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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Sneak-preview: Chapter 23 of Ultramarathon Mom .............................................................................................................. Boston Marathon 2013: The Bombing

When I crossed the finish line in Boston, I was on cloud nine, but the primary emotion was that of relief because I could finally stop running. I was completely, physically empty. Like every other runner who’d just finished, I walked wearily forward and filtered into the mass of exhausted human beings as we wove our way farther up Boylston Street to be greeted and cared for by the B.A.A. volunteers. We first collected water and HeatSheet blankets. I was freezing by the time I’d gotten mine; it’s amazing how fast your body cools down. They were also handing out stickers to bind the front of the HeatSheets closed, but I didn’t have the energy or coordination to take it in my hand and stick it on, so I just stood there like a child and had one of the volunteers attach it for me. I wasn’t the only runner to do this, and a smile was all I could summon as thanks. Then we got our medals, a bottle of Gatorade, and a bag of food. The volunteers handing out these items were so friendly and were joking with us; they were clearly having a blast themselves. But several times I had to stop and bend over, holding onto my knees to rest. I knew I needed some energy in the form of food, but I was too spent to do anything more than stay in motion. The buses that held our bags full of clothing and personal items were still ahead, so I pulled my HeatSheet blanket as tight as I could around me and searched for yellow school bus #23. A few minutes later I’d found it and received my bag, then slipped behind the bus to put on some warm clothes. I peeled off my sweaty shirt and replaced it with a warm, dry, long-sleeved one, and a jacket. Another female runner who’d come back there with me saw me take off my shirt (of course I had a sports bra underneath) and said that she was too embarrassed to do that since there were so many people around. I told her it’s like giving birth…you’re so desperate you don’t give a damn how many people are in the room. She laughed and made a quick change.

From there I returned to the middle of Boylston because I needed to go back in the direction of the finish line to get to the runners’ exits. I was feeling better since I was now warm, and I was enjoying
watching the other runners, all of us sensing our mutual satisfaction and camaraderie. The atmosphere was charged with excitement, yet very controlled and peaceful. I didn’t want it to end.

And then in a moment it all suddenly changed.

There was a deafening noise. I looked up and saw a ball of white
smoke rising into the air on the right side of the road on the far
side of the finish line. Everyone around me stood still. My first
thought was that it was part of the event, a celebratory canon
shot or something. It didn’t really seem to make sense. It didn’t
fit in with the scene, in the atmosphere. I stood for a moment
to see what would happen next. But nothing did, so then all the
runners and I slowly began moving again; I was only able to take
another step or two before there was a second loud noise and
the accompanying smoke. But this time… I knew. And so did
everyone around me. The woman next to me said, “Oh, no. This
is not good.” We began to move faster in all directions. I took the
next street off of Boylston in the direction where I was supposed
to exit and meet my family. It was only a matter of a minute or
two before the sirens began; ambulances were being brought into
the area, one right after the other. There were still thousands of
runners trying to get to the exits, and the police were urging us to
the sides of the roads so that the ambulances could get through.
And they were coming at unbelievable speeds. I was trying to
push back against the crowds so as not to get hit by one of the
rescue vehicles flying through. Panic began to spread rapidly. I
was exhausted and began to get scared. Tears welled in my eyes,
and I was shaking. When I finally got to the runner’s exit, there
were men there who were telling us to get back. To go the other
way. But I knew that I was supposed to meet my aunt and father
just around the corner. I didn’t want to go the other way.
I wasn’t sure what to do, but then decided to take the risk and
moved forward, despite the warnings; I squeezed myself through
the metal barriers. When I was outside of the runner’s-only area, I
began to see spectators and families. There were parents running
down the street with small kids tucked under their arms. I felt a
brief wave of relief that my kids, for once, weren’t there. I also
noticed many people who had no idea that there was something
wrong. More than a block behind Boylston, they had probably
not seen or heard anything. When some of them looked at me and
saw the fear in my face along with the screaming ambulances,
they knew something wasn’t right. I tried to cover my face; I
didn’t want to scare anyone since I wasn’t at all sure what was
going on. Maybe (hopefully) it was nothing? But I was just so
exhausted after the race that I couldn’t help but let my emotions
out. I finally made it to the place where I’d planned to meet my
dad and aunt—under the large letter M. But they weren’t there.
Now I was really scared. What if something happened to them?
And where do I go now?

