Boston Memorial Series Part I: Joe Navas

As we prepare for the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon tragedy, Level Renner is re-releasing the memorials and reflections of the running community in the wake of the 117th running (these letters from readers were originally published in our May/June 2013 issue). Our intention is to pay proper respect and tribute to the events of last year’s race. We want nothing more than to handle the tragedy with appropriateness and tact. Because we see ourselves as an open platform for runners, this series is an expression of our audience’s thoughts from a year ago.  Thus, in the following pages, you will find an array of responses.  Some are angry, some are numb, most are just plain sad.  But some offer hope. Most show the strength and resolve of our community. The goal of this series is to remember and pay proper respect to the horrific events of April 15, 2013.  We will release one post per day in this series in the days leading up to the marathon.

Below is the first installment of a twelve part series. It is a response from Joe Navas who ran last year’s Boston Marathon.

The mind remembers but the body recalls and the two seemingly speak a different language in times of distress.

I ran a marathon two days ago. I always feel tired after running a marathon, in all ways. I always enter new territory psychologically, because I am not the person I was when I ran the last one.

I am older, though not wiser or less so. I am built differently, though neither faster nor slower. I am always slightly more fearful, no matter how well the previous one went, as if I feel like I’m either cheating the odds by hoping to have continuous “good” ones or getting what simply must eventually happen per order of the nature of the beast.

But today, I am simply exhausted. My legs ache, but I am neither pained nor frustrated by that. My brain, normally a whirlwind of thought, creative processes, lists of tasks, and anxiety about things important and trivial, is a shapeless bag of gray quiet.

My legs and my head began to speak illegible bits of prose to each other at 3:00 pm on Monday. They haven’t communicated properly since.

Is it because the legs are waiting in vain for the joy from the head to arrive, in order for them to feel ok about the pain? Is it the head all caught up in itself? Seeking to feel anything besides the languid, wrung out fatigue it’s working in and looking to the statistics on the page to relieve it?

Instead, all it sees is the look on my wife’s face when we heard the first blast. All it sees is my naiveté reflected in her eyes when, even after the second one, some idiot inside my mouth actually said, “Maybe it was a transformer getting overloaded.” All it sees is her making a game out of getting to the car to try to distract our 15 year-old son from the fact that we were both panicked, frightened, and claustrophobic.

We didn’t see smoke, as we were somewhere behind Copley. We didn’t see panicked onlookers, as word hadn’t gotten to them yet. We quickly decided that the only thing to do was to get through the crowd, get to the car and try to make it out. It wasn’t “Every man for himself,” so much as it was “I want my family to be safe from whatever this is and oh my god I love them.”

For two days I’ve talked about it, read about it, listened to everything I could about it. I’ve gone from trying to find out details to somehow make it more fathomable to looking for stories that can prove to me that the world has real, healing good left in it, not just slogans  pretending everything will be ok. I need acts that show me that the first instinct of the human animal is to love, and to love is to help and to help is to sacrifice. I keep watching the video of Tommy Meagher just instinctively going right in to help, without even giving it a second thought and I convince myself that there are more people like him, even though I’ve been quite certain for years there’s only one Tom Meagher.

Would I have helped and sacrificed if I was there and not a mere 600 yards away? I won’t say “I’d like to think, yes,” I can say, “Yes.” But here I was, afraid of what came from a sound, a big sound that rattled my guts and forced me to run on legs that had sat unused on a palatial, swallowing mattress in a luxurious room at the Fairmont Copley.

I’ve been riddled with a feeling that is heavy like guilt, though I cannot for the life of me figure out why. It’s as if I would prefer to transmit the collective pain of this action through something familiar, so I try to call shame from incidents that litter my life as they do anyone’s, perhaps as an alternative to facing the full brunt of the reality that is this inexplicably cruel cowardice perpetrated on people who never knew their own killers.

But I don’t have the energy. Not now. I am exhausted. So I go back to the trivial, that on which the legs and mind can agree.

I ran a good race. Not my fastest, but the most satisfying marathon I’ve had in years. I don’t know why it felt like this. I had to stop three times to use the Bouse House. I never got a good groove going. I felt like I was carrying a large water balloon somewhere just north of my bladder. Somehow, it didn’t matter. I was satisfied, and tremendously so. But of course, this is all well before any of the bad stuff happened. I am no believer in anything besides this physical plane, but I do have a part of me that wonders if my body felt a hinting rhythm that it translated into “You won’t be able to enjoy any of this soon enough, so you’d better soak it all in now.”

I usually follow a race with a lengthy poring over of statistics, stories of others’ travails, rehashed and rehashed memories of the tiniest minutia regarding the event. All running, all the time.

I don’t want to know how the Sox did, I want to see Reno beaming about 2:47 at age 58, and Ian, and Chris and I want to talk about how I saw Brendan Lynch after the ½, because it’s not Boston without seeing Brendan. I want to hear about Sim. I want to know if Lindsay’s leg held up (seems it did).

I want to hear the stories of people of all shapes and speeds and I love them because to simply pay attention to my own experience amidst something so huge and shared en masse is little more than a one-dimensional take on the whole thing. This is my recovery, this is my connection, this is my psychology, my massage, my stamina returning. My legs get the ok like a phone call from my brain and they start to feel better, as the aches that remain recall specific hills and the ones that retreat brace themselves for a return to those same hills.

boston marathon tribute card ejn 4.5.14

photo by EJN

But the above connection is not there, or if it is, it’s passing information that I cannot decipher. So I sit back as a bystander and read the papers, the newsfeeds and try to find a way through the bad to the good.  It’s tough to find this path when the mind and body ache in a way that cannot simply be healed with time or Advil or bananas or recovery runs.

Time does nothing. Time is merely space decreasing the volume of a sound that has bludgeoned your ears and soon enough becomes little more than a taunting distant echo, but one that is constant and you can’t figure out why it won’t finally go away.

It’s because time doesn’t erase it, it just moves it further afield, spreads it out, allows it to become diluted and dispersed into everything. Just like the only way to get over the wall is to go through it. If you try to run around it, you’ll just keep making it wider.

To get over this pain, you’ve got to go through it. But going through anything takes energy, and for right now, that energy is…exhausted.

—Joe Navas, Senior Columnist for Level Renner



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