I suppose it would make for a better story if I could say that running the Boston Marathon was a life long dream for me. But to be quite honest, until the last year or so, I didn’t even realize the significance of this race. In fact, I never planned on running a marathon, period. This all changed the day someone remarked that there was “no way” I could ever run twenty-six miles. So, I did what any self-respecting runner would do; I found the nearest marathon and signed up.
As I was preparing for this first marathon, my father, a former long distance runner, jokingly asked me, “So when are you going to qualify for Boston?” Now, understand this, I am a daddy’s girl to the core. If this would make him proud, I was determined to make it happen. Suddenly, qualifying for Boston became something I needed to do, not for me, but for him. Within minutes of crossing the finish line of the Louisiana Marathon in January 2012, I called Dad and was elated to answer his “When are you going to qualify?” question with, “I just did.”
For the next 15 months, anticipation built as I began to realize just what it meant to have the chance to “run Boston.” Steeped in history, the Boston Marathon is the oldest annual marathon in our nation. It attracts runners from around the world and is the only marathon that requires the vast majority of participants to run a “qualifying” time in another marathon in order to earn a spot. It’s sort of like making the “All Star” team for runners. With the exception of the Super Bowl, the Boston Marathon is the biggest single day sporting event in the United States.
As my trip grew near, many people told me, “The city shuts down for the Boston Marathon.” Upon landing in Boston a few days prior to the race, I had to disagree. I think it’s more accurate to say, “The city comes ALIVE.” Bus advertisements, billboards, store window displays, street flags, even the card I used to get into my hotel room announced the arrival of the glorious event. On race day, over 500,000 spectators lined the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton into the city of Boston to cheer the runners on. It’s not just a race, it’s a party! Think Mardi Gras Parade, but with runners instead of floats.
As 30,000+ other runners and I made our way to the start line, the energy was indescribable. Signs, shirts, and body markings on runners around me revealed the different reasons people were running. I saw people running to fight Leukemia, Alzheimer's Disease, ALS and Human Trafficking, just to name a few. I didn’t have a t-shirt to proclaim my cause, but I was no less fervent in my mission. I took my first step past the line, whispered a soft, “This one’s for you, Daddy,” and settled in for the journey.
The sea of runners made its way through the streets finding a festival atmosphere with every step. Bands were playing, BBQ pits were lit, friends and families gathered in front yards along the course for this annual celebration. Spectators handed out just about anything a runner may or may not need – water, sport drink, fruit, popsicles, candy, sunblock, vaseline to soothe chaffed areas and even beer!
At the halfway point girls from Wellesley College formed a “scream tunnel,” their shrieks heard long before I could see the students themselves. For at least a quarter of a mile, there are hundreds of screaming girls waving signs inviting runners to “Kiss me, I’m ________(fill in the blank )” Oh, to be 19 again!
After Wellesley College the course got tougher. The Boston Marathon is known for it’s difficulty, including the Newton Hills – a series of four intense hills. They culminate with the infamous Heartbreak Hill at about mile 21, the point in a marathon where many runners are “hitting the wall.” As I made my way to the top of Heartbreak, I watched as it got the best of one gentleman in front of me. Discouraged, he shook his head, stared at the ground and slowed to a walk. He was immediately surrounded by zealous students from nearby Boston College shouting a demanding, yet playful, “RUN, RUN, RUN, RUN!”. They were relentless! They completely encircled him as he slowly made his way up the hill. Their shouts got louder and louder until he finally resumed running. This of course delighted the crowd, which erupted in cheers. There is no quitting in Boston!
The crowds grew thicker as the course brought runners back into the city. My competitors and I were no longer runners. For the last couple of miles, we were ROCKSTARS!! The screams and cheers from thousands of strangers felt like a tail wind pushing us toward the finish line. Right ahead of me, a man jumped in on the course and began to run beside a young woman. His face beaming with pride, he pointed at her, shouting to the crowd, “That’s my daughter!! That’s my daughter!!” My heart melted. What a precious moment. I sure wished my daddy could be with me, too.
As I passed the 25th mile marker, a fellow stood on a street corner playing a saxophone. Of all the songs he could have been playing… it was that song, “Sentimental Journey.” Suddenly, I wasn’t in Boston anymore. I was back in my old bedroom, a sleepy child nestled under the covers as Dad tucked me in and sang to me that sweet lullaby. I was in the front yard of my childhood country home running barefoot under the shade of the oak tree. I heard my parents playing the song on our piano, their voices singing in perfect harmony as the sound drifted out of an open living room window. I was in a reception hall, a new bride, being whisked around Fred Astaire style, the full skirt of my wedding dress swooshing across the floor as my father and I danced to this special melody.
I am not typically one to wear my heart on my sleeve, but there was no fighting the tears. I must have sobbed for at least a quarter of a mile. Dad’s running days are long behind him, but I felt him right beside me as I ran the final mile. And though my heart was full, I was weightless as I sprinted down Boylston Street toward the finish. I wiped my tears and crossed the finish line, 3 hours and 33 minutes after I started, a time which qualified me for the 2014 Boston Marathon. That was for you, Daddy.
Seconds after I finished, I received a text message from my husband, Craig. He was out on the course hoping to see me at mile 21 and then catch a train to see me at the finish line. Things did not go as planned. He completely missed me on the course. He was just boarding a subway back to Copely Square where I was waiting for him near the finish.
