Monday’s massacre of innocent people, particularly innocent runners, is pointed in its psychological cruelty. Not only were innocent people targeted, targeted were productive, passionate people whose legs are their life.  Of all those to lose their legs in a terrorist act, it is tragic beyond comprehension that they be the legs of a runner.

I have been married to a marathon runner for 31 years.  After he ran his first marathon, I couldn’t imagine he would ever want to run another.  He crossed the finish line with blood dripping down his chest where his cotton shirt had rubbed his nipples raw.  Within minutes he was doubled over heaving Gatorade and citrus onto the ground.  Over the years athletic clothing improved vastly and he never experienced bleeding nipples again, but the sacrifice it took to run a marathon continued to be immense.

While I was tucked warmly beneath the down comforter on our king sized bed, my husband rose in the dark and dressed by nightlight.  He could be exhausted from a busy work week, or a restless night’s sleep but when training for a marathon he would not succumb to the temptation to sleep in. 

Those dark, early mornings were cold when we lived Connecticut and my marathon runner was forced to don a hat and gloves and wear a ski mask to protect his skin.  In Florida he had to carry extra water in a fanny pack to keep from dehydrating in the sultry heat.  In any condition, training to run 26.2 miles at a stretch is grueling.

Injury frequently sidelined my marathon runner.  Pulled hamstrings, sprained ankles, surgery for Morton’s Neuroma, surgery to replace a severed ACL, surgery to repair a torn meniscus–there have been many injuries.  But my marathoner never quit.  With each setback he bounced back, with physical therapy and patience he rehabilitated limb and joint.

Notable is the fact that the Boston marathon is available only to elite runners.  Nobody gets into the Boston without having already run a marathon before, and running it in an exceptional time.  Marathon runners frequently wear a stop watch, timing every mile, working hard improve their time.  They constantly push themselves harder.  And they push themselves again.

The character of a marathon runner is by and large stellar.  They are the opposite of lazy.  Whatever else a runner’s character consists of, they are disciplined. They are determined. It’s hard to imagine a hobby that’s more wholesome.   No one deserves to have his legs blown away, but of all people to lose limbs, the injustice is paramount for a marathon runner.

Marathon Runners and Emotional Health

Because I’m a psychotherapist, I find runners frequently take up running as a healthy way to deal with stress.  Rather than take psychotropic drugs, a runner allows his own body to produce adrenalin that can facilitate a “runner’s high”.  Folks who are exceptionally stressed, and may even have depressive symptoms, may find that running increases dopamine in the brain, with results equivalent to an anti-depressant.

Imagine a runner who had turned to running to maintain his mental health, then had his legs blown off– what a compounded tragedy it becomes.  Losing one’s limbs would cause discouragement and depression in virtually anybody.  But when your legs are a primary means to mental health, to balance, to joy, and then they are blown away, the loss is catastrophic.

Tragic Timing

The fact that the bombs in Boston went off near the finish line of the marathon exacerbates the psychological trauma of the tragedy.  By the time a runner has run 20 plus miles he is exhausted, physically, mentally, emotionally.  He has psyched himself up for the race, gave it his all, made it almost to the finish line, is likely feeling a sense of euphoria at such a profound accomplishment.  Thus, with his guard down, feeling delight that he is within minutes of his long sought-after goal, anticipating the clock at the finish line that records his time, and the high-fives of so many who will relish in his accomplishment–at the very moment when the runner is feeling excitement and anticipation–tragedy beyond comprehension strikes.  It’s the type of experience that jades you for life.  You never get your hopes up ever again.  It is psychologically wounding every bit as much as it is physically wounding.

Our greatest hope is that the wounded will continue to run, and not let despair be the winner.  These athletes are competitors.  The very fact that they are runners reveals they have already overcome opposition in the past.  They of all people know it’s possible to get up and keep trying.

Hopefully, these athletes will find artificial limbs that enable them to continue doing what they love.  Although Monday’s tragedy may the largest setback any runner ever experienced in the history of running, hopefully they will not quit.  In the future, the races run by the survivors of the 2013 Boston will garner as much respect as the Boston ever has.