The Internet is inundated with stories like this today, but since all day I’ve been thinking about all that went on a year ago today, I decided to go ahead and post my story, too. I don’t have any pictures in the post; none of Jordan’s turned out great, and I didn’t pay for the official course photos. The words will just have to speak for themselves.
The Boston Marathon is the most historic and iconic marathon in the U.S. Some runners train for years and years before they make it to Boston. Others qualify on the first try. But regardless of how they got there, all the runners are proud to be in Boston. On April 15, 2013, I was one of them. Like the other 20,000 people in Hopkinton that morning, I had trained hard to qualify, then trained for 18 weeks in preparation for this day.
As all the other runners and I milled around the fields behind Hopkinton High School, bodies wrapped in trash bags, old space blankets, and ratty sweatpants, nervous energy filled the air. We made small talk– Where are you from? This your first Boston? Your family here to watch? – as we waited anxiously for the storied marathon to begin. Little did we know that this year’s race would end like no Boston had before: in tragedy.
After a couple of long, chilly hours, the call for Wave 1 runners came over the loudspeakers. I shoved my jacket in my gear-check bag, tossed the bag to the volunteers in the baggage-transport school bus, made one last porta-john stop, and walk-jogged the three-quarters of a mile to the starting line. I was late – that last bathroom stop cost me – so I frantically peeled off my throwaway sweatshirt and pants, running to the start line in time to cross with the tail end of my wave. I’d missed the National Anthem, the starting pistol, and the elite start, but now I was here, running the famous Boston course with 26 miles to go.
I came to Boston with only one goal: to soak up the experience. I didn’t care if I set a new personal record; I didn’t want to push myself that hard and miss the one-of-a-kind experience that is the Boston Marathon. Starting the moment I crossed that starting line timing mat in Hopkinton, I ran with a big, goofy grin on my face. Everything started ideally. The weather was perfect – low 50s, mostly cloudy with occasional sun peeking through. I saw more spectators than I’d seen at any other race – they stood three deep in places. I chuckled at the signs they held (“If a marathon was easy, it’d be called your mom!”), high-fived hundreds of little kids, laughed and refused when a group of college boys offered me a Dixie cup of beer. I went out too fast thanks to all that energy, but I didn’t care. I had come to have fun, and I was having it.
At the half-way point, I hit the infamous “scream tunnel,” where the women of Wellesley College line the street, yelling, cheering, getting kisses from every male runner (and some females) who passes. I high-fived a girl holding a “Kiss Me, I’m a Ginger” sign who shouted, “Gingers unite!” when she spotted me. Then, before long, I was at mile 20, where the notorious “Hills of Newton” were said to begin. I turned to a runner next to me and asked, “When do the Newton Hills start?” He laughed and said, “You’re in ‘em!” My Colorado-trained legs and lungs didn’t even consider most of them hills…until I hit Heartbreak Hill at mile 21. It’s named Heartbreak for a reason: it’s hard. But screaming spectators packed the sides of the road, and their voices carried me up and over the hill. I hit a few more small-but-painful hills, and then started a glorious downhill stretch toward the finish line on Boylston.
I heard Boylston Street before I saw it, but I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw there. Spectators lined the street five deep, waving signs, cheering, blowing air horns. News cameras hovered over the finish line, projecting images of the finishers on a giant screen for all the spectators to see. I crossed the finish line in 3:24 and change, at about 1:30 p.m., with that same big grin still on my face. Helpful volunteers immediately greeted me. One draped a medal around my neck. One stopped me to make sure that my limp was just the typical post-marathon gimp and I didn’t need medical attention. Another shoved water and Gatorade in my hands, while still another wrapped my shivering shoulders in a space blanket. Along with a few hundred other runners, I shuffled along through the long finishing chute, gathering Clif bars and bananas. I heard my name and turned to see my husband and in-laws, waving and cheering. They’d struggled to get my attention, so the twenty or so people around them joined in the shouting until I finally heard. I waved, indicating that I’d meet them in the Family Reunion Area soon.
