Ah, Boston on Patriot’s Day… You can see most anything, like that man on stilts I caught on camera next to Fenway. The morning begins with the Marathon way out of town, even beyond Ashland, and certainly a long way from the Prudential Center. And then at 11:00am there is the annual Patriot’s Day game— only the Patriots aren’t playing. It’s April, so it’s the Red Sox playing at Fenway. And sometimes you even have the B’s (Bruins) and C’s (Celtics) playing on the same day. It’s a grand affair all around.
There are many reasons to love Boston, and when I was but a wee lad of 42 years of age, I decided it was now or never to run the Boston Marathon. So in 1993, wearing the number 1993 (more on that in a bit), I ran, and managed to finish, the marathon, on one of the hottest Patriot’s Days on record. Runners like the mighty Alberto Salazar dropped out at Heartbreak Hill or before. Many went out too fast, and took too little water. So when I got to Wellesley, I saw both sides of the road looking like a MASH unit, with stretchers ladened with cramping runners. Not me. I remembered the tortoise and hare story. Better to finish, even if slow, than not to finish at all. I finished ahead of Mayor Flynn and behind thousands of elite or semi-elite runners. But I finished. I cannot begin to tell you how difficult it was that day.
I had run the Cleveland Marathon in 1990 and finished on a muggy May day. But that marathon was a piece of cake compared to the Boston Marathon, which, believe it or not, is much more hilly, especially that three mile killer stretch about Mile 20 called Heartbreak Hill. When I got there, a little old lady shamed me up the hill, running ahead of me saying “come on, sonny, let’s go up this hill.”
As the marathon began, I had said my prayers and wandered up to the front of the pack to see some of the elite runners— Kenyans, Nigerians, Ethiopians, all with huge thighs and otherwise looking rail thin and rather emaciated. Trust me, I did not look like that, though I do have runner’s thighs. It took me quite a while after the gun sounded to get to the start line, but no matter. I was concentrating on running my own race, not someone else’s. I had my little cassette pack, and I was listening to my pre-recorded favorite rock tunes as I ran along at my own pace. And I saw some amazing things along the way.
Just about at Ashland, we were all invited to come into a pub by the side of the road for a free beer… Nope, didn’t want an unnecessary extra bathroom break soon thereafter. I also saw a guy in a rainbow Afro wig running back and forth across the course saying “kiss me, I’m Jesus.” I would have done it had he really been Jesus, but my brain was clear enough at that juncture to realize otherwise. When you are running on fumes at the end of such a race, most anything seems possible.
Arriving in Ashland I was wearing my Ashland T-shirt. Ashland, Ohio, that is. My Ashland Seminary T-shirt. I got a warm greeting for the T-shirt from many by-standers until they looked more closely, and someone called out “where the H… is Ashland Seminary?” I just smiled and kept going. It is amazing how keeping on going is half the battle in life – putting one foot in front of another.
Perhaps the most inspiring thing I saw while running into Boston was a man running while pushing his quadriplegic son in a wheel chair the whole way. When I got to Newton it was hot – really hot – and the fire department was spraying all those who wanted, which included me. When they saw the bib number I wore matched the year – #1993, they wanted a picture. I said sure. I wish they had sent me a copy.
Once you get into town in Boston, you find yourself running beside the MBTA’s Green Line, where the light rail comes above ground. On this day riders had all the windows rolled down, and suddenly I found myself being cheered on by rowdy college students from BU and Boston College and Harvard who were riding the train along side me. I needed the support by then. The last four miles are very difficult
I kept praying, “are you running with me Jesus, are you running with me Jesus” (which was the title of a popular book of prayers). He was, but I was literally on my last legs. When I got to the finish line, there was my best college chum saying “it’s about time,” taking my picture as I crossed the line, and then the next thing I knew I was being wrapped in NASA tinfoil and being given lots of liquids.
My friend Rick Sanders had not been able to park anywhere nearby, so imagine me hobbling to the subway with him. Only, all of a sudden, the call of nature was strong. So strong we had to run into a McDonalds, and chase someone out of a stall, so I could answer the call. After that, I was shaking like a leaf, and felt like a Norse god— Thor, very Thor. It was a hot bath for me at Rickie’s place thereafter.
I also of course remembered St. Paul’s words to Timothy – “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” It is sometimes a good thing to stretch yourself to the limits of your endurance, or at least to find out what those limits are. You never know until you try, but you need to be in shape to stretch yourself with a marathon. I was in good shape, but I guess not full marathon shape.
I still stand in awe of those who can run 26 miles in a little over two hours. It doesn’t seem humanly possible, and for sure for me it wasn’t! It took me more than twice that long. What happens to your brain at the end of such a race is you are barely aware of anything but getting across the finish line. You have tunnel vision and your will has to exceed your skill to get you there without quitting or falling down.
Of all the many races I have run in life, none have been more life like and like life than that one. I saw all manner of humanity standing on the side of the road cheering us on. It reminded me of Hebrews 12 which presents us with the image of Jesus the pace setter, leading the pack, running to the finish line, with a great cloud of witnesses cheering in the stands.
The Boston Marathon reminded me we need to live life to the full, not merely observe other people’s lives from the side lines. I remembered the line “looking to Jesus, the trailblazer and finisher…” I felt he was running with me, but ahead of me, leading me on. He still is. He still does, and I have miles to go before I sleep. Blessed are those who do not run out of steam before they run out of life, or rather into everlasting life.
April 19, 1993
Bible scholar Ben Witherington is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. This story was originally published in his blog, The Bible and Culture – A One-Stop Shop for All Things Biblical and Christian.