On April 15, 2013, the Tsarnaev brothers set off two bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Here we are, one year later, overwhelmed with memorial events, commentators, and articles struggling to put it all in perspective. Ready or not, here’s another.
My name doesn’t show up in the results from last year because I was guiding Mike, a visually-impaired runner from Texas. We crossed the finish line on Boylston St. just under 4 hours after leaving Hopkinton. Of course, the end of the race wasn’t the end of the story, not for hours, not that day.
Seven minutes later, at 2:49, we were maybe 50 yards past the finish, freshly bemedaled and moving slowly forward in step with the rest of the crowd, when we heard a loud bang. I turned to see greasy grey smoke rising from the other side of the line. None of us, especially the blind guy, knew for sure what had happened. Gas explosion? TV power transformer? A bomb?
Then the second explosion went off. We didn’t know yet that they were bombs. But we knew.
Much later, after miles of walking and hours of uncertainty, Mike was on a plane heading back home and a flurry of emails and text messages had confirmed that everyone we knew was safe.
My focus that day was on doing the next thing to make sure Mike and, to the extent possible, everyone else was OK. After that, I was overwhelmed by exhaustion. The one thing I knew for sure was that I would be back for the 2014 race if I had anything to say about it.
Once the bombers were caught, I thought it would be like after 9/11; something horrible had happened, but my day-to-day life would soon go back to normal. That wasn’t the case. For weeks following the bombing, I had trouble sleeping and I flinched every time I heard a siren or a loud noise off in the distance.
The problems lasted for a month after the marathon, until we went to see Iron Man 3 at the IMAX theater in Reading, a theater with a powerful sound system and “butt kickers” built into the seats. The movie’s first few explosions had me fearing that it would all be too much to take. But by the end of the movie, after relentless series of blasts, I was taking them in stride. The worst of my reaction was over after that. Apparently, the immersion therapy helped me settle down.
Since then, denial, or avoidance at least, has been my main tool in dealing with ongoing reminders about the marathon bombing.
It hasn’t been easy to bury the feelings. I’ve skipped reading most of the articles and I’ve only watched snippets of the video from the scene. When I wrote an article about guiding Mike, I left out the aftermath of the bombing, choosing to focus on what in conversation I usually label as, “a great day, until the bombs went off.”
Nevertheless, reminders of the event are unavoidable, especially for those of us living in the Boston area, and especially for me, since even under normal circumstances I’m obsessed by the Boston Marathon.
The stories in the media often seem like people pontificating to get attention, make money, or fill the airwaves with chatter about the latest sensation. For the most part, they’re just people doing their job, often while honestly working through their own feelings. I’m still annoyed by much of it, especially the security theater, but I know that’s just my personal defense mechanism.
That makes it especially ironic that I’ve spent a good chunk of the last year discussing the bombing to promote the One Fund benefit anthology (obligatory link) I put together. The inherent contradictions between that effort, and for that matter writing this piece, and the way I feel about other reminders of the bombing aren’t always comfortable for me.
On the other hand, I’ve been genuinely touched by some of the things people have done, starting with the living memorial that arose spontaneously in Copley Square after the race. The sanitized version currently on display at the Boston Public Library isn’t as powerful, but I was still moved, almost to tears, when I turned a corner and saw the crosses memorializing the four who died.
I also get a little emotional at unpredictable moments when something causes me to reflect on how close I came to dying. Seven minutes isn’t much. A blister or one porta-potty break, and Mike or I could have first-hand memories of bloodshed to deal with, or worse, crossed the finish in the arms of a fireman instead of on foot.
My most fervent desire for the 2014 Boston Marathon was that it would be just another race. That, of course, was never going to happen.
Yet Monday, in spite of everything, I’m going back to Hopkinton, this time under my own name as a qualified runner. 9/11 didn’t keep me from flying; the marathon bombing won’t keep me from lining up in Hopkinton. I’m not doing it to prove anything to anyone – running is just what I do.
I can’t imagine ever understanding how anyone could think that killing random bystanders at a public event would ever solve anything. The knowledge that these people exist is nothing new – ask anyone in Ireland or Israel, or in New York City for that matter. But until the marathon bombing, it was all at a distance, something only in the news or on TV.