I made my way through the crowd, heading toward the designated family meeting area. I was about a block away from the finish line when I heard a disturbing sound, much like a cannon going off. Time stood still as everyone paused and tried to make sense of the noise. Then moments later…another boom. My mind entertained a multitude of possibilities within seconds. A new finish line tradition, perhaps? Celebratory noise? Maybe a generator blown? Or a car accident nearby? Bombs? Terrorist attack? In this post September 11 world, my eyes scanned the city skyline, almost expecting to see buildings crumbling or debris flying. I thought of my husband underground in the subway. What if…?? My mind quickly pushed away any thoughts of tragedy as I told myself, ”No…It can’t be. Not here. Not now.” I immediately tried to contact my husband, but my call wouldn’t go through.
I was standing near a police officer who had his radio to his ear. I listened for clues to what was happening. A young man asked the officer if he knew what the noises were. He replied, “I have no idea. All I can hear is ‘Help, Help!’ “ And he rushed toward the finish line.
I continued to try to contact Craig without any success. A sinking feeling started to settle in my stomach, something was terribly wrong. I ignored my fatigued legs, realizing I should get away from the area as fast as possible. I met up with a one of my teammates, a fellow runner, just as the police were pushing the crowds away from Copely Square. Returning to my hotel was not an option as it was right next to the explosions. Instead, we headed toward her place near Boston Common.
On our way there, I was able to communicate with my husband via text. He was still on the subway, stopped underground. The packed passengers assumed it was marathon traffic that slowed the system down. They had no idea of the tragedy unfolding right above them.
Thousands of marathoners and spectators relocated from the finish line to Boston Common. Yet despite the crowd, it was eerily quiet. People were in shock, walking slowly, looking around in a collective helplessness, as if to ask a silent question: “What just happened?” I watched as people scrolled down their smart phone screens , jaws dropping, followed by whispers of explosions, injuries…. bombs.
I finally reunited with Craig at Boston Common. We took shelter in my teammates apartment and watched in disbelief as the television images recounted the horrifying events of the day.
Late Monday night we were allowed to return to our hotel. We walked down Boylston Street, the scene vastly different than a few hours earlier. It seemed impossible that just that morning I was running down this same street, crossing the finish line in celebration. The jubilant crowds were replaced with police officers, firemen, and armed forces. News station vans and military vehicles lined the roads. We walked in silence and sadness, stepping over remnants of the post race party. Sports drink bottles and protein bar wrappers laid on the ground. Foil “race blankets” blew like tumble weeds in the wind. Crumpled signs that had cheered runners on lay abandoned in the street. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end.
As we packed up our bags and prepared for an early morning flight, Craig pulled a small piece of paper from his wallet – the subway ticket he had purchased earlier that day. He stared at intensely for several moments and began to explain. When he went into the subway station, he planned to get off at the station closest to Copely Square and walk through the finish line toward the family reunion area to meet me. At the last minute, he decided to try to avoid the crowds by going one station further down, past the finish line, and back track to meet me instead. The significance of the that split second decision wasn’t lost on us. Had he gotten off one station earlier, he would have been passing the finish line area right around the same time the bombs went off.
It’s still hard to wrap my mind around everything that happened in Boston. There are so many feelings to process. Initially, I felt shock and disbelief. It all just seemed unreal. Then, there were feelings of relief for our own safety, knowing how very lucky we were to be spared. I felt fortunate; not just for my own well being, but for the tremendous amount of love and support we received from everyone back home. Grief and sadness poured in as I began to hear the stories of those directly involved in the bombings. I was confused. What makes someone do this? It is incomprehensible to me how someone can have a heart so filled with hatred. I felt scared, for our future, for my children’s future. My sense of security was shaken. Could we lose our freedom and the way of life we love so much?
Then, I started to get angry. I was mad for the victims, for the city of Boston, for our country. I was mad for myself. How dare they attack something so very precious to me! Running is my sanctuary; a sacred place. Within the rhythm of my run, I hear God’s voice more clearly and I gain a greater awareness of my blessings. It’s where I visit who I have been, who I am now and who I want to be. It’s a place to redefine myself; to challenge not just my body, but also the beliefs about myself that keep me from realizing my God given potential. It’s a place to remember, to celebrate, to grieve. It’s where I’ve learned to let go of resentments and forgive those who have hurt me the most. And I suppose it is where I will learn to forgive the terrorists, too.
But they have desecrated my sanctuary.
I wish that I could say the experience has renewed my passion for running. But if I’m being completely honest, each time I’ve put on my running shoes since that day, my heart aches. I try to get into my familiar rhythm, but find that I am weighed down and sluggish. I stare at my running shoes and realize that, while I was so blessed to have been spared any physical harm, I still carry some of the burden from those attacks. It’s no wonder my feet feel heavy. And wasn’t that the purpose? Wasn’t the violence designed to scare me, to make me want to hide, to make me quit? Since April 15, my runs have been filled with memories of an amazing day that ended in tragedy.
The sounds of the bombs exploding, screams, sirens blaring, and helicopters flying overhead play through my mind. My run turns into a shuffle. I am tempted to stop, sit on the curb and cry. Despair tries to creep in. But in the background of my thoughts, there is a faint noise. A rhythmic chant, soft at first, grows increasingly louder, overtaking the sounds of terror. I am comforted and renewed as I hear the resounding cheers of the boys from Boston College – now the embodiment of the human spirit – shouting simply, “RUN, RUN, RUN, RUN!”
And so I do…..because there is no quitting in Boston.
(We would like to thank Anne Sagrera for sharing her story.)