Pheidippides ran the first marathon to announce that the Greek city-states had been victorious over the invading Persians. He then collapsed, dead, in the center of the Acropolis.
As the body tries to return to a state of internal equilibrium after a marathon, its temperature plunges dramatically, often five degrees or more in a matter of seconds. In addition to fatigue and dehydration and muscle cramps, marathon runners crossing the finish line experience almost instantaneous hypothermia, their teeth chattering, their bodies shivering as blood flow is redirected away from the deep tissue of the legs and back to the skin and other vital organs. A check on the body’s own, sometimes out-of-control cooling systems, the mylar heat-blankets distributed to runners at the finish line—those crisp, glittering sheets of tin-foil material—prevent further venting of heat from exposed legs and arms, trapping the runner’s warmth inside a cocoon-like shell and insulating him or her from the outside environment.
As I stood in the finish chute of the 2013 Boston Marathon, I felt my own body give suddenly over to the chill and the tremors of post-marathon hypothermia. My legs seized up, my skin turned cold, and the body that had carried me from Hopkinton, 26 miles out from Boston, to the now-unmistakable 600 block of Boylston Street turned against me in an instant, refusing to process the dizzying swirl of colors and sounds that is the finish of that race. It was then that she found me, emerging from the chute’s stacks of Poland Spring water and Gatorade G Series Recover formula, one of the race’s thousands of yellow-jacketed volunteers, wrapping me in a mylar blanket and pressing its crinkly foil tight around my shoulders. “There,” she said, “that’s better. There, there.” Walking me slowly, painstakingly down the chute, she taped the heat-blanket shut at my neck, sealing in my own warmth, swaddling me in the mylar sheet just as one swaddles a newborn.
I use this last simile deliberately. Even in my disoriented post-race state, I was struck by the way a complete stranger took me in her arms exactly as a mother would. Give or take five years, she was my own mother’s age, and had, give or take a couple degrees of difference, my own mother’s height and hair color and voice. She held me as I remember my mother holding me nights when I lay up sick, her hands firm on my shoulders, her body close against my own. I remember that this struck me as incredible, that a stranger would hold herself against my own sweat-soaked, shivering body, to warm me. That she would, as Lear says, wandering naked across the storm-wracked heath, “expose herself to what wretches feel.”
Or maybe this simile isn’t appropriate at all. Maybe she only appears this way now, in recollection, and the rhetorical trope of the saving mother is just left over from Catholic school, the residue of an outdated and overly allegorical worldview. Maybe she was nothing at all like my mother. Maybe she was nothing like anyone’s mother, just an anonymous volunteer who materialized out of the crowd and moments later receded back into it, caring for the next runner just as she’d cared for me. Maybe that’s the way it happened.
But if marathon reduces the human body to its most essential functions— blood diverted to the heart and lungs and legs, peripheral systems shut down— it also strips away higher-order mental processing, impairing the mind’s cognitive abilities until one is left, like Lear, in a humbled, egoless, almost childlike state. It is a literal degradation. As I limped through the finish chute, the woman was, in the most meaningful sense of the word, a mother to me— a 28-year-old man who had, over the course of 26.2 miles, been made humble and helpless.
An hour later, as I stood in a steam-filled, post-marathon shower at the nearby Hyatt, the first of two pressure-cooker bombs would explode fifty feet from where the woman, whose name I never learned and who I will probably never see again, first wrapped me in mylar. I don’t know what happened to her when the blast went off, whether she was injured, whether she ran in terror, or whether, like so many others, she rushed into the smoke to help the wounded to safety. I suspect the latter. I suspect that the same selflessness that led her and the thousands of other marathon volunteers, so prominent in the bright-yellow jackets of the Boston Athletic Association, to stand for hours passing out water, or helping runners into their start-corrals, or staffing medical tents— I suspect that same selflessness led her back into the smoke and the carnage on Boylston Street that day. I suspect the spirit of utter generosity that those two bombs were intended to destroy wasn’t destroyed at all, but in fact renewed and reaffirmed. Because that’s what happens at marathons. That’s why we run them. To be, for three hours, part of a spirit completely stripped of self, a spirt— though the word, in our culture, is too frequently corrupted— of love, a spirit that as I walked back to the hotel, amid smiling runners and volunteers and families, led me to say to a friend who had taken the train up from New York, “It’s such a great day for humanity.”
But all of that, then, was in the future. Guiding me to the end of the finish chute that day, an hour before the attack, the woman pressed her hands to my shoulders one last time, tightening the heat-blanket around my body as if the thin sheet of mylar could protect me from anything that could possibly go wrong. “There,” she said again before sending me off, sealed in that cocoon, into the crowded streets of Boston. “There. All cozy now.”
