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There is no more loneliness for the long-distance runner.

Next Monday, 36,000 runners (including more than 2,300 Canadians) will join a million spectators lining the 42 kilometres from suburban Hopkinton to downtown Boston to celebrate … well, what, exactly?

Few efforts are as inherently joyful as finishing a marathon, and last year’s bombing at the finish line has already ensured that this year’s race will be the stuff of legend. But 2014’s race will be littered with the unintended consequences of 2013’s.

If the bombers were trying to demoralize runners or grip Americans in dread, they forgot that bombing people generally makes them more determined to resist. Monday will be defined by that resolve.

It should be no surprise that 36,000 runners will depart the starting line of this year’s marathon – thousands more than usual. What’s surprising is that an unheard of 25 per cent of these entrants blew past their qualifying times with 20 minutes to spare. So the challenge has gone from being happy to make the grade by a couple of minutes, to saying: “Just watch me.”

For me, going back for the 118th running of the world’s most famous footrace isn’t just a matter of, “If I don’t, the terrorists win.” The bombing may have stripped marathoners of their innocence, but not their steel. I’m always reminding myself that the only way you can even do a marathon is to pick yourself up after you fall down. Which happens often and frankly, as you age, almost daily. This past winter, thousands of Boston runners willingly endured months of cold, dark, icy training just to qualify. And by the time we get to the start line, all of us will already be hurting or injured in some way. It’s called a marathon, but even getting there is one.

Last week, I read an astounding statistic in Runner’s World Magazine. After last year’s bombing, they analyzed data from online training sites and found that the number of people who laced up their shoes and went for a run – in America and around the world – rose between 5 and 13 per cent, depending on where you ran. And in Boston? It rose an astounding 16.7 per cent.

In other words, the Boston bombers sparked a surge in all running, everywhere.

Among the million onlookers in Boston on Monday will be my entire family, including our four-month-old granddaughter. Yes, she’ll be far from the finish line. But the security will be massive. As the race site says: “Runners should expect a significant presence of uniformed and plain clothes police officers.”

No backpacks for runners or spectators. No large handbags or strollers. For runners, no personal hydration systems, no vests with pockets, no gear bags other than the official clear plastic ones. Runners and spectators can expect security checkpoints at the start and finish lines, even at the race Expo, which runs for two days before the marathon.

My son, who analyzes risk for a living, is bringing his wife and their first child. My two daughters and husband are coming as well. Their willingness to join us got me to thinking about the real meaning of support and celebration.

Roger Robinson, the noted historian of running, spoke to a Toronto audience last spring about the effect the bombing would have on runners and their families. Running a marathon is a totally beneficent undertaking, he said. It requires individuals to challenge only themselves, to endure physical hardship only for them, to succeed or fail only in their own estimation. Marathoning has always been a solo activity.

He’s so right. But what makes marathoning meaningful for me from here on is that this ultimate individual sport is a solo effort no more. All of us fortunate enough to run Boston last year have a debt to pay forward to the millions of runners who will strive for, enter, race and finish Boston Marathons for the next 118 years.

Never again will a celebration after crossing the finish line at Copley Square fail to acknowledge the eight-year-old boy who died or the woman who lost her foot but has resumed dancing.

When I lace up my runners on Monday, it will be in full recognition of shouldering my debt to the dead and wounded in 2013. Every step taken will be to salute the lives and limbs lost in an act of casual savagery.

When I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington a month after 9/11, I learned that Americans are at their finest when their circumstances are at their worst. If ever there’s another time when we can stand with them as one, it’s in Boston on Monday. Just watching the race online or on TV will make you a member of a huge community of solidarity.

Curiously, this year’s race falls on both Easter Week and Passover – one celebrating resurrection and the other freedom. I can’t think of a better place or occasion to mark both.


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