Bombings at finish have crossed a new line

Attack on symbolic boundary will only stir hidden stores of strength in ordinary Americans

Runners embrace

Runners embrace after picking up their medals near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, a day after the race on April 16, 2013. (Andrees Latif/Reuters / April 16, 2013)

It happened at the finish line.

It wouldn't have been any less horrific if it had happened at mile 2 or mile 10 or mile 17, but the fact that the bombs exploded where they did at the Boston Marathon on Monday made the brutality even more symbolic.

Three killed in explosions at the finish line.

Police intensify their probe into Monday's bombing at the finish line.

Mourners return to the scene at the finish line.

The words "the finish line" have been woven through the news of the bombings like the refrain of a song, and those words resonate especially for runners, who recognize the finish line as a lot more than a stripe in the road.

My friend Julie, who has run six marathons, got me to thinking about this.

"The finish line is a symbol," she said. "It's like they bombed a really sacred place."

For runners, a finish line is a purpose, a meaning, a mood.

That line on the ground represents joy after suffering. Accomplishment after pain. A payoff for effort and endurance. Proof of life's possibilities.

Crossing it can be a beginning as well as an ending.

"A finish line for a lot of people," Julie said, "is a start of a whole new way of looking at things."

What happened in Boston was terrible beyond words for the families and friends of people who died or were hurt.

The damage ripples next into the lives of the people of Boston and on out into the lives of millions of distant strangers.

Runners are apt to feel the attack in a particularly personal way.

When Julie heard about the bombings, she immediately thought of how much work the runners had invested in the race — step by step, breath by breath, hour after hour — in the hopes of making it to that long white line on Boylston Street.

She thought about the roadside signs that cheered the runners on even when their sides cramped and their legs howled and they wanted to throw up. She could imagine the mental tricks the runners used to keep themselves from quitting before the 26.2 miles were done.

The bombers, she thinks, understood that. They seized the power of the finish line.

"They waited until the runners were expecting a triumphant, wonderful moment," she said. "Maybe they were trying to make a point about the insignificance of running."

It remains to be seen who "they" are or why they did it or why they put the bombs exactly where they did. Since Monday, the predictable speculations have swirled. The safest prediction is that when the truth arrives, it will be a mix of something we might have anticipated and something that just seems crazy.