Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Being Boston Strong, My History With The Boston Marathon

This weekend I turn 52-years old.  As a gift to myself I'm
returning to running for the first time in 22 years.
I'm at the tail end of a bad cold and the last thing I wanted to do was climb a mountain.  The first thing, and what I've mostly been doing, is rolling over and going back to sleep. 

Then Monday came.  Not just any Monday but Boston Marathon Monday.

It used to be my favorite day of the year.  As a kid we had it off from school and were charged with excitement because of the early morning reenactment in Lexington and Concord, the morning start of the Red Sox game, and, of course, the marathon itself.  Growing up in the suburbs of Boston only a couple of towns away from Hopkinton and having an older brother who was a great runner who ran in the race when only a teenager and being nurtured on the legends of Johnny Kelly, Tarzan Brown, Clarence DeMar, Johnny Kelly the Younger, Jock Semple, and Katherine Switzer, I couldn't help but be seduced by the drama of the day.  To me these people weren't mere mortals - they were gods capable of superhuman abilities. 

On one of those Patriots Days when I was young I was one of four friends relaxing in the shade on a neighbor's front porch listening to the race and we all made a pledge to run the marathon by the time we were twenty-five.  But those were the days before my legs went bad.  In junior high and high school I spent the better part of two and a half years on crutches.  Four full legs casts immobilized my left knee, one did the same to my right.  There were also two surgeries on the left knee to combat the problems in my legs and when the surgeries were completed the doctor was pleased. 

"You'll be fine.  You'll be able to walk without trouble but don't plan on being any kind of an athlete," he said.

I believed him.  For a while.  But as my teens turned to my early twenties I remembered that front porch pledge we four friends made and I tried running.  It wasn't easy.  As a matter of fact, back then it was always painful.  But I knew pain from those earlier years and I knew I could deal with it so I ran on.  Not far, just enough to say I was running.  Maybe four miles.  I never entered any races but always thought about one.  The one. 

Patriot's Day is the third Monday of every April.  The date floats.  As fate would have it my twenty-fifth birthday fell on the day of the marathon.  With a few months to go I upped my mileage.  Still not very far but I was still running.  Ten days before the race I ran the farthest I'd ever run - 11 miles.  Somehow after that I knew I could do it.  When the day came I lined up with the rest of the "bandits" (unofficial runners) in mass behind the numbered runners who had qualified.  Before even reaching Heartbreak Hill I wanted to stop.  I'd run fifteen miles and I'd had enough.  My head dropped, I put my hands on my hips, and admitted defeat.  Around then I felt a tug on my arm and a fellow said, "Come on, if I can do it, so can you."  I wanted to reach out and slap the man with the voice and tell him about my legs and their troubled past.  When I looked up he was standing next to me looking quite lean and fit and . . . with only one leg.  The other was a prosthetic.  His name was Pat Griskus and on that day he pulled me along with him and we ran several miles together.  Eventually I finished in just under four hours while Pat set a record that day for a runner with a prosthetic. 

I would run Boston for the next four years and graduate to Ironman Triathlons...three of them.  The first was on the Cape, the next two in Sunapee.  All the while I looked as out of place as I have on the mountains.  I was never chiseled and lean.  I had strong legs, a strong heart and lungs, but a double chin.  Those experiences in my late twenties would later fuel my belief in my endurance in these great mountains we hike in.  And once you run Boston it is always in you.  It's part of who you are and will always be.  It made me believe in myself. 

So on Wednesday, with the unthinkable actions of the previous Monday in my head and sunken heart, with the thought of three dead - one an eight year old boy, and legs amputated and other limbs lost, not to mention hopes and innocence lost, I decided that my cold would have to take a back seat while we sought our reality.  We didn't hike too high or too far.  Instead we worked slowly up a steep section that wears me out at my best and I stopped often, coughing and sneezing.  I ached a bit, wore my fatigue like a heavy coat, and took a seat more than I'd like to admit on the way up.  But there on that slow climb I sat sweating, catching my breath, watching spring fight through the last remnants of snow and ice, and heard the birds sing - and I could feel the mountain come to life and me with it.  
We climbed to some of our favorite ledges, I lay on my back looking up at the sky and when I was rested I sat up and took a seat next to Atticus who was looking out at distant mountains and down at a nearby lake.  I thought of the life we led back in Newburyport, a forty-minute ride from Boston...a life filled with chaos and the corruption I covered in my newspaper and what now in comparison looks to be a dizzying pace of life and I was thankful for these mountains of my childhood we rediscovered together.  Sitting up there surrounded by nature I said my prayers and everywhere I looked I saw God.

