A marathon is 26 miles of life and many attempts at outrunning death.
No race director publicizes it like that, but every runner knows. That's why they signed up in the first place. To use the marathon as a stage for running through the trials of life.
Because at some point in the marathon, just like in life, pain appears.
Legs, like brickyards. Exhaustion, like carrying a piano on your back. Your mind turns traitor: Quit quit quit, it says. Quit now.
But you don't.
That's why the finish line is home to such emotion. Runners cry. They cheer, like heavyweight champs. Their chests swell like hot-air balloons. That moment, tattooed onto every day of the rest of their lives.
So ... alive.
Now it seems, once again, America has become a marathon runner. Monday's Boston Massacre puts us back in that intersection between fear and safety, joy and suffering. We're running by the same mile markers we saw back in September 2001.
How do we keep going?
What do we do with the pain?
How long before it all stops?
The last time I went to Boston was July 4, 2002. It was the first Independence Day since 9/11.
America was on high alert; Osama bin Laden was surely eyeballing this of all days, in this of all American cities.
The whole week, we didn't see one scared face. A ton of fireworks, beers on cobblestones and a packed house at Fenway. But no visible fear.
Like an old mariner, Boston is tough in ways most cities aren't.
Not like New York, which is cool and skyscraper hip. Not like Washington, with its power and museums. Not like L.A., and whatever it has.
Boston is Revere and neighborhood pubs ("Norm!") and Larry Bird and clam chow-dah.
Boston is the revolution.
Boston is old-school America.
And the marathon? People in Boston say it's their favorite day of the year. They call it, of all things, Patriots Day.
People come from all over the globe to run and cheer. Cheer and run. Schools close, businesses stay open late, and kids -- like the 8-year-old who died -- get to glimpse the best of America.
(One bomb exploded just outside a candy store).
The streets are like a parade. Twenty-three thousand runners. Race officials put up flags from other nations to honor the diversity of the race. Put them up near the finish line.
"For a brief second, the flags of scores of nations were bent downward by the blast," said the New York Times.
"Those flags looked like victims," wrote Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen.
So while we wait to see if this is terrorism brewed overseas or in some wicked homegrown basement, we, the rest of America, have to find some message in the symbolism before us.
A marathon finish line.
Boston tells us to be tough and free. Sons and daughters of liberty. Scared, perhaps, but holding it in tighter than a poker face at midnight.
The marathon tells us to keep going. That quitting is the very, very last thing we should do. One way or another, we reach the finish.
They can pack all the ball bearings they want into their coward bombs. They can blow up the streets, candy stores and even those precious bodies.
But they can't blow up the message of Boston and its marathon.
That's the part of the race when Boston gets back up.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...