To the young men who bombed the Boston Marathon: You picked the wrong people to fuck with. Or so say the members of the Los Angeles Speed Project runners group.
It's the crack of dawn two days after the April 15 bombing, and they and about a hundred other marathoners are at the Santa Monica Pier stretching and hydrating and jogging in place and otherwise getting ready to do what they do best: run.
“Marathoners are warriors. They don't quit. Their spirits aren't exactly easily broken,” Blue Benadum declares. He's team captain of Los Angeles Speed Project, which organized today's impromptu tribute run.
The project comprises six extreme runners — “extreme,” of course, being a relative term. To these six athletes, it means both distance and speed. It means running 300 miles through the desert — from Los Angeles to Las Vegas — as fast as you can. It means running and running until every ounce of fat has melted from your body, and then running some more.
“The Boston Marathon isn't over,” Benadum says. “We're gonna come back and we're gonna come back even stronger.”
For now, the assembled runners can't help rehashing the gory details of the April 15 attack: the two brothers who came to watch a friend run and each lost one leg in the bombing. The old runner who flopped over on his side as the first bomb went off. The dead 8-year-old boy. The people falling to the ground, looking around in confusion.
There is shock. There is disbelief. “Just to imagine losing a leg,” says Monica Raya, a member of running club L.A. Leggers, “the thought that people are never going to ever run again.” She injured herself six months ago and couldn't run. She felt low. That lowness turned into depression. “When you're unable to do what you love, it impacts you mentally.”
It doesn't matter one bit that many of the injured weren't runners but spectators. Long-distance runners know how important it is to have people watching, to hear cheering at the finish line. “The spectators are the real heroes of running,” veteran marathoner Heather Krug insists.
Sadness is the primary reaction here today. Eileen Gueringer, 30, like most everyone here, has run a couple of marathons. “They were overwhelmingly positive experiences. Everyone is supportive. To mar that…” she says and starts to cry. “It's really sad. I'm sorry.” She pinches a tear away with a finger. “But it's just so depraved that something so positive was so disgraced.”
Her sadness is born of empathy. She imagines she and her mom had been caught in the blast. They hugged and cried when Gueringer finished her first marathon. It easily could have been them: “Everyone wants to do Boston someday.”
Boston is like the World Series of marathons. Of the so-called “big six” runs — the others are New York, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo — it's the only marathon for which you have to qualify. People train their whole lives for it.
Benadum had 20 friends racing in it that day. Of the 52 marathons Benadum has under his belt, he has done Boston twice.
He would have been there himself that Monday, but at the last minute he canceled his flight. So instead he was at home, just about to leave for the high school where he coaches track and field, when his cellphone started blowing up with messages: “Are you OK?” “Were you there?”
He moved quickly through the stages of grief straight to anger. You feel like doing something, he says, but there's nothing to do except watch the tragedy unfold on TV. “It's a helpless feeling,” he says.
Nothing to do, perhaps, but run.
Benadum's friend and fellow speed project member Nils Arend calls the group to order. “We are the fucking wrong group to mess with,” Arend says. There is a minute of silence, then a group hug. “Thanks for coming out,” he says. “Let's do it!”
They depart in a graceful loop along the shore. One man holds an American flag aloft, which catches the breeze in a dramatic way.
After seven miles, most have headed home to shower and resume their daily lives. But not Arend. “I think we have to run a marathon today,” he declares.
“Really?” Benadum says. “OK.” They run past Temescal Canyon, through Marina del Rey to Dockweiler Beach, then back again to Santa Monica: 26.2 miles before breakfast.
“A marathon is so intense anyway,” Benadum says afterward, thinking of the chaos at Boston. “You're stripped down emotionally. You're very fragile when you cross the finish line.” At 20 miles, your body is out of fuel. Your brain is out of fuel. “So you can't talk yourself into why you should keep going. If you're going to finish, you have to find something deep down inside, even when there's nothing left.”
Spectators matter. Benadum ran the Los Angeles Marathon on March 17. Two miles from the end, he wanted to quit so bad. Everything hurt.
Then a stranger appeared on the sidelines, cheering. He was an older man, probably in his 60s. Someone who knew marathons. “You're within the 2-hour, 30-minute mark,” the stranger said. “It's there, but you've got to want it bad. Pick it up.”
Benadum played the man's words over and over again in his head like a mantra for the rest of the race. He finished in 13th place overall.
Benadum never saw the guy again, but he wishes he could thank him. He wishes he could tell him, “Hey man, you saved me.”