My nature is to try to explain things and to solve problems by following logical processes to the best of my ability wherever they might take me. That won’t work here. The actions of the Tsarnaev brothers are just as inexplicable today as they were while I was standing in the finish corral with Mike, watching the smoke rise.
So I’m going to Hopkinton a little confused, wondering what I‘m going to feel when I’m standing at the starting line. I know there’s no right way to feel, no one thing that I, or anyone else, should be experiencing in this situation. My denial isn’t strong enough to believe that I won’t feel something. With luck, maybe some sense of resolution. I guess I’ll find out when I get there.
The image below contains five marathon record timelines: course records for Boston (men and women) and New York (men), and world records (men and women). Each colored block marks a year where a record was set. Darker blocks in the world record timelines represent years where there were multiple record-breaking efforts.
The chart below summarizes the data.
Race courses have changed over time, and not everyone agrees on whether a particular effort was worthy of world-record status or not, so any comparisons aren’t necessarily apples-to-apples. Even so, the timelines still provide some interesting information.
The first running boom, centered around the 1970’s, shows up clearly in the data. A closer look shows that the boom started earlier, in the post-WWII years. It might be that easier travel and post-war prosperity for the middle-class created larger, stronger fields at Boston and other marathons around the world, filled with runners who set records more frequently.
In the late 60’s, women joined in the fun. Then New York became a major event (along with Chicago, Berlin, and many others). Records fell fast and furious through the mid-80’s.
The second running boom hasn’t resulted in a similar wave of marathon records. If you squint, the world record timeline might reflect the boom somewhat, but the recent timelines for Boston, New York, and women world-wide show a relative dearth of records. Maybe Color Runs aren’t much of a breeding ground for record-breaking marathon efforts?
One thing is for sure: there’s only one way I’ll ever hold a world record.
One way I procrastinate while waiting for ideas to pop up from my subconscious and move the plot along is by playing with some of the implications of running in that environment.
In some ways, running along the rim of a rotating torus is like running on a treadmill, in that multiple frames of reference come into play.
When you run on the spinning belt of an earth-bound treadmill, within your personal frame of reference, you can be running at quite a clip, but because the belt is spinning in the opposite direction, to the world beyond the treadmill, you aren’t moving at all.
Of course, this assumes you’re running against the direction of the belt’s spin. It’s a fairly safe assumption in most cases. If you try it the other way around, there’s a short, happy moment where, to the outside world, you appear to be zooming along twice as fast, until you abruptly run out of belt, fly off the back of the treadmill, and gravity brings you to an unceremonious, and often painful, halt.
There is no gravity when you’re in outer space, running along inside of the rim of a toroidal space station. Well, to be picky, there is gravity, but because it acts equally on both you and the space station, from your point of view gravity doesn’t exist. Instead, your inertia and the centripetal force generated by the spinning station create an artificial gravity effect that keeps you connected to the rim.
You may remember the formula for centripetal acceleration from high school physics (I had to look it up):
ac = v2 / r
where ac = centripetal acceleration, v = velocity, and r = the radius of the circle.
You feel that as a force directed away from the axis of rotation, which you calculate using this familiar equation:
where f = force, m = your mass, and a = acceleration.
Now let’s run a few numbers. Since we’re in space, we should use the metric system and be all science-y, but since I’m in a road runner in the US, I still think in English units, miles and the like. I’m going to switch willy-nilly from one system to the other, and you’re just going to have to trust that I do it accurately.
If we want to create an earth-like feel on our space station, we’d want to spin the wheel so the centripetal acceleration is equal to 9.8 meters/second2, the acceleration due to gravity on the earth’s surface.
Runners usually think about distances in miles, so let’s start with a space station that’s one mile in circumference and see what we get. A circle with a circumference of one mile has a radius of 256.1m.
When you plug those numbers into the centripetal acceleration formula and solve for v, you get 50.1m/s, which a pace of a little over a half-minute per mile.
The runner’s speed adds to or subtracts from that velocity, depending on whether he is running with the spin or against it, just like the earth-based treadmill.
Suppose our runner is traveling in the direction of the spin. That means when you calculate the effective centripetal force, you have to add his speed to the rotational speed of the station. More speed = more centripetal acceleration. More acceleration and the runner feels like he weighs more.
- Our runner weighs 150 pounds on Earth (Pounds-force actually. “Weight” is force, not mass, but since gravity is a constant on the Earth’s surface, we tend to disregard the distinction).
