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Why I Have to Keep Running

The only way I could soothe myself was to run. The distance I ran that day would not have gotten me to the finish line of a 5k. Two sluggish, 12.5-minute miles were the best I could do. But I was outside. In my city.
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Re-posted from Cognoscenti.

Until just recently, I was still running on a treadmill. I didn't trust my footing over patches of snow and dodging giant puddles of muddy water. For weeks, I've been waiting for the winter weather to end so I could run outside, alone with my thoughts and a view of the Boston skyline from the Cambridge side of the Charles River.

My dedication to running persists though I've never experienced the endorphin rush so many people describe. And yes, sometimes I feel like I'm flying. But the exhilaration lasts no more than a few strides. Most of my runs are pounding and gasping and checking the display on the GPS watch, willing the hundredths of a mile to pass.

Still, I could never quit. Running is too important.

I started running two years ago, the Saturday after the marathon bombing. I live in Cambridge, not far from where the Tsarnaev brothers hid. I spent that Friday, April 19, 2013, alone in my apartment, having been ordered by police to stay inside. All day I paced from the living room to the kitchen. I felt sick when I looked outside and saw my usually bustling block deserted.

The next morning, I was antsy and angry and sad. The only way I could soothe myself was to run. The distance I ran that day would not have gotten me to the finish line of a 5k. Two sluggish, 12.5-minute miles were the best I could do. But I was outside. In my city. Where the sidewalks are red brick, and half the intersections don't have street signs, and you can never be sure the street you're running down is actually parallel to the street one block over. Where drivers honk and swear at the slightest provocation but somehow manage to stop at crosswalks for runners.

It wasn't my first attempt at running, just the only one that stuck. I'd followed Couch-to-5K websites before, but none of them delivered on their promises to get me running three miles in nine weeks. Each time I abandoned my running routine, I did so with almost no guilt. Certainly no sense of responsibility.

But then two angry, misguided men detonated bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line. And people who devote themselves to the race that defines our city lost their lives and their limbs. And the only way that made sense to honor them was to join them in the discipline of running.

The week after the bombings, I ran four times. Each ridiculously slow 25-minute trek felt like a tribute to the first responders who ran toward the danger, instead of away. To the ways they pushed their muscles past the point of fatigue to get people who were injured to hospitals. To the endurance of doctors and nurses and social workers who saved as many lives and limbs as they could. To marathon spectators who turned their jackets and sweatshirts into tourniquets.

My short, inefficient strides and labored, asthmatic breaths feel like an offering. An expression of gratitude for their tenacity and grit. An expression of humility each time I realized that my strongest, fastest run would barely feel like a warm-up to people who are capable of marathons.

Running, like Boston, can be tedious, puritanical and deeply satisfying. It's exactly the right kind of pain. There's a way it fortifies, a resilience it creates.

Boston is my adopted home city, and I love it with the zeal of a religious convert. When I moved here twenty years ago, it took forever to make friends. People here don't talk to strangers much or go out of their way to be nice. I've heard people complain about how cold or rude our city is, but this trait is exactly what I love most about Boston. There is no social expectation of friendliness, so no warm greeting or invitation is ever extended by rote. Every kind gesture is deliberate and chosen.

Boston is like your introverted best friend. She's hard to get to know. She's curt and prickly at times, but she's loyal and true in ways easier people are not. She'll never put out food just because you're coming over, but if you're really hungry, she'll sense it and feed you exactly what you need.

Boston is the city I love. The city I honor every time I run.