Marathon Monday was spectacular that year. The weather was beautiful. Perfect running conditions.
I woke up early that morning, so excited, and was out on the course around mile 20 by nine, alone with Nik on the side of the road before the race even started. You see, my career had been the Boston Marathon for a few of the previous years, managing 150 runners who raised money for blood cancer research as part of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training. Did you ever have a job you loved with your whole heart? That was, in a lot but not all ways, the perfect fit? I cared passionately about the cause, loved my runners like little extensions of my family, and couldn’t get enough of marathon day. In the two years prior, I had fallen sick almost immediately after the race despite not having run myself, depleted from energy expended in the lead up and on Marathon Monday, from the stress of making sure everyone was okay. As a teenager, I remember a conversation with my parents who thought maybe a “helping profession” wasn’t the place for me. You get really invested, they recognized. It was true. TNT meant more to me than a job and cheering on our runners gave me a sense of inordinate and emotional pride. I left that job for a dozen reasons, really, but a big one was that level of commitment. We had experienced scares and tragedies that really, are bound to happen when you surround yourself with something like 300 runners over the course of a few years, and as someone too emotionally invested, it reached a point that felt like too much.
For that reason, April 15, 2013 felt like a tremendous relief and a homecoming. I had posted on Facebook that I’d be just past Centre Street in Newton on the right side. After the race started, and as purple jerseys started to reach the 20 mile mark, I was once again the proud mama, absolutely ecstatic when one of “my” runners passed. My goodness, you know a lot of people, a neighboring cheerleader remarked. I beamed. I gave hugs and high fives, ran in short little bursts, and cheered until my throat burned. There were a handful of people I kept an eye out for in particular: my sister’s boyfriend, a runner who was in the midst of cancer treatment but insisted on running the race, runners and colleagues who wore the Dana-Farber and Jimmy Fund singlet — the charity and hospital where I had settled into a new job. They passed, we cheered. It was perfect.
With my sister and some friends, we planned to meet a little while later to celebrate her boyfriend’s finish with margaritas and all-you-can-eat guac, and went separate ways. She headed to the finish line, while Nik, my aunt, and I went back to their apartment for a break in between. Get right in front of Marathon Sports, I told her. It’s the perfect spot to see him coming up Boylston. The Mass Pike from Newton into the city was wide open and I sat in the passenger seat chatting with Nik and Carol as we drove.
Woah, Nik commented, as we drove through the tunnel under Back Bay, approaching the exit for Copley Square. That’s a lot of cops. Close to a dozen police officers on motorcycles, sirens and lights blaring, drove up and around the exit at high speed. My phone rang almost immediately, Caitlyn sounding stricken on the other end, There was an explosion, she relayed. An explosion on Boylston Street. I was on my way to Marathon Sports, but I’m with Bigz we’re going to someone’s apartment on Arlington. I scrolled through my Facebook feed for updates, checked Boston.com, and turned on the radio, but it was still too early. No reports.
No reports until there were and they were horrible. Cell service dropped almost immediately. We arrived home to my aunt’s house and turned on the television to live shots showing utter destruction, shots that would never make live television except in catastrophe. It was surreal. I called a friend’s phone over and over, more than twenty times easy, going straight to voicemail. He was supposed to be with us, but decided to stay in town close to the finish line. His girlfriend called me to find out where we were. He’s not with me, I had to tell her. He wanted to watch the finish.
In the end, “everyone was okay”. In quotes. Okay. My family was unharmed. Team In Training’s athletes were alive. We breathed heavy sighs of relief. But, it’s so easy to see now that everyone was not okay. In this city, within our close-knit sport, everyone knew someone. Friends witnessed horrible, horrible things no one should ever see. A TNT alumni had her eardrums blown out, standing just feet from the bomb at Forum restaurant. The cancer patient I had cheered on and run with six miles earlier, his wife was in the grandstands and saw it all. Another alumni was a friend of Krystal Campbell, the priest who married us and has become a friend knew the Richards. There was this terrible, conflicted feeling of relief mixed with complete devastation.
Growing up so close to New York City, the September 11 bombings were so close to home we could see soot in the air, lost neighbors, and heard dozens of close-call stories. A guy on a smoke break. Someone who blew off work to go surfing, but didn’t tell his wife. Friends who were supposed to be in the towers at a music event. This felt like that, but even more, in a way I can only attribute to age and the feeling that it was a personal assault on my tribe. I had literally instructed my sister to go to Marathon Sports. Unwittingly, I had suggested she stand in the exact place a bomb would explode. Like so many, I was thoroughly shaken. What if is so unhealthy, but I had seen images, known fear, and like everyone, I think, was in shock.
Two years later, I don’t have a tidy, conclusive sentence to what I write here or where Boston or its running community is now. There’s the catch phrase Boston Strong, a deep sense of community, and perhaps a sense of belonging that wasn’t there before. Boston is a notoriously tough city in that regard. Insiders and outsiders, I mean. The events of two years ago brought us closer, yes, but there are still four people who died and hundreds maimed and broken. Their families. Their friends.
So, I guess, be a good person. Be optimistic. Love fully. Be honest. Say I love you. Give hugs. Pursue your dreams. Encourage others. Don’t hold grudges. Be kind. Let go. Run fast and free.