There were any number of times that I thought I wouldn’t be able to finish the Boston Marathon (my first). Monday was not one of those days.
It was a perfect day to run. I remember marveling several times during the day just how lovely it felt to be outside. To be running. To be a part of all this for the first time.
I was running for 4,000 kids at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester. I was also running for myself — to prove to myself that I could train that long and that hard, that I could run that long and that hard, that I could raise the money the Boys and Girls Clubs so desperately need. To prove it all was possible.
But I was running injured. Five weeks ago I was sidelined, for the second time, by shin splints, and had already faced down the very real possibility that my legs literally would not hold me for 26.2 miles. I didn’t know that I could finish, but I sure as hell was going to start.
And I did. Once I knew my legs would hold, I also knew I would — could — finish. And I felt so grateful. I was grateful to be running. Grateful to be so miraculously pain-free. Grateful to be with so many people running for others. I remember tearing up in the starting corral looking at the messages and names written and sewn on to the backs of so many runners in front of me. Names in marker, on ribbons, taped on — people carrying their inspiration with them, literally, on their backs.
We were only stopped for a few minutes, before the crowd of runners surged forward. One step, two steps, legs holding, moving forward. The crowd dropped down and to the right, and then there I was, crossing the start. I was slow — very slow — still testing my shins, still finding the gait and foot strike that would keep my shins from barking. And just like that, there was the Mile 1 marker, and with it my husband and running partner. He was meeting me there to join me for the rest of the race, entering the course as a “bandit” and sticking with me stride-for-stride. I remember clapping my hands together in excitement when I saw him. Excited to have made it a mile in what felt like no time, excited that our plan to meet worked, excited that he hadn’t been stopped. Excited to know that, whatever the race brought, we’d face it together.
And so we ran. Slow and steady, each of us tending to injuries that half a year of training had wrought. For him, a tender calf, knee, and back. For me, my shins and left heel. But no matter how fast, 90 steps a minute, a beat kept relentlessly by the music in our ears. Everlasting Light. Bad Moon Rising. 16 Military Wives.
We had such fun on the course. We’d start dancing to the music we were listening to, calling out lyrics so that the other would know what we were hearing. Singing the songs Tom had obligated himself to sing as part of fundraising. High-fiving all the kids who had their hands outstretched, hoping runners would brush their hands as we ran by.
I remember being too far away from one little boy to get his hand, as I passed by I heard him say aloud, “Anyone?” And so I stopped, turned around and ran back, gave him a high-five, and thanked him for being there.
I remember seeing the signs as we moved from Hopkinton to Ashland. Then Framingham. Natick. I remember crossing the rubber bumps at the 10K mark that I knew would finally send an alert to those tracking us that we’d made it that far. I also knew that was the sign that Tom and I could open up our run a bit, as we’d successfully managed the first 6 miles conservatively, which meant we’d have a lot left in the tank when we needed it on the hills of Wellesley and Newton.
Mile 10: Look left, my coworker Brian said. Red house. And there he was, grilling in his front yard. Bear hug at the ready.
And on we ran. Time flew, it really did. We hit the half-marathon mark feeling strong, and relatively pain-free. We knew we were running slow — easily 2 minutes a mile off our uninjured pace. But we also felt like we had a ton of energy left. Plenty to make it the rest of the way. It was easy. It hurt like hell, but it was easy. “Run easy, run easy,” rang the mantra in my head.
We were slow enough that the water stops began to be staffed with fewer and fewer people. Volunteers that had been handing out cups were now using rakes and snow shovels to clear the streets. We were at the back of the race, but still running. Still doing it.
Mile 15: our coach, mentor, and guiding light, Rick Muhr, reminding us that once we hit the Newton firehouse, we were in single digits the rest of the way. Mile 15.5: my parents and cousin, waiting with teary eyes and pain-relief spray
Mile 17: the firehouse. Single digits left to go. Just past, kids from the Boys and Girls clubs cheering on “their” runners.
Mile 18: home turf, the route Tom and I had run week after week with the Marathon Coalition. The mid-century modern house on the left. Country club on the right. Hills we’d run over and over again to remove their sting, their power. We crossed the rubber bumpers at the 30K mark. One more alert out to our trackers.
At 2:55 pm. Five minutes after the bombs went off.
