Standing there with my medal around my neck, a great sense of accomplishment fell over me. I’d just finished my first Boston Marathon, renowned as one of the hardest marathons in the world. What happened next was something I’ll never forget.
I started running in the spring of 2012. I grew up playing sports and always considered myself to be somewhat of an athlete. That continued past university when I found myself playing ultimate frisbee a few times a week with my wife and friends. However, that changed when we had our two amazing boys, now 4 and 6. When they came along, it was not only hard to get to games but downright impossible. I stopped playing, and for about 3 years, the only exercise I was getting was in the wintertime, once a week, with my men’s hockey team. However, in the summer, you could have called me a slug and I would have agreed.
I decided I would start to run, although running for the sake of running was always something that perplexed me. I’d said to people numerous times that “running for the sake of running was just down right stupid”. However, I needed to get active so I thought I’d give running a try as I could do it whenever I wanted and I could make the sport fit my schedule. Who would have known 13 months later I’d be running the Boston Marathon.
I started to run 2-3 times a week, not far, and not fast. I began to enjoy the time to myself, and started to think that maybe I could train to do a half marathon. That seemed like a worthy and noble quest. However, within a few months I was approaching being able to run that distance and thought, well, now what? It was at that point I decided to train for my first marathon instead of the half. I trained, and completed the Toronto Waterfront Marathon last October. While it wasn’t easy, I did it. With the assistance of a coach who helped me along the way, I reached my goal and crossed that finish line. As I did, I told myself I’d never do it again. However, within a couple of days and after the muscle pain went away, I knew I’d be back.
After a short break, I started training for my next run – Boston. I’d received an invitation to the race and started to train, 5 days a week, rising at 4 to 5 am each morning to run, and logging up to 80km a week. I trained up and down a lot of hills hearing that Boston was a hard course. If it wasn’t for the amazing support of my wife, taking care of our boys while I was out running on Saturday mornings or when I was at numerous physiotherapy appointments, I wouldn’t have been able to keep the schedule I did.
After 5 months, there I was. Standing at the starting line with the top marathon runners in the world. I felt relaxed and excited at the same time. The weather was ideal – 13 degree, partially cloudy, and a slight cool breeze in our faces. The gun went off and we started off down the road. While I was prepared mentally and physically, over the course of the next three and a half hours, my body had a hard time coping with what seemed like continuous up and down hills. A knee issue at the 17km mark had me doubting if I could keep going another 25km, and with both calves cramping at 28K, it didn’t turn out exactly as I’d planned. I think I ran the last 14km on will, repeating to myself, ‘pain is temporary, glory is forever’. I think I heard some great athlete or coach say that a long time ago and on this occasion it seemed to be fitting. I finished the run in 3 hours and 30 minutes, about 15 minutes after my goal time. While somewhat disappointed in that, I gave it my all, and left whatever energy I had out on the course.
After crossing the line, one of the wonderful volunteers placed my finishers’ medal around my neck. Then it dawned on me – I just finished the Boston Marathon! A huge smile came to my face, despite the fact that yes, I did miss my goal time, but I realized I just completed one of the hardest marathons on this planet. While the smile was not dissipating, seemingly every muscle from my waist on down was screaming. I was escorted into a tent about 200 metres from finish line where a mylar blanket, some water, food, a massage, and dry clothes all helped me start to feel a little more normal.
I was thinking about heading back to my hotel and happened to notice Joey McIntyre from the boy band New Kids on the Block standing beside me. He had just finished his run and I asked if I could get my picture taken with him. I had brought my blackberry with me to take a photo with my medal after the race to email to friends and family back home (as I had taken this journey alone). It was precisely at that time we heard and felt the first blast.
It sounded like someone had just shot off a massive cannon. You could feel it shake the ground. We could see the white smoke start to rise. As I was set to take a photo with my New Kids BFF, I snapped a quick photo of the smoke not knowing what I was taking a picture of.
I turned to a race official standing beside me and asked what he thought it was. ‘No idea’ was his comment. ‘Sounds like a transformer just blew’. No sooner as he said the word ‘sounds’ when the second blast hit.
From where I was standing, I couldn’t see the finish line. It was blocked by a series of tents and the Boston Public Library. I’m still glad that I couldn’t see what I’d see later on the news.
