This was my tenth year running the Boston Marathon. After I first ran the Marathon in 2001, I swore I’d be back as long as I could qualify. The excitement in Boston is palpable during the weekend leading up to Marathon Monday- signs at the airport welcome runners; thousands of runners, decked in the official Boston Marathon jacket (usually from the first year they ran the race) mill about the city, eager to engage in conversation with other runners. Stores and restaurants offer discounts for runners, sell Boston Marathon paraphernalia, and are usually packed with crowds. The Marathon itself is an almost indescribable, magical experience, from Athlete’s Village where runners prepare for the race, to the city of Hopkinton seeing off the close to 30,000 runners on their 26.2 mile route to Boston, to the wall-to-wall crowds lining every single inch of the course. Running down Boylston Street towards the finish line, the crowds are deafening and for a few fleeting moments, runners feel like rock stars, crossing one of the most storied and revered finish lines in history.
When I first started running the marathon, I went by myself and knew no one else running the race. My mother used to worry about me being on my own, but I always reassured her that I was there with tens of thousands of my closest friends. Over the years, I’ve met so many inspiring and interesting people during my trips to Boston. The 76-year old man running his 67th marathon. The father running for a charity in honor of his brain-damaged daughter. The mobility-impaired athletes. Dick Hoyt, a father who pushes his son, Rick Hoyt, afflicted with cerebral palsy, the entire course of the marathon. I have kept in touch with many people I met in Boston- complete strangers who became friends through the experience of running a marathon.
Julie and Lisa with Dick Hoyt
Even when I traveled to Boston by myself, I always knew that if I needed anything, I could find someone willing to help. Case in point: after running the Marathon a few years ago, I was on my way back to the airport on a crowded T (Boston’s subway) when I fainted. No less than 20 people- runners, friends/family of runners and Boston residents- stepped up to help me, offering me food and drink, making sure I was ok, and even accompanying me all the way to the airport to make sure I arrived safely.
Lately, I travel to Boston with a pretty large group of people I know running the race, and look forward to visiting with friends and family members who live in the city. My dear friend and co-coach Julie and I look forward to our Boston Marathon girls weekends, exploring the Expo and the City, and spending Saturday night together in a hotel, staying up late (ok, late for runners) into the night talking. Every year when my Marathon weekend is over, I get a little depressed that I’ll have to wait another entire year before I get to do it again.
Lisa and Julie at the Expo
This year Boston meant the same traditions, and I tried to live in the moment, knowing the weekend would go by all too quickly. Race day dawned cold- a welcome change from last year’s 90-degree day- but sunny. Because of a hamstring strain I took the race a little slower this year, making efforts to take in all of the sights and sounds that make the Marathon so special: high-fiving the kids lining the course, the “scream tunnel” through Wellesley, the famous Citgo sign that signals you’re close (but not THAT close) to the finish, thanking volunteers and spectators cheering us the entire 26.2 miles to Boston. I was so grateful for support from cousins who came out to the start line to see me off and friends who waited for me in Newton with a “Go Lisa” sign.
After crossing the finish line, I hobbled through the mass of runners waiting for water, mylar blankets, food and, of course, the Boston Marathon medal. For a fleeting moment during that process, I realized how vulnerable we were. Thousands of runners, log jammed, surrounded by metal barriers (to keep spectators out of the finish area). One runner next me joked that we should start mooing because we were like cattle. What- I wondered- would we do if there was an emergency? I pictured a stampede and confusion but quickly pushed the thought out of my mind as I headed the two blocks down the street and off to a side street on the right to retrieve the bag I had dropped off at the start line.
Bag in hand, and changed into dry clothes, I headed to meet friends from our local running club at a restaurant behind the luggage busses. I spent about an hour and a half there as we welcomed each runner as they entered the restaurant. Julie had started two waves (40 minutes) after me so I eagerly tracked her status on my phone and waited for her to finish. I thought about trying to make it back out to the finish line to watch for her, but knew that it would be hard to do that between the crowds in the finish area and my own physical inability to move very far. Instead, I waited for her to arrive before heading back to my hotel to shower and get to the airport. I left at about 2:55, less than 10 minutes after the explosions, which we did not feel in the restaurant.
When I got outside, I saw the first ambulance arrive in the finish area, sirens blaring and lights flashing. It didn’t surprise me, and I assumed that a runner was injured in one of the medical tents. My father then called me on my phone to ask me about the race, and as we spoke I saw more emergency vehicles arrive: two fire trucks, four police cars, then another two ambulances. My dad and I remarked on the noise and wondered why there were so many trucks headed to the finish. When I got off the phone with him, as I made my way to my hotel (opposite direction from the finish line), I started to hear comments about explosions and injuries.
At first, there was a lot of confusion: was there one explosion or more? Was it something benign (like a generator, which is what I had assumed) or more sinister? Were there injuries? Where exactly did it happen? There was no panic, but I think that’s because no one knew exactly what was happening. The news was trickling out of the finish line area and out towards the side streets via word of mouth and phones. Knowing I had spoken to my husband, father and sister, I called my mom to let her know that I was OK and she turned on the TV to the very beginning of coverage. It was then that I realized this was something much worse than a small explosion. By the time I tried to call my husband, cell reception was down but luckily texts and email were still able to go through. My phone started exploding with texts from concerned family and friends as I tried to make my way back to the hotel. Eventually, I showered and made my way back to the airport (via the T, which was still operating outside of downtown) with a woman I met at the hotel. Despite rumors that air travel had been held, my flight took off about 40 minutes late. At the airport I met a woman who had just crossed the finish line when the explosion occurred, a woman whose fiancé was 200 meters from the finish when it happened, and others who witnessed the blast firsthand. They all asked the same question: “what if.” What if the woman stopped to give a few extra high fives and finished 15 seconds later? What if the fiancé ran a little faster?
I had such mixed feelings about leaving Boston. On the one hand, all I wanted to do was get home and hug my family. Part of me, though, wanted to stay and support Boston, the runners, and their friends and family. I hated leaving Boston on such a sad note.
The past 36 hours have been a mix of emotions and sorting through so many thoughts. I am devastated for the victims and their families and friends. I am grateful to be home with my family, and that my children were not there to experience this tragedy. I am sad for the runners whose Boston experience was marred by an act of senseless violence. My heart goes out to the City of Boston and all of its residents who open their arms to the runners every year. I am angry that someone would take an opportunity to target defenseless runners and the families, friends and even strangers who came out to support them.
At the end of the day, though, my belief in the goodness of people, and the running community in particular, prevails. The people of Boston, and the runners and their friends and families who come to Boston during Marathon weekend, will continue to help each other and demonstrate the kindness, compassion and warmth I have come to admire so much over the years. I look forward to returning to Boston, hopefully with my family, in the future.