Friday, April 19, 2013

2013 Boston Marathon Redux: Part II -- After



In the midst of a past national tragedy, I still remember the opening lines I wrote in a column for my college’s newspaper. It began, “Where were you? The truth is, you’ll always remember.” On that day, I had just settled in to an American Government class and then spent the remainder of that cool autumn day riveted to the television and my computer with my roommates and friends searching for answers. When I think back to what happened this past Monday, the truth is, I will always remember…

…that I had just hung up the phone with my parents. The faint sound of cheers filtered in through the window as runners prepared to make the penultimate turn onto Hereford Street. I lingered over a glass of champagne and tilted my head back against the chair to let my PR wash over me. Then I flicked my phone back on to begin answering the text messages and e-mails I’d received during the race. My wife, father-in-law, and friend had stepped out for a moment to go get us cupcakes to continue celebrating, until it was time to head back to Boylston Street to meet up with Boston-area friends and let the party really begin. A crush of sirens blazed by the window. As I pecked away at my phone, I thought, I hope everyone is ok, thinking it would be a heart attack near the finish line.

Photo my wife captured of runners halted on Commonwealth
“So proud of you bud! You killed it!” a friend out in L.A. sent me two hours before. I nodded and wrote back, “Thank you, sir! So ecstatic right now. :)” at 3:05 p.m. Seconds later, I received the following from him, “Dude are you okay? Explosions near the finish line, people hurt”.

My face fell and I fired off a quick reply to him, then made for the TV remote. The door flew open, my wife and crew returning, “Did you hear what happened?!”

We spent the next three hours alternating between watching the coverage unfold and putting messages out to friends, family, Facebook, Twitter, any way to let people know we were safe.  Our phones would cut out and suddenly come back to life in a series of dings and alerts like slot machines and we would jump to use those brief communication windows to put out information.

We managed to connect with a friend who had just passed mile 25 and been halted with the mass of runners who would never make it to Boylston Street. She came to our room after connecting with her parents, and the eight of us stared at the footage, trying to somehow process what had happened just a half mile way, trying to figure out what to do next.

Information trickled in: other devices may be in the area; fire at the JFK library; two dead; stay inside. We discovered other friends had been at Fenway. Another had been eating on Boylston Street and felt the concussion, and would later be awoken in the middle of the night to a firefight outside her apartment in Watertown.

At 6:00 p.m., my wife and friend were the only ones left in the room. We had had enough coverage for the moment and descended to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner. The waiter brought us three Sam Adams 26.2 brews and we clinked glasses, though we weren’t sure what to toast to. I sipped at that beer trying to reconcile my fleeting excitement that always dissolved to guilt. I received messages from friends, saying, "If you are not ready to be proud of what you accomplished, I am," and "Go outside, and have a drink. It's a middle finger to whoever did this."

We would return to the room and alternate between staring at phone screens and TV screens, finally deciding that we needed to watch something else. Once in a while, someone would look up and we schemed what we could do to help at a time when we felt helpless. At 11:00, weary and raw, we turned the light out and tried to fall asleep to the sound of more sirens breaking up the night.

On Tuesday morning, we emerged from the hotel. To the left, it could have been any Tuesday, commuters in the streets and on the sidewalks. To the right, yellow tape cordoned off streets and soldiers and police with rifles stood guard, a jarring reminder.

The three of us climbed into our taxi to the airport with…with…I’m not sure what. Sadness? Loss? Grief? Guilt? Confusion?...We were emotionally frayed, constantly on the verge of tears, and exchanged hugs that lasted just a few seconds longer and were just a little tighter than usual. The day after, it had somehow become more real. More permanent.
Flashing lights and sirens became a common occurrence
Monday night.

Mine is not a story of survival or heroism. I was simply there, sharing in what the WashingtonPost’s Mike Wise called “the crown jewel of the running community.” Where for one day each spring, runners lace up their shoes from all over the world to celebrate, a 26.2 mile parade of perseverance, of overcoming, of accomplishment.

While I fought back the tears in the airport, I began reading Dan Shaughnessy’s column in The BostonGlobe, where he said, “Yesterday was a day you realized just how connected you were to people.” And it’s true.

I had originally been overwhelmed by the support I received from friends who said they stopped working to check on my status during the race, the meticulous tracking and posting of times that occurred on the Runner’s World Loop, the outpouring of congratulatory texts and e-mails that awaited me, the excitement in my mom’s voice knowing that this one was somehow more special than the last eight.

But then it all changed, a distinct line in time. These same people suddenly looked for confirmation that we were safe. And then the additional outpouring of support from family, former and current coworkers, friends from all corners and years in life, neighbors who stopped me while walking my dog (many of whom only know me as “the runner guy”) to say I was the first one they thought of when they heard the news.

I struggled for the past two days about how to put these feelings and the strength of Boston and the running community, into words (and perhaps still do) but can sum it up best by recounting the call I had at work yesterday. It was a simple, weekly status call that my project has every Thursday. I sat in the office with another coworker as we huddled around the phone. My manager kicked off the call by welcoming me back and telling me how relieved they were to hear that I was safe. I started to give a quick summary of the events for them, when I found my thoughts and my words taking me here, causing me to dab at my eyes by the end of it, words that I quickly realized are also meant for all of you:

“I was so humbled and overwhelmed by your support and concern on Monday. It makes me realize just how much love exists in communities like ours and how much we depend upon and support one another. It’s days like Monday that make you realize how grateful you are for the friends and family who contribute to who you are as a person. I can’t thank you enough for giving me that feeling.”

I still feel a stab of pain in my gut every time I see “Boston Marathon” associated with this act of cowardice. It’s simply not the way it’s supposed to be. But, those who did this only have the power that we give them.

So...

Despite the countless times the explosions that racked Boylston Street played on TV, I refuse to let that hallowed stretch of pavement be tarnished for myself and for those who still – and will always – let it play in their running dreams. The magical half mile when you emerge from out of the overpass on Commonwealth Avenue. The crowd is four and five deep on the sidewalk, a cacophony of “Let’s go’s”, “C’mons!” and, “Finish strongs!”. You make the fateful right turn onto Hereford Street and let yourself start to believe. The final left turn pours you onto Boylston Street where the buildings reach for the sky and the cheers rise up even higher. The pain melts away. The spectators on either side of the street lift you from the ground and carry you the length of the street to that big blue and yellow arch. A smile creases your salty, sticky face and your arms instinctively pump harder, until, at long last, you raise them above your head. Because whether it’s your first or fiftieth time, in record time or not, you just broke the finish line of the world’s greatest marathon.

The truth is, that’s what I choose to remember.

3 comments:

  1. Great stuff, Brad. Those last two paragraphs may be the best words about the internal response to this past week that I have read. Thanks for sharing.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Lawrence and thanks for reading.

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  2. Brad - This is beautifully written and shows that the strength used to run a marathon is not just for marathons. It can also be used to put terror in its place and place truth where it should be. Thank you!!

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