I don’t want to sentimentalize my experience of the Boston Marathon, but I think it succinctly demonstrates that race’s unique intersection between the individual human body and the wider body politic. If the race is an occasion for meeting the self, a confrontation with one’s own embodiment, that embodiment is most palpable in moments like the start, when runners pack themselves shoulder to shoulder, like cattle, in one of dozens of fenced-in “corrals.” In Hopkinton, these corrals stretch for half a mile, the last corrals so far from the starting line that runners can’t even see it. Packed against each other for 20 or 30 minutes, runners attempt to stay loose with modified, close-quarters stretches, Rocky-esque ducking and weaving, all the while jostling each other for space.
Despite the cramped conditions, an air of civility and festivity prevails. At the Hopkinton town square, Springsteen’s “Born to Run” blasts from a stage as the elite runners are introduced, wiry Kenyans and Ethiopians who look more like grinning schoolboys than the most aerobically efficient athletes on the planet. Some runners fiddle with expensive watches, others compulsively tie and re-tie their shoelaces. I ask one man next to me what time he’s hoping to run and he says he wants to finish in under three hours but adds that has training hasn’t been going well. “I’m really just hoping to finish,” he says. It’s classic marathon rhetoric— the faux humility, the careful understatement lest one jinx oneself into a torn Achilles. Some runners stand perfectly still, collecting themselves for the race ahead. Others, unable to make it to one of the hundreds of port-o-potties in the staging area in time, kneel surreptitiously to the ground and relieve themselves, one last time, on the concrete or in empty Gatorade bottles saved for this purpose.
There is a profound frankness among marathon runners with respect to matters of the body. Every runner I know has shit his pants. No one bats an eye. In his essay on the grotesque, Mikhail Bakhtin argues that the degraded nature of the human body upends traditional social hierarchies. “Here, in the [medieval] town square,” Bakhtin writes in an observation that might equally apply to the marathon, “a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age.” For Bakhtin, this contact implies a utopian rebirth into new forms of human relations, and the debasing character of “defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth…digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one,” more fully connecting the individual body to its community. The body is not a closed and completed unit, he argues, but one that “outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits.” Much of what Bakhtin wrote about medieval carnival applies to the marathons of our own day, those massive communal gatherings in which, as the starting gun sounds, thousands of runners lurch forward en masse, the limits of the self dissolved in a multitude of bodies, sometimes bleeding, sometimes defecating, all stampeding together. Things break down here. Muscles cramp up, bowels release, but the conscious and ego-driven self is swallowed up.
At mile 13, runners crest a small hill and are hit—it feels physically palpable—by a wave of screaming from the crowd, the women of Wellesley College lining the course for more than a mile, offering high-fives and kisses to the runners. “Kiss me, I’m from Nebraska,” one woman’s sign reads today. “At last some men around here!” says another. I don’t stop for any kisses, but I do extend my hand for half a mile or so, high-fiving dozens of undergrads and smiling uncontrollably at this sudden, serendipitous moment of connection among complete strangers.
When I think back on the race, with a hindsight now tainted by the attacks of that day, one of the saddest and most upsetting things is that it was this spirit of community— the care for the stranger, the selflessness that leads one to stand on a sidewalk for hours watching runners go by— it was this love, so fragile and so rare, that was attacked. I cried when I ran through Wellesley that day, not from sadness but from joy. I cried when I passed Boston College, the undergrads there screaming madly, the smell of beer thick in the air. I cried most of the last three miles of the race. A week after the attack, I’ve cried every day since.
For Kant, the self’s dissolution in the crowd is an experience of the sublime, as the imagination strives and fails to comprehend something vastly larger than itself. The awareness of failure, however, like the degradation of the body in the marathon, produces a paradoxical transcendence of the self. “The very inadequacy of our faculty for estimating the magnitude of the things in the sensible world,” Kant writes in 1790, “awakens the feeling of a supersensible faculty in us.”
It’s sublimation that I experience each time some absolute stranger yells out the name printed in big block letters across my shirt. “CHRIS,” it says, and I hear it probably three- or four-hundred times over the course of the race. There’s something profound in this kind of call-and-response, my name taken up by others and shouted back to me, the gap between self and other closed in that most fleeting, one-syllable moment of recognition. “Chris!” they yell, in Natick and Framingham, at Boston College and Back Bay, and each time I feel the adrenaline rush of the sublime, the boundaries of my body being transcended and gathered into some larger, more powerful and enduring community of which it was always, though I didn’t know it, a part. This, to answer Shakespeare, is what’s in a name. This is the sublime. This, the willing surrender of the self, is “Boston.”