The motorcycle cops started driving the course around then. I remember thinking it was odd, because there was no warning, they were just suddenly on the course, but it was my first marathon, we were clearly the tail end of runners, and I figured it was part of them getting ready to reopen the streets. Though, even then, I was thinking that we weren’t that far behind, and that they didn’t close the course until six hours after the last official runner started. We’d be on the line, but we’d make it, I thought.
We were almost at Heartbreak. We hurt, but we had plenty of energy. Just crest the hill, and it would all, literally, be down hill from there. Down into Cleveland Circle, past the supermarket, Washington Square, Coolidge Corner to see Chel (and Case, FaceTimed in from Maryland) and Trish, Brookline Holiday Inn on the left (three miles to go from there), Audobon Circle, the windy bridge over the Pike, past the Hotel Buckminster and the shadow of the Citgo sign, one mile left, past the Braemore, under the Storrow underpass, jog to the left to go under Mass. Ave., then in a series of turns I’d run dozens of times by now, Right on Hereford, Left on Boylston. Hynes Convention Center. Apple Store. Mandarin Oriental. Lord & Taylor. The Lenox. Marathon Sports. FINISH.
Get to the top of this hill, I knew, and we were home free.
But somewhere between Mile 19 and 20, Tom cut in front of me, saying, “We have to stop, we have to stop. Something’s going on.” Tom said he’d looked up and suddenly there weren’t any runners in front of us. That was wrong. We’d had runners in front of us all day. He took out his earphones and kept hearing “bomb bomb bomb bomb” all around him, as word spread from fans and volunteers to us on the course.
We were both running with our phones with us, and on, in case we weren’t able to meet up at Mile 1. Phones out, phones on…and all the messages asking if we were okay. Race officials telling us to get out of the road and onto the carriage path where’d we’d trained for weeks. The carriage road was for training. The road road was for racing. Something was definitely wrong.
We walked and ran to the corner of Comm. Ave. and Centre Street, Mile 20, the base of Heartbreak. Two friends there to meet us. But I’ll remember their faces forever. That’s when it was first real. Almost. “Have you heard?” they said. “Yes.” The father of my sons was the first call through, his voice like I’ve never heard it. Fear. Relief. “I’m okay. We’re okay. We’re six miles out.”
It’s amazing how much we knew, and how quickly. We knew there were bombs. We heard car bombs at first. But we knew they were at the finish. We knew they were in front of Marathon Sports, where we’d been Saturday picking up last-minute gear for the run. Where I’d bought every pair of shoes I’d worn in training. The place with its windows blown out now. Destruction out front. There were a million thoughts in my head at once:
Were my boys there to surprise me at the finish? No? Thank god.
Where were my parents, who were supposed to be eating lunch at L’Espalier, almost directly across the street from where the second bomb went off? Lunch cancelled because we were so off-pace.
The information was jumbled, too. At first volunteers told us to keep running, that they’d reroute us to a different finish. But fewer than five minutes later, we were stopped for the final time, “We Are Young” on my iPod. They diverted us to the next aid station, and told us they were stopping the race. It was bad on Boylston.
“I don’t understand.” I kept saying. I must have said that a hundred times. “Why would they do that? Why would they bomb the marathon? Who would do that? I don’t understand.”
And the worst part: just about the only people crossing the finish line four hours in are the charity runners, and the older qualifiers. The people in my corral at the start of the race. People I saw, and started with. Tsugumi, a colleague of my ex-husband’s, running for Children’s Hospital, hoping to qualify for her next Boston. Pam, the 52-year-old qualifier who sat next to me on the bus to Hopkinton, who didn’t want to know about the course, as not knowing made the miles fly quicker.
Tsugumi crossed 10 minutes before the bombs, missing her qualifying time by under a minute. I don’t know what happened to Pam.
So we stopped at the aid station. We took the mylar blankets we would have gotten at the finish line, but six miles too early. I sat on the curb and cried.
I remember the flow of cars that started steadily coming down the carriage road. People fleeing the city in a steady, gruesome stream, passing just past my toes.
Not moving was driving me crazy. We were caught halfway up Heartbreak Hill, my GPS watch stopped — now, for good — at 20.45 miles. I wanted to walk home, but knew it was best to stay off the road. We headed back down the hill, back down to Devon and Sam who had met us at Centre Street, hoping they could get us home, or at least take us in if the city were locked down. But we were turned away again because of suspicious package in the intersection.
More reports: More devices found. Stay away from trash cans. Marathon cancelled. City locked down. Cell service off to prevent more detonations.