- He can run a 5 min/mile pace on Earth (a 2:11 marathon; he’s pretty good), which is about 5.4m/s.
So his v is now 55.5 m/s. That means ac now equals about 12m/s2, which means when he’s running with the spin at his usual pace, he feels like he weighs about 183 pounds.
But as our runner gets “heavier”, he won’t be able to run as fast. By one estimate, runners lose about 2 seconds per mile for every extra pound. We have to take that into consideration in our calculations. At 183 pounds, our runner would slow to about 6:06 pace, a 2:39:48 marathon. But at a slower pace, he wouldn’t “weigh” quite as much, so the actual pace is somewhere between 5:00 and 6:06/mile. I’ll leave the exact numbers as an exercise for the student (because I can’t figure out exactly how to do it – my calculus is rustier than a ’67 Nova).
Now let’s turn our runner around so he’s running against the spin of the space station. Now we subtract his speed from the rotational speed, so v= 44.7m/s, ac=7.8m/s2, and his subjective weight drops to 119 pounds.
With the 2 seconds he gains for every pound he loses, now he’s running a 3:58 mile, a 1:43:56 marathon. Actually better than that, because now the change in speed is working to make him even lighter, and thus, even faster. Take that Kenya!
This is where it gets really cool. Remember how our Earth-bound treadmill runner has to be careful which way he runs? Go back to ac=v2/r. Imagine spinning the station a little slower, or making the radius a little larger. It wouldn’t really take all that much to get to where our space-bound runner can totally counteract the centripetal force and run in zero gravity! Finally! A marathon you can run in complete comfort!
OK, long before he gets to zero-G, our runner would start bounding, lose traction, lose control, and mimic our earth-bound treadmill runner with an embarrassing crash. But it was fun to think about, wasn’t it?
It’s only March, and already the media coverage of this year’s Boston Marathon is more intense than ever before. Unfortunately, most of the coverage ignores the majority of the runners who will line up in Hopkinton on Patriots’ Day, the Boston qualifiers.
Approximately 30% of the entries for Boston this year went to non-qualifiers. Of the remainder, only a very few have any hope of winning. That leaves the qualifiers, about 69.9% of the field, who make up the true heartbeat of the Boston Marathon for me and many of my friends inside the running community.
As the world’s oldest annual marathon, the Boston Marathon has always carried special significance, making it one of the few races (other than the Olympics) to get any attention outside of the running community.
In years past, for a week or two prior to Patriots’ Day, marathon updates ranked with Celtics and Bruins news in the Boston media (though always lagging behind the Red Sox). The results of the race would make sports pages around the world the next day.
As a runner living in the Boston area, I’m inundated with marathon coverage. Multiple stories and TV segments discuss the bombing, its aftermath, and charity efforts surrounding the marathon, for both the victims of the bombing and other worthy causes. There are even a few stories about the elite runners, a reminder that the marathon is not only a celebration of civic pride and resiliency in the face of terrorism, but it’s a race, too.
It’s not wrong that the great majority of media interest involves bombers, charity runners, or Kenyans. Just like it’s not wrong that people like Neil Young or Justin Beiber. People like what they like, and the media caters to that.
But the 69.9% see things differently. For them, the significance of Boston is increased by the fact that most people can’t get in unless they beat the qualifying standard time for their age and gender in another race. The standards are by design difficult enough to eliminate the majority of runners, so qualifiers have always taken justifiable pride in earning a number for the race.
This year, the unprecedented demand for entries to the race meant that many of us, after sweating for months or years to meet the qualifying standard, still needed to sweat out the registration process to see whether our precious numbers would be snatched from us at the last moment.
On top of that, it’s always been hard for qualifiers to go out and run their best after spending the hours before the race sitting outdoors in a field, often in nasty weather. This year, the new security procedures implemented in reaction to last year’s bombing will make it even more difficult for qualifiers to run their best race.
Given all the challenges we have to overcome just to make it to the starting line, we qualifiers want people to know we take our Boston Marathon seriously as a race, not just as a 26.2 mile parade. The fact that that tends to get lost in the hubbub makes me a little sad.
So this one’s for you, my brethren (and sistren) of the 69.9%. May the wind be at your backs on (a cool, but dry) Patriots’ Day!