In the days after the attacks, the BAA’s website loaded a 404 NOT FOUND error message instead of the official results. “The page you requested could not be found. Sorry, we feel your pain.” The message was a standard, pre-scripted directive indicating that although the Chrome and Safari programs of runners dispersed around the country could access the BAA’s host server, the server itself was unable to find the information requested. In the context of the marathon and of the attacks that day, the message is a suggestive, if unintentional, reference to the ways in which the body and its pains— both physical and emotional— are experienced not strictly within the limits of the self but in shared, concentric communities of suffering and of mourning, in a joined, collective body in which the pain of one is the pain of all. “We feel your pain.”
Some of this pain’s intensity was drawn out of the uncertainty following the attacks. On the Silver Line T to the airport that evening, a woman mentioned hearing that the explosions were simply the combustion of gas mains under Boylston Street. I thought of Lowell’s now-haunting lines in “For the Union Dead,” a poem about the violent, palimpsestic quality of history; “On Boylston Street,” he writes in 1960, “a commercial photograph/ showed Hiroshima boiling/ over a Mosler safe, ‘the Rock of Ages,’/ that survived the blast.” One man said the attack felt “homegrown,” another that the explosions were part of a systematic attack on the city by Islamic fundamentalists. For Kant, the sublime entails a sense of dread in the face of the ultimate, a terror that accompanies the realization of precisely how much one doesn’t and might never comprehend. As the police stopped our bus a mile from the airport, boarding and asking passengers to account for their luggage, any illusion that what had happened hours earlier had been an accident vanished. What took its place, however, was not security or reassurance, but something akin to that darker, more sinister side of the sublime, what Kant calls its negative aspect, a confrontation with an overwhelming, faceless terror lurking somewhere in the city.
Yet if that T bus was joined in a psychic terror familiar to us by now, it was also joined in the common experience of love. I don’t mean the dewy-eyed mush of Hallmark cards and Jessica Biel rom-coms, and I don’t mean to echo the knee-jerk use of the term in the platitudinous blog posts and op-ed pieces thrown together in the wake of the attacks. What I mean by “love” is what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in their work on reclaiming the “common,” describe as a constitutive relation between the self and its community. Real love, they argue, is productive of Being, an “ontological event that marks a rupture with what exists and the creation of the new.”
This is not far removed from Bakhtin’s carnival, when new relations are forged marking a rupture with previous social distinctions. On the bus to Logan Airport that evening—and on my plane ride across the continent, and in my poetry workshop that week—there was a new and different mode of Being and of being with one another, a more open, more generous set of relations taking shape between strangers and friends alike.
The “common” is an especially resonant term in the context of the Boston Marathon, in which runners gather before dawn at the Boston Common to board busses that will carry them together out to Hopkinton for the start. For Hardt and Negri, the common is that network of knowledges, languages, codes, and affects shared by the public of a metropolis, a word which comes in part from the Greek word for “mother.” In the work of Hardt and Negri, the metropolis is the common body of the multitude. The city we live in, lives in us.
The same is true for the city we run in. What makes the marathon such a fundamental event in the life of a metropolis is that it takes place in the same public spaces we occupy every day, transfiguring those spaces into sites of generosity and of sudden, serendipitous friendship. Marathons don’t take place in exurban arenas or in locked-down, hyper-secure stadiums, but in the same streets on which we drive to work, the same parks in which we play, the same campuses where we attend classes together. This is the public sphere. This is what was attacked that day. And it was this— the love of the common— that, like thousands of runners trying to access a single, central server, became obstructed by an unanticipated glitch in the system.
In another simile, Hardt and Negri argue that “This society is like a kaleidoscope in which the colors are constantly shifting to form new and more beautiful patterns, even melding together to make new colors.” In photographs as in my memory, Boston appears as a swirling palette of colors and patterns; the brightly-hued tank-tops of runners, the dozens of now-iconic flags lining Boylston Street, the signs in the crowd, the chalk on the road— these colors clarify the carnivalesque inversion of the alienated urban landscape. Yet the colors also demonstrate the diversity of the marathon’s human landscape. In 2013, there were runners from 96 countries, all mingling together in a shared, transfigured, and, if only for a moment, utopic American city.
And sometimes it goes terribly wrong. Sometimes blurred with the colors of democracy are the burnt-orange of explosions and the blue of sirens. Sometimes all we can see is the deep, indelible red of human blood. Sometimes the wiring of the species is so totally obstructed as to become unrecognizable, the page we requested nowhere to be found. “Sorry. We feel your pain.” Facing the depletion of glycogen and undergoing the micro-trauma of multiple tiny tears in its muscle fibers, the human body switches to its fuel reserve, the fatty acids stored up in adipose tissue and in the muscles themselves. Around mile 20, as is always possible in so radical a form of democracy, the body begins to eat itself.