We turned off Comm. Ave., and started to walk parallel to it, trying to get back to Devon and Sam. A white van pulled up — a medical van for the Marathon — picking up the dispersed runners, getting us warm, handing us water, Gatorade, Stella d’Oro Breakfast Treats cookies. Chips.
After a stop to consolidate the refugees, we got on a schoolbus that took us to the Newton War Memorial, which we’d passed earlier on our run. We checked in as we entered. Name. Address. Telephone number. They gave us more water. Answered what questions they could. Someone passed around oatmeal raisin cookies. We called my cousin who had seen us at Glen Road, who came to pick us up and drive us home. We signed out like we signed in. Name. Bib number.
We found my parents at their hotel, just a half block from our apartment. We ran into a finisher in the elevator, medal around her neck, cleaned up and dressed for an evening of celebration.
“Did you finish?” She asked us.
“I’m so sorry.”
We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant, still in our running clothes. Still in shock. Still not processing what had happened, but operating as if we had. Eating a meal that should have been a celebration, but felt more like a wake. Wine and martinis as recovery drinks. Hamburger. Shrimp with risotto. Home. Bed. Sleep.
We went to pick up my abandoned bag the next morning. Testing our abused bodies slowly. Shins okay. Back stiff. Hips on fire. But alive. Moving. Grateful.
We walked in the sun in the chilly air, even walking the long way around the Four Seasons to St. James Street to feel the warmth. I remember passing other runners with their reclaimed yellow bags in their arms, across their backs. A different kind of solidarity than in the days before. We were the ones that didn’t finish — couldn’t finish. Our bags left on lonely buses beyond the Finish Line that was now a crime scene.
As I walked up, I saw the volunteers hand someone their bag…and a finisher’s medal. And I started to cry again. The volunteer put it around the runner’s neck. “Congratulations.”
I got my bag, and our medal. I saw a photographer trying to get a shot. I turned away, and put the medal in my pocket.
I didn’t finish. We didn’t finish. The medal feels like it’s not really mine. I didn’t do what I pledged to do for 4,000 kids. I said I would do a thing and I haven’t done it.
The rational part of my brain tells me it’s like a rain-shortened baseball game. The winner is still the winner, even if they only played six innings. I can tell myself that this marathon, like those games, wasn’t based on distance, it was based on time. The time was up, and we ran as far as we could in the time we had. And I guess that’s what I’m left with: we all, every one of us, can only run as far and as well as we can in the time we have. Every step is precious. Every minute is. Every breath.
But I’m still struggling with the fact that none of this is over. We don’t know what happened. Or why. That marathon isn’t over. My marathon isn’t over. The reason I ran — those 4,000 kids — is still there. They need us, me, more than ever. They need to believe in possibility. And I haven’t shown it to them yet.
For those hurt and maimed at the finish line, and those who loved them, their marathon is only beginning. And it must be so, so hard to see possibility in any of this.
But I do. I will.
I. Will. Run.
I will run those last six miles, and I will run the whole damn thing again. Because that’s what I said I’d do. I said I’d show the power of possibility. And this is what’s possible:
It’s possible to never run at all two years ago and then run the Boston Freakin’ Marathon.
It’s possible to get hurt. Twice. So bad you had to stop running entirely. Twice. And still run the Boston Marathon.
It’s possible to raise more money than you every thought you could.
It’s possible to run when you don’t think your legs will hold you up.
It’s possible to run without a number.
It’s possible to get halfway up Heartbreak Hill and know – know – that you can finish.
It’s possible to be told you have to stop and know – know — that you will still finish it. Someday.
It’s possible to have your beloved city brought to its knees…and get right back up, swinging.
It’s possible to be lifted up by those around you, to let them be your strength for a little while.
It’s possible to be 39 years old and still so glad to see your Mom and Dad after the end of a really, really hard day, and to feel solace like no other in their tears and hugs.
It’s possible to be strong for your sons who don’t know you didn’t finish, and are just glad to find your name on a poster, and who love you anyway, because you’re Mama, and you’re home.
It’s possible to find yourself part of a community of runners, when you didn’t think you were one.
It’s possible to be part of a community of friends, most of whom you haven’t met, who will follow you on your crazy quest, and worry about you when it’s cut short.
It’s possible to feel gratitude even in the darkest times.
It’s possible to train for 26 weeks. To run over 570 miles. To be just six miles short of the end. And know you’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
Because it’s possible.
That’s my marathon. And I’m still running it. We all are.