John Muir has a great quote that goes like this: “The gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual.”  I thought about those words and how crazy the world can be and how it seems as though it's getting crazier all the time.  I thought about those who would terrorize us, those who would destroy not just nature, but the nature within us and a totally different thought came to my mind.  When I remember that horrible day I will not remember one person's horrific deed, but the reactions of so many more.  I'll remember that some runners, having run twenty-six miles, decided there was something more important than rest and ran an additional two miles to Mass General Hospital to donate blood.  I'll remember the doctor who ran the marathon and then went to work and operated on some of the victims.  I'll remember the incredible humanity of the first responders who ran toward where the bombs were exploding to help others.  When I think of these things I understood that terrorists will never win - if we don't let them.  Humanity is too strong for that. 

And this is why I climb mountains.  It's for the perspective.  It's for the way it sets my mind straight and helps me see what's most important.  Most importantly nature and the mountains resets my soul.

Life is not about what some would take away; it's about what we put back into it.  it's about possibilities.  Whenever I get tired climbing a mountain I think about my first Boston Marathon and how an amputee stopped to help a full-bodied young man who was ready to give up.  That spirit has stayed with me and always tells me that anything is possible.  It's what makes me and so many others Boston Strong.


Kalei's Best Friend said...

I am so glad I came upon your site a few days ago... I know u have heard this before: u are inspiring... and I definitely know your sidekick is an old soul... A self-less post indeed.. I hope someone from Boston reads it and feels better..

Silvia G. Soos-Kazel said...

Tom, very inspirational~~enjoyed peeking into your past and commend you on your continual fortitude.
Your kind and insightful words give some reasoning
to the recent tragedy during the Boston Marathon
this week. Your are so correct in stating that we should not look to the negative and give the terrorists the upper hand, but celebrate those that truly showed the humanity of a decent mankind.

Carter W Rae said...

Man's inhumanity to each other and the carelessness of some to see it .. Your posts here are so refreshing and encouraging Thank you I recall and enjoy the references to your childhood and the friends you had and the promises we all make to our selves at the magical times... Mine was wonderful it keeps me going sometimes in more challenging times Your words help me do that Keep up the great work always fun following Atticus (and pack) ;-)

colleen said...

As with most of your posts, your words bring tears to my eyes. I am so glad I picked up your book several years ago, on cruise ship, no less, and have gained so much inspiration from you, your beloved friends, and your new way of life. I agree that the terrorists will only bring civilization down, if we let them. So be strong everyone, no matter what country your are from, and believe that goodness will always triumph over evil.

Tim said...

Once again, you have inspired me Tom. I never knew until now that you were a runner and have completed marathons and Ironmans. I completely agree with you on the human spirit. There are those that would for some reason want to destroy what is good and for what reason, I don't think anyone will really know why, but the human spirit of love and compassion will alway win out.
After what happened Monday, I initially thought to myself, I'm so glad I moved from wanting to do big road races like Boston and New York (yep they were both on bucket list at one time) and on to trail running. But something inside has been nagging at me, run it next year in defiance of terror, in support of Boston, in support of the human spirit.
You truly are an inspiration to us all Tom and Atticus, and I'm honored to call you friends.

Sue said...

Wow Tom, I'm impressed! What an inspirational story and good for you to get back to running. I was on the track team in high school and I remember going to watch the marathon with my teammates after practice. Later on in life with groups of friends.

The reasons you express for climbing mountains are similiar to the reasons I garden, although until I read your words I realized I had never tried to verbalize it or had given it much thought.

Sandy said...

In my 60's, never having been a runner, I started training to run a 5K... I did it. I did not really enjoy it, but I met the objective of starting something and finishing it. This 'run' of mine was inspired by my daughter who ran the Boston while attending college there, and I stood on Heartbreak Hill waiting with orange slices for her. My voice still breaks when we talk about 'that day' because I was able to pick her out of thousands running by, and she said "Seeing you there waiting for me, just before the top, made me push on," and she completed the race in slightly more than four hours. And has gone on to compete in triathlons and more recently some long-distance swim meets. I am so very proud of her and know from sharing her effort what it means to those who do the Boston or other marathons.

I am holding all those who were affected by this outrageous act in the Highest Light of Healing knowing that we can all be Boston Strong if we 'stay on the sunny side of Life' and not let this pull us down. Thanks for an inspiring blog!!

Anonymous said...

I love it when I see you have a new blog entry. I expect to have an enjoyable and often uplifting few minutes in the middle of my workday, and you did it again. I think the human malware who tried to steal the Boston Marathon from our future picked on the wrong region.

But the Ironman astonishes me. As inspiring as you can be, that I will never do.



Anonymous said...

Happy birthday young man!