory. The first World Series was still a few years in the future. William McKinley was president and Queen Victoria reigned over the Commonwealth. There might today be a handful of turtles who breathed the air of 1897, but few others.

We don’t all get to run Boston, obviously. And only a privileged few get to be there every year. But for thousands of us, the third Monday in April is still a cherished annual ritual, even if it’s only a vicarious event, witnessed on the TV at the office or revisited on the PVR from the treadmill or the couch. But there will be no gun fired in Hopkinton today, no scream tunnel at Wellesley College. There is no joy on Boylston Street. Only a steep and endless Heartbreak Hill.

There are far greater tragedies of the coronavirus crisis, of course. Let’s not forget that running a marathon is a luxury in the best of times. But goals and milestones matter. They orient us toward a better path, focus our attention, channel our energy, and offset the inanities of quotidian ritual. Without hopes and dreams, without plans and destinations, without start lines and finish lines, as we are all discovering now, life can lose its shape, edging toward drudgery.

Alas, there is only one thing we can do: keep moving forward, on our runs and in our peculiar new daily routine. But try, once in a while, to think of that faraway finish line. We don’t know where it is, but we can take faith in this: it’s getting closer with every day that passes, every step we take. No post-race celebration will ever be filled with as much jubilation or relief. No family reunion area will ever mean as much. This time, we will certainly have earned our medals.

8 COMMENTS

  1. You have captured the reality of the Unreal Times of the Coronavirus pandemic. Running provides so many mental and physical benefits especially in these stressful times. I am 80 years old, and was fortunate enough to discover the joy of running at age 70. I have run, 5Ks, 10Ks, more than 20 half-marathons, and 4 destination Marathons, Paris France, Washington D.C., Chicago Illinois, and the Space Coast Marathon in Florida. I have been blessed with the strong support and encouragement of my friend and coach, Louis Comerton, my daughter Kelly McGurrin and her husband Ken Walker, who have run with me and, I must add, at my pace, significantly lower than theirs. I feel such gratitude for my family and friends, and for all the everyday heroes: health care workers, grocery store and pharmacy workers, transport workers, volunteers who help in any way they can, whether making personal protective equipment, grocery shopping for seniors, checking on neighbours, for every act of kindness to each other.
    After my first marathon, my kids gave me a framed poster of pictures from that marathon with captions they had added, and one caption is especially relevant today: “May the road rise to meet your triple E sneakers, May your windbreaker be always at your back, And until you cross the finish line, May God hold you in the palm of His Hand.” Amen, I say.
    Helen McGurrin

  2. Helen, you are such an inspiration. I started running at 69, and my ambition is to still be running at 80, a few years away. I only run 5 and 10 kms but feel fortunate to be able to do so.
    Nancy

  3. When COVID began I was in the middle of my training for my first Around the Bay and my first full marathon – Mississauga. Day after day I hoped things would change for the better. The days I received the emails that both of my goal races were cancelled all hope was lost. I haven’t trained since. I’ve struggled everyday like most. I’ll most likely never get to Boston but I know I will cross the finish line of my first marathon one day. This story has shined a bit of light for me to want to get back out there and maintain my training. I reflected on my “why” again. Thank you for the amazing article! I hope everyone stays healthy and safe during these difficult and uncertain times.

  4. Great article Mark! Well, in these very unsettling times, I can honestly say that running is the one thing that gives me a real sense of well-being. I started running five years ago, after my father passed away. I’m 48 now and have run 2 10Ks and my first half-marathon at Ottawa Race Weekend last year and I was looking forward to running it again this year (I guess it’ll just have to be virtual this time!). Although I will never run fast enough to qualify for the start line in Hopkinton, getting inspiration from people like you that made it to Boston Marathon, keeps me going when I lack the motivation. To echo other commenters’ sentiments, I also want to thank all of the front-line workers that are battling the coronavirus. It’s thanks to their bravery and courage that the rest of us can continue on with life – albeit a very different version of our normal lives. And remember that although it’s sometimes hard to stay the course when there is no finish line waiting at the end: just keep running!

  5. Thank you Mark for the inspiration! You have eloquently captured the spirit of our days and simultaneously provided a future vision for what really matters in life! Bravo!

  6. Thank you Mark for this article. It puts things back in perspective. We just need to keep on moving forward and someday, in a near future, we’ll be able to celebrate. Until the next race, let’s just keep running and improving

  7. Nice to learned from all those different stories. Such encouraging and inspiring .
    Thank you very much!

  8. Mark, I always used to read your Citizen column for inspiration prior to my Sunday morning runs several years ago. What is even more inspiring are the two comments above from those senior runners! Ten years ago I ran my first marathon (Ottawa) at age 52, then my second in Montreal the following year. Since that time a couple other things in life altered my running. But when I couldn’t run, I walked. In the past couple of months I’ve been running shorter (3 to 10K) distances mostly in my ‘hood…to, as always, stay healthy and sane!!

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