In 490 BCE, Pheidippides ran 26.2 miles back to Athens to announce that the Greek city-states, unified into a powerful democracy, had been victorious over the invading Persians. He then collapsed, dead, in the center of the Acropolis.
However apocryphal, this story points toward the race’s long association with democratic forms of governance and of Being; indeed, the ancient Olympics were designed as training to produce proper and responsible citizens of the state. Theodor Adorno argues that in ancient Greece—as in Weimar Germany and the late-capitalist West—sport functions as a form of discipline, instilling the self-denial necessary to the maintenance of the political and economic apparatus. The body, in such a reading, is explicitly linked to—perhaps sublimated into—the body politic, as “people are unwittingly trained into modes of behavior which […] are required of them by the work process.”
For Adorno, this is an insidious process. The self is stripped of dignity and made to conform to the fascist will of the state. I am less certain that the body is so easily or uncritically harnessed, but the Boston attack—or, rather, the FBI’s response—showed us the shifting relations between self and state that took shape the week of the marathon. At its Thursday evening press conference, the FBI turned over those middle-school-science-project posters of the still-unidentified Tamerlan and Jahar Tsarnaev, transforming 313 million Americans into a single, vigilant body, a single set of eyes scanning the common spaces of the metropolis and of the internet. The country, in that moment, became a perfect instantiation of Hobbes’ Leviathan, an absolute sovereign whose body is formed from the bodies of his subjects. Crowd-sourcing the manhunt for the Tsarnaevs, the FBI press-conference spawned, in seconds, a massive Reddit forum and subforums under the heading “findbostonbombers,” and generated so much web interest that the agency’s official site, like the BAA’s, crashed immediately.
In the press conference, and in the intensely militarized police response which followed, we can see a dangerous precedent for the suspension of individual liberties, a problematic privileging of the body politic at the expense of the fragile, limited human body. The SWAT teams and FBI officers, the high-capacity rifles, the “mobile command centers,” the withholding of Jahar Tsarnaev’s Miranda rights— all of this suggests a profound discrepancy between the power of the state and that of the individual citizen, especially as the latter vanished entirely from the streets of Watertown and Boston.
Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, John King was critical of such “willing submission” to police requests to clear the streets, implicating Boston-area residents as de facto accomplices of a proto-fascist police state. What the common is not, Hardt and Negri point out, is the kind of unquestioned and reactionary national identity so prominent in media rhetoric following the attacks; the common celebrates diversity and difference rather than similarity, generosity and openness rather than hostility and fear.
But it is possible to read Boston’s “willing submission” also as an offering-up of the self for something beyond it. If we set aside King’s implicit condescension for the American public, we can read the shutting down of Boston like the intentional denial of the body out of the knowledge that, from such suffering, emerges a stronger and more resilient common spirit. After all, as Falguni Sheth and Robert E. Prasch argued for Salon, it was not the “bloated” Homeland Security-style police operation that uncovered the hidden fugitive, but simply “a guy [who] walked out to his boat to smoke a cigarette, saw something moving, and lifted the tarp.”
The point here is neither to valorize nor condemn the FBI, nor to approve the events that took place that week through retrospective rhetorical niceties. It’s simply to note the complexity of the relations forged over those five days, and to counter—or at least question—the kinds of knee-jerk indictments of the public too easily and uncritically trumpeted by the blogosphere afterward. The idea that we, or any democracy, can attain an absolute balance between liberty and security is an illusion. But so is the assumption that any increase in security implies a corresponding decrease in liberty.
From the Greek for “standing still,” homeostasis refers to the body’s tendency to maintain an internal stability in response to a disturbance. We may never achieve such equilibrium again, or return to the—perhaps apocryphal—pre-9/11 naïveté with which we understood our selves in relation to our world. Yet neither will we simply stand still. And like Bakhtin’s carnival, the Boston Marathon is a cyclical event, one that returns each year and will return next year, in 2014, for its 118th running. I will be there. And so, I imagine, will a record number of runners and spectators, joined together in that dizzying, that sublime river of color stretching from Hopkinton to the Old South Church at Copley Square.
As I stood in the shower after finishing, my body returning slowly to homeostasis, I felt the sweat and the spit and the blood of 26.2 miles washed from my skin. It must have been at that moment that the bombs went off, tearing through the flags and the flesh on Boylston Street, transforming the race of marathon and our own, human race. Though I didn’t know it at the time, luxuriating in the warmth piped into my hotel from some distant facility in Southie or Jamaica Plain, the shower was also a baptism, a rebirth into the newer, more harrowing world that is our own now. I think—now, again—of Lear roaming the stormy countryside, staving off madness, his body stripped and sore and soaking. “I will weep no more,” he cries to the gods. “Pour on, I will endure.”