The finisher’s area was enormous, far larger than any other I’d seen. Of course, this race was far larger than any I’d run. I eventually found the school bus in which I’d checked my gear in Hopkinton and gratefully yanked out my jacket. Now that I wasn’t running, I was freezing, and the warm fleece was exactly what I needed. Then, I kept moving forward into the alphabetized Family Reunion Area, silently cursing myself for marrying a man whose last name started with “S.” I finally found the “S” sign and began scanning the crowd for Jordan and his family. I searched and searched but didn’t see them, and I wished desperately that I had checked my cell phone in my gear bag. Eventually, I hoisted myself up on a flowerbed (no painless feat, given my post-race soreness) and waited for them to find me. Finally, they did, and after a round of sweaty, shivery hugs, we headed off to catch a train and find some lunch.
At the subway station, I sponged down with WetWipes and changed clothes in the bathroom. Then, we caught a train to another part of town, where a burger and French fries awaited my growling belly. We decided to eat at Cheers, as it was close to where we got off the train and the wait was fairly short. As we waited in the lobby, I exchanged weary nods and smiles with the other Boston Marathon jacket-wearing patrons. Though those runners and I had never met before, we were now part of an exclusive club – a tired, sweaty, but accomplished club.
Finally, the hostess came out and told us we could be seated. She placed us at a table between two big-screen T.V.s, and what we saw on those screens made us drop our menus and stare. “Breaking News: Explosions at Marathon Finish Line” screamed the headline. Flashing lights and sprinting people filled the screen. We could barely hear the commentators, but we gathered that explosions had occurred just minutes earlier – probably while we were on the subway. The reporters weren’t sure yet what the source of the explosions was, nor did they know the extent of the injuries.
We stared at the T.V. in shock. We were just there.
We ordered our burgers, barely taking our eyes off the televisions. I suddenly realized that I needed to call my parents – I wanted them to hear from me that I was okay before they saw the explosions on the news. My phone had no signal in the restaurant, so I stepped outside. Reception there was not much better – practically every phone in Boston was in use, and the cell towers jammed. After several tries, I managed to get through to my mom. The connection was poor, but before I lost service again, I told her that there had been explosions and that I didn’t know any details, but Jordan, his parents, and I were safe.
I headed back into the restaurant, where my cheeseburger was waiting, and we all ate as quickly as possible, gazing apprehensively at the televisions all the while. As it turned out, we should have just taken our time: getting a cab back to the hotel was well-nigh impossible. We took refuge in the lobby of a Marriott, where there were clean bathrooms and a Starbuck’s, and the kind concierge there managed to get us a taxi, even though we weren’t her guests and she certainly didn’t have to help us. Finally, hours after I’d finished the race, we arrived back at the hotel. I took a much-needed shower, and Jordan and I spent the next few hours watching the news unfold, clinging to each other, answering the numerous phone calls and text messages that rolled in once the cell towers’ burdens lessened, worrying about whether or not our flight the next morning would be able to leave.
The flight did leave – on time, even – and before long, we were back in Denver, avoiding the vulture-like news crews hovering around the baggage claim. For the next several days, I watched the news in utter horror, seeing again and again the faces of those killed and the severed limbs of those who survived. My brain played the “what if” game, even though I tried to stop it: What if I’d run slower? What if my limp had been an injury, and I’d spent an hour in the medical tent at the finish line? What if I hadn’t been so cold and hungry, and we had stayed to watch more people finish? If any of those things had happened, we would have at the very least witnessed the bombings, and my family or I could have been among the dead and maimed.
But we weren’t there. We were safe in the subway, far from the finish, when the bombs went off. And someday, I will go back. Not this year, and maybe not next year, either. But someday, I will once again toe the line in Hopkinton. I’ll once again high-five through Wellesley and dig deep at Heartbreak Hill. And next time, when I make the turn onto Boylston, it will be with mixed emotions. I will mourn those who lost lives and limbs. I will mourn the loss of life – and running–as we knew it. I might even feel some fear. But all those emotions will be overpowered by thankfulness. I’ll be grateful to be there, to be running, to be among people who truly understand. And I will know then, as I know now, that we are stronger than terror. As runners, as spectators, and as Americans, we will always come back. And nothing will stop us.