BOSTON—While survivors and others gather for a solemn ceremony to mark the anniversary of the bombings at last year’s Boston Marathon, runners from around the world will be arriving in brightly-colored running gear just outside to prepare for this year’s competition.
It’s a disconnect that exemplifies a rare, if not singular, challenge: the need to commemorate a tragedy that coincides with an iconic annual event. And it means planners have to balance grieving about the past with staging an athletic spectacle that’s all about positive emotion.
“It really is a huge pendulum sweep,” says Dusty Rhodes, who is in charge of the tribute.
A unusual calendar quirk will help: The Boston Marathon is always run on the third Monday in April. Last year’s marathon was on April 15, the earliest possible date, while this year’s will be on April 21, the latest. That gives organizers six days between the anniversary of last year’s bombings and the runners’ gathering at the starting line.
“What we really want to have happen on Tuesday is the appropriate focus on the victims and the community and the enormity of the impact and the sadness and the challenge, and then move forward,” says Rhodes. “Come Wednesday morning after the tribute, let’s go and have the world’s best marathon that we can have.”
The commemoration will recognize the three people killed by two bombs placed on Boylston Street during last year’s marathon, an MIT police officer fatally shot by the alleged bombers three days later, the 264 who were hurt in the blasts, many of them gravely, and the firefighters, police, hospital employees and others who responded to the emergency.
Participants will file out of a local convention hall behind an honor guard and place a wreath at the freshly painted blue-and-yellow finish line. They will observe a moment of silence at 2:49 p.m., the exact moment when the first of the bombs exploded.
Church bells will ring citywide at 2:50 p.m. along with the horns of boats in the city’s famous harbor. The finish-line flag familiar from the photographs of last year’s chaos will be raised, and church bells will play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
“By the time we get to the end of the tribute program, it’s about hope,” Rhodes says. “We’ve done well, we’re a team, we’ve been a strong team, and we will be a strong team. And that’s the tone we close with. It’s a microcosm of what the whole week will be.”
For all of that, officials say they can’t predict, and don’t presume to dictate, how people will remember the events of last year while also watching this year’s race unfold.
“That’s not for us to reconcile,” said Tom Grilk, executive director of marathon parent the Boston Athletic Association. “It’s for us to provide people with an opportunity to do what they do and to remember and react the way they wish.”
As for the marathon itself, Grilk hopes it “will be what it has always been, an international athletic event and a day of celebration and joy for the runners and spectators along the way and volunteers,” he says. “What we have heard from people is that we along with them have to move forward, have to display that determination, colored by that history that happened before.”