Marathons and terrorist attacks


The second marathon I completed was the Chicago Marathon in October 2001.  It was a race I’ll never forget.

And it almost wasn’t held.  In the weeks following 9/11, race organizers agonized over whether to hold the race.  They worried that bringing 40,000 runners together would present a tempting bombing target.  And they were right to be worried.

Ultimately they decided what most large-event organizers have decided ever since – namely, that life must go on or else the terrorists win.

So, I remember standing in Grant Park early on that Sunday morning.  It was still dark, and it was cold.  I was shivering and rubbing my hands together to stay warm.  I was dressed in running shorts and racing jersey, plus several layers of clothing that I planned to throw away as soon as I warmed up, if I ever did.

All around me runners were wearing T-shirts with pictures of those lost in the Twin Towers.  I could feel emotions running high.  No one had to say anything; I could just feel that this day was different.  We weren’t just proving something to ourselves – which is the usual motivation for doing something as silly as running 26.2 miles – we were running to prove something more.

Suddenly, a few minutes before the starter’s gun went off, an announcement was made that the National Anthem would be sung by a tenor from Chicago’s Lyric Opera and that he would also be running the race that day.

We cheered the announcement, and then waited.  As soon as he started to sing, something happened that has never happened before at any sporting event I’ve ever attended.  People around me began to sing.  Not just one or two, but everyone.  And quickly we were singing louder than the soloist, much louder.  After his “oh say, can you see,” I didn’t hear him again.  We were singing as loudly as we could.  40,000 of us were singing with tears in our eyes.  It was, looking back, a rush of adrenaline and patriotism.  We were singing as if to say, “Just try and stop us.”

It was quite a moment.

Naturally I thought of that morning this week as I learned of the bombings in Boston.  Having run the distance a few times I know a little of what it feels like to approach the finish line.  Not many runners are thinking clearly at that moment.  Getting across and getting the medal are pretty much the only thoughts most runners are capable of having.

And then those two bomb blasts seconds apart.

I’m as angry as anyone.  But I know that my anger does no good.  And so my anger gives way to something else – to a determination to keep running the race, to go on no matter what.

I plan to say something about the bombings in my sermon Sunday.  But I don’t think that our determination to keep going no matter what is exactly a good biblical response.  It’s my sentiment, exactly, but it’s not necessarily a biblical sentiment.  If getting through a tough time always depended on me to tough it out and keep going, I’m afraid I would be in trouble.

No, the biblical response is more hopeful than leaving it up to me and whatever resolve I happen to have on any given day.  The biblical response is – you already know, don’t you? – that God is faithful.  God was there at the beginning, God will be there at the end, God is there right now.  Of that we can be sure.

Can’t see God in this awful tragedy?  I did.  I saw God in all of those people who ran toward the explosions to help. I saw God in the soldiers who ran in their army boots and fatigues and backpacks and who just happened to be there at the end to offer aid to the wounded.  I saw God in everyone who was helping in the face of danger.

I like the quote from Mister Rogers that appeared later that day: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ’Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

God wasn’t absent that day.  God was present.  Of that I am certain.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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11 Responses to Marathons and terrorist attacks

  1. Georgia Hamilton April 18, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

    Beautiful, Doug! Would love to hear your sermon on Sunday —- I know it will be right “on the mark!”


    • Doug April 18, 2013 at 3:50 pm #

      Wish you could be here too, Georgia!

  2. Laurie Fuller April 18, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

    I too Doug thought of that tragic day 9/11. I thought of the little children who were hurt and the little 8 yr old that died. None of us can even come close to trying to understand Terrorism because our minds dont think like that. I know God was there, he saved lots of people. I feel he had a shield over them. Those bombs could of done so much more hurt and death. I have to believe that God was there helping to not let that happen and yes he was there in all the first responders.
    Talking to my granddaughter about what happened was difficult as she doesnt understand why there are so many “mean” people in the world as she says. I told her it takes all kinds to make the world go around and that with her love for Jesus she will be one of the ones who will always walk the straight and narrow path!

    Yes God was present and accounted for!

  3. Dennis Ulmer April 18, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

    I believe that this is the best response that I have ever read after a national tragedy that makes us all gather our thoughts and we become “one” as a nation to recover from it.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this horrible act of terror and answering the question that everyone always wonders, “Where was God?” I look forward to your sermon on Sunday…

    • Doug April 18, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

      Thank you, Dennis.

  4. Meg (Craig Q's Cuz) April 18, 2013 at 6:42 pm #


    • Doug April 19, 2013 at 5:00 am #

      Welcome to the blog, Craig Q’s cousin!

  5. Barb Keith April 19, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    You always make Tough Times seem easier to face. You may know Tom and I are in Masachusetts on Cape Cod. Tom was at the Marathon and was sitting at the finish line. Just before 2 he decided he had seen enough and left the event. I certainly was happy to see his smiling face!

    What a sad day for so many innocent people. We are certainly sad for those who lost loved ones and will never understand such acts of violence!

    Barb Keith

    • Doug April 19, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

      Thanks for leaving that comment, Barb. I had no idea Tom was planning to go the race. I’m with you – I’m glad he decided to leave early.

  6. Barb Keith April 20, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

    Thanks for your response, Doug. We both agree with you response to terrorism. A navy budy of Tom’s made the tickets available to him. Although he had. Beatten the explosions by 25 minutes . Upon arriving home and having heard the news, he felt rather guilty that he wasn’t there to help.
    Wish you and Susan could break for a few days. We’re ready and willing to meet you in Boston or Providence. We would love to have you!

    Barb and Tom

  7. Bob Sadowski April 22, 2013 at 11:06 am #

    I think the FBI really dropped the ball on this one, they had interviewed the older brother a few weeks prior and failed to note anything and failed to follow up on his doings.