The Breath of Boston

The Massachusetts State House, Beacon Street

The Massachusetts State House, Beacon Street

For many runners, the road to a marathon ends in Boston, toeing the starting line in Hopkinton, dreaming of the finish on Boylston Street. Running the Boston marathon is the amatuer runner’s loftiest goal, often requiring years of training and several marathons to qualify for the race, thousands of hours on feet, pounding pavement. Last April, I watched my sister battle out some of her toughest hours on the Boston marathon course, cheering her on silently in the shared graduate student office in East Lansing as she raced towards Heartbreak Hill. Two Aprils ago, while running a Girls on the Run practice, I received a breaking news alert on my phone, a notification that there had been explosions at the marathon finish line.  Our own 5k event was just a few weeks away, so in order to keep our team of 3rd-5th grade runners working happily towards their first road race, my co-coach and I waited until after practice to grieve and worry for those runners who lost life and limb on that course. After those Boston marathons, I woke up the next morning, bundled up, and headed out for a run, thankful for the ability to breathe and to move.

The Boston Marathon Route, set in the corner of Copley Square

The Boston Marathon Route, set in the corner of Copley Square

It has become somewhat cliché to write running memoirs inspired by the incomparable Boston marathon, and I am aware of the fact that I am veering into that overwritten territory. But I have no intention of making the Boston Marathon my ultimate goal; in fact, I know I won’t likely qualify for the race, and even I draw the line at running those sadistic hills for 26 miles. On the contrary, my training began in Boston last week, as I toured the city in between sessions of the American Literature Association Annual Conference. Held in Copley Square, the conference overlooked the Boston Marathon seal affixed obliquely across the street from the magnificent public library. On my runs from the impossibly narrow streets of North End through downtown and the waterfront, I tread over the seal several times before I stopped, looked, and smiled at the serendipity of starting marathon training where many, many runners have finished theirs. There is something about Boston that makes you want to get up and do things, to reach for goals, to run faster and farther. The Boston marathon is part of that story. But the city itself breathes that spirit and that life, and would do so, I think, if the marathon were not world-famous.

George Washington, like a boss, Boston Public Garden

George Washington, like a boss, Boston Public Garden

For the first-time visitor, Boston is packed with reminders of greatness, surprising you as you wander through its old-world streets. It’s hard not to be inspired here, under the watchful gaze of our founding fathers; while I may have had Taylor Swift playing on my headphones, my heart sang sweet lands of liberty all the way down Beacon Street. I was arrested by treasures like Sam Adam’s gravestone flashing through my peripheral vision as I bounced up hills; Paul Revere Mall was an especially lovely surprise, my favorite Boston spot. Statues of patriots bring to life the spirit of the city; these bronze statues seldom depict our founding fathers as stationary; on the contrary, they are often on horse, moving towards a new future, our grand experiment. The buildings too, towering edifices that in photos appear like ghosts of the past, take on new life when you come upon them on foot, surprising you with their beauty and their kinetics. Creaking and settling their way into the cityscape, these buildings make room for life, new and old, to settle into their centers. However you happen to feel about American exceptionalism and the mythology of our country’s founding, Boston’s architecture and artwork make you feel something, bringing to life ideas, emotions, and dreams you may not have known were there.

The courtyard of the Boston Public Library

The courtyard of the Boston Public Library

Although there were many moments from my Boston trip that reinforced my experience of the city’s spirit, one memory in particular brought Boston to life. I heard and presented papers on the embodiment of poetry, and I took in the Boston Pops playing the music of John Williams, quite literally making art from the breath of life. These were magical and fascinating encounters with the line between body and art, but it was Sunday service at Old North Church in North End, the church that features the signal tower where Paul Revere lit the signal at the start of Lexington and Concord, where the city’s spirit came to life for me.  The church is like other buildings in Boston–bafflingly old, and yet surprisingly alive–a maze of partitioned cubicles with doors that congregates share, little cells of believers in the body of the church. Uncharacteristically for an Episcopalian Church, the pulpit towers above the pews, backlit with sunshine and white washed, a central nervous system from which blessings flow. I listened to the rector deliver a homily about the Holy Spirit as the breath of life (with a sailing metaphor, as is appropriate in New England) as a morning breeze shifted through the open windows, carrying voices from tourist groups outside. From the choir loft, both the church choir and the visiting Southeastern Michigan Madrigal Chorale (another serendipitous moment!) sent breath into vibration, bringing Palestrina and Schubert and the 1982 Hymnal to life again. When we sang the final verse of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” after the offertory, I couldn’t help but feel both happy and alive, patriotic and inspired, connected to everything old, everything new.

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Old North Church, North End

This blog is not about religion, but it is often about spirituality, something that I think sits just below the surface of skin, in breath, voices, hands and feet. One need not run a marathon to feel it, and undoubtedly, there will be moments in training where I certainly won’t feel it. I know that there will be points in the journey when I will need to readjust the sheets, pull myself back around to the point of sail, and let my sails fill with wind. Beginning my training in Boston set me on course with full sails, inspired by the beauty, history, and life of a city that is full of runners on foot–and in spirit.

As I stepped out for my first long run of training Tuesday morning–an easy 6 miler– the sublimity of my Boston trip had already begun to fade, most likely deadened by the delayed, late-night flight home on the ironically named Spirit airlines (upon which I always feel my spirit bruised a bit, if not demonstrably crushed). But I laced up my shoes anyway, running into the wind at my 9:30/mile long run pace, listening to a Fresh Air interview with Tom Brokaw. I plugged through four miles of my usual route, a path through our tiny town of Chelsea and into the countryside beyond, picking up steam as I turned towards home, the wind shifting behind me. Buoyed by the wind at my back, I floated through the last two miles with the memory of my last Boston run to carry me into Week Two, a run marked by this magnificent sunset, and the bracing New England gusts that took my breath away.

North End sunset

Sunset run, North End

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The Breath of Boston by Katie Piper Greulich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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