I took out my phone and tried to call my aunt Cathy, but the call
didn’t go through. I checked my messages, and she had sent me a
text, but it didn’t make any sense to me. Later that night I recalled
the text on my phone; it read: “I’m at the m sign on corner.” How
could I not have understood that? But my mind couldn’t process
anything; my cell phone felt burdensomely heavy and looked to
me like a strange device that I couldn’t even begin to understand.
Then, finally, after what seemed like an eternity but was probably
only a minute or two, I heard someone calling my name. It was
Cathy. She had briefly gone to look for me. I was so relieved. I
pretty much fell into her arms. My dad was right behind her.
I said, “We have to get out of here,” and we started walking in
the direction of Copley Plaza. Cathy practically had to carry me
the first couple of blocks; I was so completely drained. My poor
father was struggling behind us. I knew I needed to call home and
let them know I was safe. So at the next corner we stopped for a
second, and I called Frank. Thankfully the call went through, and
it was a panacea to hear his calm voice answer on the other end
of the line. I said in a panic, “I’m ok! I’m ok!” but at that point
he hadn’t heard any of the news yet, and he didn’t know what I
was talking about, but then he heard the sirens and mayhem in the
background of my call, and he knew that something was wrong.
I told him what I knew and promised I’d call him again shortly
since we had to keep moving; we just wanted to get away. Cathy’s
car was parked in the garage under the Copley Plaza Mall on
Boylston. We couldn’t get to it from Bolyston because the roads
were now closed off, so we thought maybe we could get there via
the glass overpass one block away. The ambulances were starting
to line up, and the police vehicles kept coming in, every make
of vehicle from Hummers to full-size pick-ups, suited up with
flashing lights behind the grill.

Once we finally made it into the Copley Plaza Mall, I began to
feel better. Safer. It was quiet. We found a bench, and I finally
got to sit down for the first time since finishing the race, almost
an hour earlier. But sadly there were other runners in there who
hadn’t been able to finish. The mall was on Boylston about a
quarter mile from the finish line, and some of them were stopped
right outside and went in there for safety. They didn’t have any
warm clothes, or water, or food. I gave my foil HeatSheet to a
woman in a tank top and shorts who told me she was stopped a
half mile from the finish. Others were given tablecloths from one
of the restaurants and had themselves wrapped up in those. People
were walking around with blank stares, texting their friends and
loved ones since the cell phone network had since been shut down
(apparently for fear of a triggered explosion).

We then learned that we were under lockdown. No one else
allowed in the building and no one out. We had to “ask” to go to the
bathroom. There was a bank or an electronics shop (can’t remember
which) in the mall, which was closed, but had a television that we
could see through the glass storefront with CNN reporting live
about the events in Boston. We were getting our information from
that and from our friends who were texting us about what was
going on from Internet or other news sources.

Then we got the news in a text from Frank: Two dead. Forty injured.
That was the first mention I’d heard about casualties. Oh, Lord.

My aunt Cathy looked at me seriously and said, “You know, we are
sitting here under the tallest building in Boston.” A perfect target.
“Maybe we should get out of here,” I replied. And that was
timely, too. Since, just then, after about an hour and a half of
lockdown, we were told that they were evacuating the building.
We had to leave. But where to? There were no trains or buses. We
didn’t want Lou, Cathy’s husband to come get us, because, really,
we weren’t sure how safe it was downtown. So we just headed
out and away. We kept walking and decided to try to flag down
a taxi or maybe hitch a ride. But of course, every taxi that went
by was already occupied. Plus, most of the streets where we were
had already been closed to public traffic and were cordoned off by
police with flashing lights. The undercover police cars were still
coming in at a constant rate, and this was about three hours after
the explosions. Where were they all coming from?

My poor father, at 70 years old and with weak lungs, kept having
to take short breaks. But it’s amazing what the human body can
endure under such circumstances. After walking for a while, we
came across a bench, and my father sat down. It was then that
Cathy spied a taxi at the next intersection that was empty. She
hailed him and had to do some wrangling to get him to take us
to Winchester—normally a 10-minute drive, but under those
circumstances it would be about an hour. We climbed into the
cab and breathed a sigh of relief. There were road closures and
detours, but we didn’t care; we knew it was over for us. We
listened to the radio in the taxi, and there was news of an incident
at the JFK Library in Dorchester. Another explosion? They
weren’t sure.

I then realized that the small toe on my left foot hurt, so I took off
my shoe to find a fat blood blister. Hard to believe how I did not
feel that until four hours after finishing a race. Just goes to show
how powerful the mind is.

All in all, I was one of the lucky ones that day to have come home
safe and without injury (except for a meager blood blister), and
I’m grateful that my father and aunt who were there to watch me
finish were also not hurt, though my dad had been in the vicinity
of the explosions but on the opposite side of the street just minutes
before. My heart breaks for those who were injured or killed and
for their families and loved ones. And quite naturally I carry some
guilty feelings—running is a very selfish sport, and most of those
injured were there to watch us, to cheer us on. My sympathies
are also with the B.A.A. and the volunteers who organized and
implemented such an enormous event that flowed with perfection
and was simply meant for the enjoyment of not only the runners,
but also the spectators, volunteers, and the entire city of Boston.
After seeing the quick reaction of the medical workers, hearing
about runners donating blood, and all the outpouring of support
for those injured, I know that for every ignorant, self-serving,
hate-filled human being, there are thousands upon thousands of
good, loving, helpful, and wonderful souls.
I know that I will always carry memories of that day with me—
good and bad. Although before the race I said it would be my oneand-
only Boston, I’ve since changed my mind. I know that I’ll
be back to run the Boston Marathon again, an opinion probably
shared by most of the runners on April 15, 2013.

Yes, Boston is strong.

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