Boston Marathon: What we're running for

Elite women leave the starting line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, in the 119th Boston Marathon. Bill Greene/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

They wake at dawn. They run in the rain. They stay on the track hours after the last car pulls out of the parking lot, pounding in the silence left behind. They train for years, slowly braiding their muscles into wire ropes. They hoist themselves, like human pulleys, to higher and higher levels -- often with a grace and ease that makes the rest of us wonder if we had merely imagined things like pain and gravity. While we fumble against physical limits, focused runners appear to soar beyond them. Although their steps are laced with solitude, these athletes do not travel alone. Each follows in invisible footsteps; together, they clear the way for those still to come. Runners, like all the faithful, have their pilgrimages. When winter gives way to spring, runners form great chains, like V's of migrating geese, pulling each other into the next season.

On Monday, April 18, 2016, they flock to Boston. For the 120th time in history, 30,000 runners from dozens of countries will run the 26.2 miles known as the Boston Marathon. Following hundreds of thousands of their forerunners, these athletes will guzzle Gatorade at mile 17, heave themselves up Heartbreak Hill and coast through Kenmore Square.

Since the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, these runners also follow the course of the world: They stride down streets with stories of bombs. The marathoners must summon not only the physical strength to get through the race, but also their faith in humanity, to give them hope for a journey unmarred by violence. The runners' prayers for their safe voyage echo those of the people of Syria, Greece, Honduras, Yemen. For a few moments, Boston is the world, and its runners chant its deepest longing: to be safe.

The Boston Marathon and its 500,000 spectators summon something equally elemental: That peculiar human buoyancy caused by they shared hope of becoming something greater than we are. All runners, be we amateurs or professionals, wrestle with the same progression: struggle sparks strength. The more we train, the more effortlessly miles tumble from our legs.

Once, I wanted to fly. If I became fast enough, I hoped, I could levitate above fatigue, outrun fear, never touch failure. But those of us who wish for wings learn quickly that we are clay pigeons. When our bodies become our burdens, our flight is short and heavy. When we are lofted into motion by the hand of another, we fall quickly. We shatter. In my two decades of running, I have learned that the stunning alchemy of running is not the one through which we humans learn to fly, but the one through which we become more human, both lighter and more grounded than we know ourselves to be. Despite the mythology, none of us run alone -- we go farther and faster because others pull us.

Some runs are nothing but grind -- a headwind spews gravel in my eyes on the far side of the lake, my legs have gone from burning to bricks. I find my way home through a muttered chant of expletives, a prayer of curses seeking both more speed and to never move again. I've missed entire seasons of running because of injury --fractured bones, inflamed IT bands, rolled ankles and torqued hips. More than pain, these runs teach me the despair of wanting my body to do what it cannot. This lesson, I have learned, is the essence of running. And the essence of running is the essence of being human: It's both harder and more beautiful out there than we thought.

In their two to four hours of running, the runners of Boston will know the fear of journey, the brutal frustrations of life in a body and the joy of discovering something beyond. We run to become human, to find our limits and to befriend them.

At times, we push beyond our limits and feel ourselves take flight; at times, we drop beside them, nodding at their whimpers. The summer I fell in love with running, I memorized poems and sang the stanzas to the bridge of green leaves I ran beneath. The winter my heart broke, I learned to gulp lungfuls of freezing air between my howls.

On some runs, nothing at all happens, and I like those best of all. Time is neither my master nor my servant; I neither command it nor am beholden to its demands. It folds around me like a silk ribbon, supple and rich and not mine at all. Something, somewhere ripples, and I realize I am not breathing -- I am being breathed. Running teaches me to surrender to these moments.

Sometimes people ask me, Why run? Me, I run to realize. We are all alone, and everyone is with us. Running brings me horizons -- the need for sunrise and for sleep, the need for friends, the need for solitude. Sometimes I go fast, sometimes I go alone, sometimes slow, sometimes together -- just like the Boston marathon runners.

Eleni Schirmer is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's department of Educational Policy Studies and Curriculum and Instruction, where she studies social movements and education. Her writing has appeared in Jacobin, The Progressive, Labor Notes and Education Review.