Last year, Gayle Shimokaji and Michelle Hermiston told me about a challenge they did called B2B – Boston to Big Sur: 2 marathons, on 2 coasts, in 13 days. Finishers received a cool jacket and medal upon completion. I love bling, so I was ready to sign up. Problem was, I had never qualified for Boston. With the help of Kees Tuinzing and others, I BQ’d at the Santa Rosa Marathon with 10 minutes to spare.
Fast forward to April 15th. I was already sweating before the race began – the combination of a cold and a bad stomach. This was on top of a shin splint that had severely compromised my training for the last three weeks. I thought I still might be able to push myself through to a PR, but my body said otherwise.
Starting from mile 2, things didn’t feel right but I tried to keep at it. By mile 7, the wheels were falling off and by mile 8, the engine, exhaust and steering wheel were gone as well.
The good thing about this was that I got to experience the crowds at Boston up close and personal.
A fit guy in front of me slowed down to walk then the crowd lovingly yelled – “Suck it up dude! Keep running!” Well then, guess I won’t walk here. I slowed to a snail’s pace and decided to walk through the aid stations. At least then I wouldn’t look too conspicuous.
My legs repeatedly cramped up, causing me to pull over to the sidelines to stretch. I confess that at this point, I was completely self-absorbed in my own personal disappointment. I realize now how selfish that sounds given what happened at Boston.
The crowds were compassionate and supportive when I winced in pain. People asked if I was okay. They offered me encouragement – “You’re almost there! You’re looking good!” Even though I wasn’t. A kid reached out to give me a high five. And then, another. There were at least 15 others in front of me, all with their arms stretched out – cheering, smiling, waiting for their high-five. They were treating me like I was somebody special – their mom, their friend, Shalane Flanagan. But it was just me, hobbling along on at 4+ hour pace.
The closer I got to the finish, the louder the crowds became. My ears were buzzing from the noise. People were squeezing in to get a view – six to ten deep, on the sidewalks, on the houses, on the roofs.
I was just about to make the last turn to enter Boylston Street for the final stretch when I heard a loud explosion. My gut filled with dread.
Somebody in the crowd yelled, “Hey, they’re shooting off cannons for you guys!” A runner behind me said, “Why would they be shooting off cannons for us slow people?” I agreed. There was a group of police in front of me. I studied their faces – if they looked concerned, then I would be too, as I knew I was running towards whatever the sound was. Then the second explosion. The crowd that had seconds ago been deafening was now silent.
The police pressed their fingers to their ears, listening to their earphones. Then they ran in front of us and stopped us. I had been in a mall shooting before and the same feeling welled up – please don’t let this end in tragedy; please let everything be okay.
I immediately reached for my phone and called my husband Dominic who was waiting in our hotel. I will never forget the sound of his voice as he said, “Thank God you are okay.” We agreed he would wait for me in the hotel. I then shot a quick email to my fellow runners back home which said, “…we have just been stopped on the course by police. Two explosions. Police everywhere. Doesn’t look good. I’m waiting at mile 25.5. Will let u know.”
Then the police told us, “The race is cancelled. You need to leave. Now.”
A woman next to me burst into tears. She told me she was worried about her two kids as they were at the finish line and she couldn’t reach them. The cell phone network was now overloaded and no one could make calls. Many others began to cry.
The streets were filling with police – on foot, on bikes, in cars – rushing to Boylston Street. Spectators and runners walked the opposite direction.
A finisher with a mylar blanket saw me and another non-finisher and handed us her blanket and told us to share it. We cuddled up like sisters, bonded in this moment of vulnerability. We walked together until we found the gear buses, then separated. I don’t remember her name.
When I finally made it to the hotel, I fell into my husband’s arms. Not a minute later, there was a knock on the door – we were being evacuated.
We found a cafe and I was relieved to finally sit down, still hungry and thirsty. Dominic was paying the cashier when a policeman rushed in and told us everyone needed to leave immediately.
Adrenaline surged again. We found a bar in a residential area and waited there for three hours until it was safe to return. But it didn’t feel very safe when we were told we needed a police escort to enter the hotel. We passed FBI agents with big briefcases, people in HazMat suits, lots of unmarked black SUVs, and armored trucks. Not exactly a comforting sight in front of your hotel.
At the airport the next morning, many travelers wore the distinctive blue and yellow Boston Marathon jacket. Security asked us if we had seen anything unusual; anything out of the ordinary. The conversation was very serious, but at the end, the agent gently smiled and said, “I hope you come back to Boston. We’d love to have you here again.”
I feel a sense of guilt that the spectators that were injured or died were out cheering for anonymous runners like me. We were all treated the same by the crowd – fast or slow, family or stranger – they lifted us with their goodwill.
I qualified again for Boston when I ran Big Sur on April 28th, completing the Boston to Big Sur Challenge. I ran Big Sur with the memories of Boston in my heart. It propelled me through the nearly 2000 foot total elevation gain, the pounding of the down hills, and the fierce headwinds that pummeled us in sections. Just as I was about to cross the finish line, my husband yelled to me, “Dig deep!” I hurt so much, but the pain was my redemption. I crossed in 3:43:29, almost 40 minutes faster than what I would have done if I would have finished Boston 13 days earlier. My pain was nothing compared to those who lost a loved one, or those who were harmed physically or emotionally. But I needed the hurt to help me heal.
There is a group of us already planning for our trip to Boston next year. No matter how fast or slow I run, when I reach mile 25.5 again, my heart will be bursting with gratitude. And when I officially finish my first Boston, it will be a memory to last a lifetime.