Over its 42.2 kilometres, a marathon is a story. As I prepared to run in Boston a year after the devastating bombing of 2013 – the biggest celebration of running ever, as so many described it – I turned to sports psychologists to help me make sense of my journey.
After months of training for the extreme test of endurance, a runner should expect "capital E emotion" on a regular race day, let alone this particular marathon, Dr. Kate Hays warned me.
In 1999, she pioneered the Toronto Marathon's "psyching team," and this year, Boston employed a similar model, positioning some 60 volunteer counsellors along the course to help runners deal with what this challenge might dish up: post-traumatic stress, survivor guilt, even "outsider guilt," as Calgary runner Shelley Bender so aptly described it. "I'm honoured to be here, to support Boston and the race," Bender told me. "But do I have the right to be here?"
We had earned the right by qualifying in times well under what was required for our age. Most runners did. The average qualifying time was 10 minutes faster this year, according to race director Dave McGillivray. But this was my second Boston, and I wondered if I was taking the spot of someone more affected by the tragedy. I was also injured.
So what was I running for?
Catherine Sabiston, a sports psychology professor at University of Toronto, told me marathoners are great at goal-setting and training, but not so good at reflecting on what it all means. Yet we must, if we are to manage our emotions on race day and grow from the experience.
"Running a marathon is one of the biggest feats of human endurance," she said. "Don't down play it."
I realized I did not want this Boston to be about my finish time, my injury, or even myself. I wanted it to be bigger, a connection to the 36,000 other runners, the millions of fans. So I made it my mission to talk to as many people as possible, find out their stories and, in doing so, maybe find my own.
Yet, just 12 km into the race, searing pain exploded in my right quad, and I wondered how I could get through the next 30 km.
Then I heard my name being called, by a runner I had met at the Canadian Tea Party Brunch, an annual tradition here. Ottawa's Rob Criger and Ingrid Koenig told me they were splitting duties to guide partially sighted runner Norah Broughton, and I told them I would love that experience. I just didn't expect to get it quite so soon. Rob had a leg cramp, and he asked me to take over guiding Norah.
At that point, Norah, 56, was on a pace that would bring her in fast enough to qualify as a sighted runner. Oddly, I stopped feeling pain when I focused on guiding her through slower runners. I was sad to see Ingrid take over at the half, leaving me to push on alone, but by then my right quad had stiffened to cement.
I turned my focus to cheering on the fans. They held signs saying, "You are the true heroes today." In fact, the fans were. Just one marathoner was injured by the bombs that exploded at the finish line last year, while more than 260 fans were maimed and three were killed. Undeterred, twice as many fans came out this year, according to race officials.
I also cheered on my fellow runners, many first-time marathoners offered entry by the Boston Athletic Association, friends running on behalf of victims, first-responders, charity runners setting a new record for fundraising, more than $13-million (U.S.). More than a few were limping along on fractured bones, severed tendons, even artificial limbs. One 18-year-old was hobbling the 42.2 km on crutches. I walked with him a bit, then chased down the story of a runner dressed in full 1775 Patriot garb.
A few kilometres from the finish, I thought I might just need someone to help me. In an instant, a stranger was by my side. "Run with me," she said.
And so I ran with Laura from Toronto, who gave me a surge of energy that carried me through that last tunnel of noise, right on Hereford and left on Boylston, down the left side of the street where the two bombs went off.
I blew kisses to the fans who dared to stand there, and they blew them right back as I crossed the finish line, which I stamped twice.
Margaret Webb's reflections on running, Older, Faster, Stronger, will be published by Rodale Books this fall.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the directions for the last stretch of the Boston Marathon. This has been fixed.