As runners, we had no idea what was going on. At this point, people weren’t panicking where I was, despite the fact that we were only 200 metres away. We could see the smoke, but knew nothing of what had just happened. Sirens started from every direction. Police on motorcycles sped through the street and ambulances came rushing. We thought it was just precautionary. We never thought anything serious had actually happened.
We started watching the tv screen that was inside the tent where I was. We could see from a helicopter camera that there was no television equipment where the explosions happened, and what looked like red marks on the ground. We started wondering if those were in fact pools of blood. Runners started to come into the tent who had just finished and were shaking and crying uncontrollably. In not knowing what had just happened, I wondered if these people were just shaken from the loud noise. I offered my assistance to one older woman, but she just shook her head, crumpled into a chair and put her head between her knees. I just assumed she was overcome with exhaustion from the race. It wasn’t until 5-10 minutes after the explosions did we hear the first person say they saw ‘missing limbs’. It finally dawned on us. This wasn’t an accident. This was something planned. In looking back, despite only being 200 metres away, it amazes me we didn’t know any sooner something was amiss.
My plan for after the race was to catch the subway to as close to the airport as possible as that’s where my hotel was. However, after the blasts I was informed that the subways had been shut down, essentially stranding hundreds of thousands of people downtown. Wanting to get out of downtown as quickly as possible, I began searching for a taxi.While my knee was hurting quite badly, I limped around the downtown core, being told by emergency personnel and race officials to go this way and that and to make room for emergency vehicles. Thirty minutes later I finally managed to find two very nice girls from Edmonton who were getting into a taxi headed for the airport. I shared the cab with them, got back to my hotel, showered, rushed to the airport, and managed to leave Boston last night. Mywife picked me up at Pearson in Toronto, and I made sure I kissed my boys in their sleep when I got home.
As I look at my finisher’s medal today, I can’t help but feel somewhat ashamed to celebrate my own personal success. Yesterday was indeed one of the most memorable days of my life. It was a dream to run that race and I should feel proud that I finished the Boston Marathon. Yet, how can I feel proud of my accomplishment after what transpired after the medal was placed around my neck? How can I celebrate when three people were killed and hundreds more remain in hospital with serious injuries? I feel conflicted, not sure what I should be feeling.
Boston is unlike any other marathon in the world. This is that city’s event. Hundreds of thousands of people line the entire 42km route, often 20 or 30 people deep. With it being Patriots Day, it seemed as if the whole City of Boston was there to cheer us runners on. Children passed out water to complete strangers as they ran by. Mothers and fathers passed out orange slices they had purchased with their own money. Freezies, sponges with water in them, kisses, even beer, were being given to runners the entire way. The support we received was truly overwhelming. Yet in all of this, a wonderful and historic event that brings together a city and runners from over 100 different nations around the world will forever be tarnished by one act of cowardice.
Today, I can’t help play the ‘what if’ game in my head. My wife was going to come with me. We had a seat reserved for her in the grandstand across from where the explosions happened. She decided at the last minute not to come. If I had decided that the pain I was experiencing during the run was too much and started to walk, I could have been finishing at that time. Like the unfortunate family that lost their 8-year old boy in the blasts, it could have been my family waiting at the finish line waiting to hug their husband/dad just before crossing the finish line just as they did when I ran the Toronto marathon. I tell myself I can’t play this mind game. It’s so hard not to.
The Boston Athletic Association, the organization that runs the Boston Marathon, has a unicorn in its logo. That same unicorn adorns my beautiful medal. It’s supposed to symbolize a ‘regal pursuit’, an unattainable prize of perfection. In myths, unicorns are fast, strong and impossible to catch. They are very fitting to symbolize someone trying to win a marathon. The unicorn is also supposed to represent integrity. Yet yesterday, the unicorn represented something different. What happened after I crossed the finish line was done by someone or some people with no integrity. There is nothing regal about this. And, unlike the one man and one woman who won the Boston Marathon yesterday that for the rest of us were impossible to catch, I sincerely hope US law enforcement officers don’t have a unicorn on their hands. For the City of Boston, the family and friends of everyone injured or killed, and for runners around the world, I sincerely hope they are able to bring to justice those responsible. We need it.
Will I run another marathon? You bet. Will I run Boston again? The jury is still out.