Monday, 2 February 2015

Running and mourning

In 2013 the Boston marathon was the target of an infamous terrorist attack. The Boston bombing seriously injured 29 people and killed three, creating headlines around the world.

The Boston bombing was a terrible event but like so many news stories it was something that didn’t really touch me - all the pain and suffering was mediated either through some kind of screen or news print. I was not personally affected.

All that changed a year later.

In 2014 I run the Boston marathon and one person died. He died thousands of miles from the Boston but for me his death will always be linked to the marathon.

On Tuesday 22nd April my mobile phone started ringing at 3.50am in the morning. I had just run the marathon the day before and my body was still in pain. On the other side of the phone line was a colleague from work and I knew instantly something was wrong. Back in the UK it was still only ten to nine.
"There's no easy way to say it, so I'm just going to say it" was all the warning I got by way of preamble. "We think Jay is dead - drowned in Barbados". Just typing this conversation still makes my lip quiver.

I am an executive producer for the BBC and Jay was one of my documentary directors. He was in Barbados for a wedding but he was also directing a film for me about the 1986 Commonwealth Games. One of the interviewees happened to live in the Barbados and so the day before he had shot an interview with him. Work done the following day he had gone back to enjoying his holiday. My understanding is that he swam out to sea and simply never returned.

The phone call gave me an small insight into how the families and friends of the victims of the Boston bombing must have felt the previous year.

I knew logically that Jay must be dead. At that point he had been missing for over 12 hours and although rare it is not unknown for freak currents in the Caribbean Sea to take even the strongest swimmers. But without concrete evidence I still clung on to hope. I wondered how long the bereaved relatives of the Boston bombings held on to their hope? I thought about the runners and spectators who taken to hospital and survived and wondered how long loved ones must have worried that they were dead.

Four deaths - three due to a terrorist attack, one caused by drowning. On the face of it completely unrelated. In my world as close as close could be.

After the work call it slowly dawned on me; at the very same time I was running the Boston marathon Jay was fighting for his life. The day earlier I had been so proud of my physical achievement of running the marathon in 3 hours and 1 minute. All of a sudden it seemed pointless. Almost pitiful. How could I take pride in my own physical achievement when a friend had faced a real struggle? A struggle far greater than any marathon.

Almost a year later I still struggle to answer that question. But I think I have got closer to an answer.

Consistently when writing about my marathon running I realise that in so many ways running is all about our own mortality. We are physical beings. We are flesh and blood. We are all subject to decay and eventual death. As I get older running helps me to confront this reality in a controlled and safe environment. Running enables me to celebrate my physical body every time I lace up my running shoes, while at the same time making me acutely aware that my physical body has very real limitations.

I am now training for my next annual Spring marathon. Occasionally while on my long weekend runs I think of Jay and the Boston marathon. But now instead of seeing them as contradictions I see them as part of the same thing. I run to remind myself of what it means to be alive, I run to enable me to stare into the abyss that is death and not be scared.

(The picture today is of a memorial to the three people who were killed by the Boston bombing. In April I will be running the London Marathon in memory of Jay)

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