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Dublin: 15 °C Tuesday 26 May, 2020

Boston, from Heartbreak Hill to Heartbreak Marathon

Stephen O’Byrnes, a veteran marathon runner who completed the Boston Marathon ten years ago, explains how bombing the finishing straight is a particularly wicked and cruel act.

A runner sits alone following the explosion at the Boston Marathon yesterday.
A runner sits alone following the explosion at the Boston Marathon yesterday.
Image: AP Photo/Michael Dwyer/Press Association Images

SADLY, IN OUR times, we’ve all become inured and desensitised to death and bloody mayhem unfolding on our TV screens almost nightly. From Syria and Iraq to (insert your own trouble spot), and formerly Northern Ireland, the sight of bombs exploding and pools of blood on the ground doesn’t lose its awfulness, but… we tend to just take note, and move on.

However, I was horrified beyond belief as the news of last evening’s Boston atrocity began to break around eight o’clock. It’s exactly ten years since I ran this oldest of modern marathons, and I suppose it’s that first-hand awareness of the finishing straight of many marathon venues, at home and abroad, that informed my sense of disbelief and despair.

I cannot think of a more vulnerable and more innocent terrorist target. A marathon end-point is a tumult of elation, relief, joy and togetherness. For runners, it’s the holy grail that banishes the pain and exhaustion of the previous three, four or five hour 26-mile slog. It’s where total strangers embrace one another on crossing the finish line.

“Like planting a bomb in Santa’s Grotto at Christmas time”

For waiting family and friends, it’s a time of pride and celebration, and emotional reunions with their sweaty home-grown heroes. Planting a bomb there is like planting a bomb in Santa’s Grotto at Christmas time.

It’s really difficult to begin to comprehend the wickedness of whoever perpetrated this atrocity. It has been pointed out for instance that the bombs exploded just after the four-hour mark. The elite runners would have got home around before three hours. Thereafter for any of these mass marathons with 25,000-plus participants, the four-hour mark has people streaming across the finish line.

What I can’t get my head around is why target a marathon race? Here is the most harmless, fun-filled activity imaginable. In times of austerity and obesity, running is the perfect antidote. It embraces people of all ages, and every skill level. And it enables the most “ordinary” of people to achieve extraordinary things. From small 10K gatherings in towns around Ireland to the big city marathons of New York, London, and every Western capital city, it also is a source of massive fundraising for endless good causes.

“Heartbreak Hill”

Almost everyone running that challenging Boston route, a virtual straight line route from the town of Hopkinton to the finish line at downtown Boylston Street, will have been fundraising for some cause close to their heart. There’s a famous stretch on the route, called Heartbreak Hill, so-called because
it is a tough one-mile climb at the 20-mile mark, close to Boston College.

After yesterday’s atrocity, the fun of marathon running anywhere, but especially in Boston, will never be the same again. For many, many people, and from now on, it will be known as the Heartbreak Marathon.

Find’s coverage of the Boston Marathon explosions here>

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About the author:

Stephen O'Byrnes

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