Running in my first Pittsburgh Marathon three years ago at the age of 71 was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. I've now reached the age where memories keep slipping away, but I still remember, vividly, running the last hundred yards to the finish line, and the cheering spectators who were still there, hours after the start of the marathon, waiting for the back-of-the-pack stragglers.
The bombings at the Boston Marathon and the horrific injuries and tragic loss of life among so many spectators were reminders that the real heroes of a marathon are not just the runners. We can train our bodies and prepare our minds for the marathon, but our family and friends deserve their own medal for supporting us, no matter what their own fears, from our first wintry jog to the moment when we cross the finish line.
And they're not alone in their support. There are the thousands of spectators who line the marathon course to shout out our name (it's on our running bibs), and some much needed encouragement; and there are the hundreds of volunteers holding out cups of Gatorade and telling us (with a smile and a touch of exaggeration) that we're looking good.
It's all the more heart-breaking to learn that so many of the spectators injured or killed in Boston were waiting near the finish line to cheer home a son or daughter, a wife or husband, and, in a few cases, even a grandfather. When the bombs went off, the elite runners had already finished the race. Those waiting near the finish line were there simply to hug loved ones and celebrate their accomplishment.
I ran in last year's Pittsburgh Marathon with my oldest daughter Anne. Waiting for us at the finish line were three generations of Petersons. There was my wife Anita, who'd hugged me after my first marathon and whispered in my ear -- "You crazy old man. Don't you ever do this to me again."
My daughter Amy and her husband Dean were also there, mostly to comfort Anita, whose crazy husband was running the streets of Pittsburgh all over again, and Anne's kids, Matthew and Adrianne, who'd run the Children's Marathon the day before to support their mother and foolish grandfather.
Anne and I signed up early for this year's Pittsburgh Marathon and were looking forward not just to the run, but to the gathering of family and friends that has now become an annual event. An hour after the bombings at the Boston Marathon, I received an email from Anne saying, "It's just horrible. I know that you're worried about Pittsburgh." I thought about it for a while and wrote back, "I'm more determined than ever to run with you in the Pittsburgh Marathon."
So Anne and I will be among the thousands of runners at this year's Pittsburgh Marathon, and three generations of Petersons will be among the thousands waiting at the finish line. Our legs willing, we'll make it over Pittsburgh's bridges and hills, across the finish line and into the arms of our family.
Because of the tragedy in Boston, the emotional experience of running in the Pittsburgh Marathon will be different this year. When Anne and I approach the finish line in Pittsburgh, the memory of those who were maimed and killed in Boston will be weighing on our minds and our spirits and on the mind and spirits of our fellow runners. Crossing the finish line will be a heart-wrenching moment for all of us. Afterwards, when we find our friends and family in the crowd, the hugs will be a little tighter and will last a little longer.
Richard "Pete" Peterson is the author of "Growing Up With Clemente" and the newly published "Pops: The Willie Stargell Story." He will be signing "Pops" May 4 from 12 to 2 p.m. at Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley.