At 2:50 PM on Monday April 15th, my Boston Marathon was almost over. A block away from the finish line, I was all the things you hear about: wiped out…eager for the end… thrilled that the day had been perfect. Perfectly exhausting, but still perfect.
I never hit my stride, and by that I mean I did not actually run the 2013 Boston Marathon—at least not in the traditional left-foot-right-foot-lather-rinse-repeat sense. Instead, I ran the support crew for my dear friend Christy, aka C4 of “Four Cs” Hyannis Marathon Relay team fame. Christy was proudly—and very, very nervously—donning bib #25901 in the 117th Boston Marathon.
Running support is its own sort of endurance sport. From serving the carb-loading Last Meal to fetching your exhausted runner at the finish, it requires a whole lot of fretting, planning, and waiting—skills that fall miles outside my wheelhouse. Add to the list something else alien to me: hostess-ing. Yes, Christy had for some reason entrusted me (me!) with all six-feet-five inches of her out-of-town beau, who had flown in from Arizona the night prior to cheer on his gal. Three quarters of the Four Cs (read: the non-Christy bits) immediately dubbed him “The Cowboy”—since he not only wears a fantastically bright white not-from-around-here ten-gallon hat but also stole our friend’s heart while country-line dancing. In, like, real, actual cowboy boots. Kid you not.
Fortunately, just like marathoners have race plans, I had a playbook to guide me in this crazy support crew stint; running Christy’s support simply meant dusting off my family’s gameplan from the 2011 version of this race, when I was the one proudly and very very nervously donning a bib number (#24777, in the event it somehow slipped your mind). From what time we woke up to what streets we parked on to where we’d cheer—first in Natick and then in front of Marathon Sports on Boylston Street at the finish line—my Marathon Monday gameplan was a carbon copy of theirs. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Even with the pre-made plan, this was stressful stuff. While my 2011 nightmares were about blisters and bonking, 2013 brought visions of making Christy miss the start, failing to see her at the Mile 10 mark, and missing her grand finale because I was stuck in traffic. I didn’t stress about whether The Cowboy would think I was weird; that seemed to be a given. (God has granted me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.)
So here it was, 2:50 pm and nothing that could have gone wrong had. In fact, we had had an awesome day from start to finish.
By piling into the Prius at the obsessive-compulsive gameplan-approved time (6:15 am) we cruised right to the start line with ample time for photos:
We even had time for me to give Christy some last-minute unsolicited advice: don’t wear the jacket and leave the iPhone with us. Yes, she planned to run The Marathon wearing that red jacket and carrying her iPhone. At six it was crisp, but it would hit 55 by her start time; I told her the jacket would be a portable sauna by Mile 5, and that five-ounce phone would morph into a 25-pound kettlebell by Heartbreak Hill.
True to form, Christy followed half my advice, and by that I mean she stashed the portable sauna in the Prius but kept a firm grasp on her kettlebell. You’ve no use for a phone between here and the finish line, I protested, rolling my eyes; little did we know how wrong I would be.
We said our goodbyes and—just as my family had done in 2011—I pointed the Prius right straight down the actual Marathon route. The actual Marathon route! On Marathon Monday, even! As we drove the first ten miles of The Course, the roads were literally being closed behind us so the race could get underway. Crazyfunlikeyouwouldn’tbelieve.
Water stops were being constructed on the sides of the road. Never having done this, I had no idea that the elites get their own “fuel stations”…
As the earliest of spectators started to line the streets, the girls and I regaled The Cowboy with stories of the sights, sounds and smells that are part of the warp and woof of our beloved race.
We got to Mile 10 at the Natick Common well before 8 am—something just shy of a gazillion hours before The Marathon’s start time. Perfect. Per “The Plan”, we’d cheer her on from here then head into town to snag our finish-line spot right in front of Marathon Sports, where we knew the crowds there would be thick and loud and all sorts of fun. I strategically positioned the Prius for a quick getaway so that as soon as Christy passed we’d be Mass Pike-bound. We set about burning those gazillion hours.
Spectating requires energy, so we refueled at Bakery On the Common, where even the cookies had Marathon Fever:
We staked out our corner—the same one my family claimed in 2011. (Again, I cleaved to The Plan like Christy cleaved to her iPhone.) We made a serious land grab, outlining the property line with chairs—two green fold-up ones I had brought from home, and two more we rented for two bucks a pop from the impressively entrepreneurial church located behind us. We snapped photos of our location and texted them to Christy’s kettlebell so she’d know our coordinates. (Hey, if she was going to be silly enough to carry it, we might as well make use of it.)
The girls made a sign and we texted that, too. I considered texting a few other friends—namely Highland City Strider Gary (aka one of only two known people on the planet who can claim to have run every road in Marlborough, MA) and fellow Cisco PR rock star Jessica… but both are far too speedy to wield smartphones at the start so I didn’t.
Ten miles from Hopkinton you can’t hear the official bleets, bangs and cheers of the official start. So we watched the church’s clock and generated some noise on our own as the BAA sent each wave of racers on its merry way. At 9:17, we applauded the wheelchair race start. At 9:32, the elite women. Then at 10 the elite men and those super-speedy not-so-normal normal runners. Wave 2: 10:20. When 10:40 rolled around we hooted for our Wave 3 runner’s departure (and I silently celebrated my sanity for not having run again).
Eventually, crowds began to form around us in Natick. Anyone who had ever run The Marathon was wearing either a marathon cap or jacket. I was no exception—actually, maybe I was, because I was wearing both my marathon cap and jacket. And under that I was wearing my marathon long sleeve. And under that I was wearing my marathon short sleeve. I had a logo for every layer. (If they had manufactured 2011 marthon logo undies, I think I would have bought them, too.)
People wearing the same black with green stripes as I was—the 2011 runners—exchanged crazybig smiles, as if we were both kindred spirits and dear old friends.
No matter how few marthons we’d run or how slowly we’d run them, non-runners looked to us jacketed folks as BMEs (Bonafide Marathon Experts). Despite full disclosure of my pathetic-ness (and by that I mean I confessed that in 2011 I ran a pedestrian 4:09:55 and was handily beaten by a guy in a cheeseburger costume), I was nominated as BME of our little patch of the Marathon course. It was a nomination I gladly accepted and I proceeded to answer all of their questions with a crazybig smile.
Q: “Why are those wheelchairs racing so close together?”
Q: “Why the weirdly taped legs???”
We watched the elites blast past and then the super speedy BQ-ers, those who would somehow manage to finish this race sub-three hours. I was thrilled beyond belief to spot my every-Marlborough road-running friend Gary and crestfallen to miss Jessica, who flew in from Cali for the race.
They were followed by legions of normal-people runners. A cheeseburger or two whizzed by. This guy on stilts did nothing approaching “whizzing” speed but got just as many cheers:
And then, finally, the moment we had waited for…Christy came. It was actually a two-fer deal, and by that I mean she brought with her another quarter of the 4Cs, C2 to be precise, Christine Festa.
We hugged and listened to their tales of woe (swears were uttered at Mile 10–not a great sign) and as soon as they were off we were too: we returned the chairs to the entreprenurial church and pointed the Prius towards the Pike.
I thought the ride in to town would be chaotic and crowded, but it was actually awesome. Everyone on the road seemed to be doing exactly what we were doing: trying to beat their runner to the finish line. As we approached the tolls, scenes from the elite finishes were flashing on the huge display screens affixed to the WGBH building. In the excitement of watching the Wave 3ers race, I hadn’t paid attention to the super-speedy race, so I slowed down to see who had won (Benti took the boys’ gold and Jeptoo got the girls). We parked under Cisco’s Boston office–far enough away from the finish to avoid the maddening crowds, and yet just a few T stops away. We took the T to Arlington.
We emerged from underground around 2:20 pm and I was chomping at the bit to beeline straight to Marathon Sports. Not that we were in any danger of missing Christy–she wouldn’t cross until at least 3:15 pm by our estimates. But we were approaching the anniversary of my own finish time: the Wave 3 clock would soon pass the four-hour mark, start ticking towards my 4:09:55 finish time. I wanted to cheer for the people finishing then, those who were like me, The “Four Somethings”. I knew firsthand that many of them had probably aimed for sub-four days, for BQs, and had had to give up that dream somewhere after Heartbreak Hill. Some would be heartbroken, others would be proud of their not-great-but-still-hard-earned four-hours-plus times, like I am of mine.
But my girls had other plans. They were hungry. Ugh. I was not happy about it–very very grumpy about it, in fact. But I hid my grumpiness, since I needed to play the happy hostess and act all affable for our Cowboy I mean guest. We got a table on the outside patio at Stefanie’s, a restaurant on the corner of Newbury and Exeter–just a block from the finish line. From out front, you could see the excitement one street over, see the flags of all those countries whipping in the wind, see the front door of the Lenox Hotel. The waitress brought The Cowboy water, the girls Shirley Temples and me a cup of coffee.
On Boylston Street, the Wave 3 clock–my clock…our clock–flipped to 4:09:42. It was 2:50 pm and I was a block away, on the corner of Newbury and Exeter, pouring milk into my coffee when a cannon fired.
That’s odd. Cannons are for the Fourth of July…not the Marathon. Or did I totally miss that tradition, like, every single year somehow? Do we *always* do cannons? If so, why at four-plus-hours? Why not at the start? Or at the Elite finish?
And then the second cannon fired. And I knew it wasn’t a cannon; the smoke wasn’t right. And then the steady roar of finish-line cheers coagulated. Into screams.
WE. ARE. OUTTA HERE. My Momma Bear emerged and I literally scooped up the girls, one under each arm, and ridiculously said, “let’s go, babies”—I say “ridiculously”, since my so-called babies are 12 and 17. “You follow me, Cowboy,” I barked at the towering Arizonan. He may be used to leading country dances, but he was a stranger in this city and would need to follow my lead. We glanced over our shoulders nervously as we walk-ran away from Boylston Street, towards the safest place I could think of—the Charles River.
We held our breath, expecting blasts might follow us down Exeter Street, just as impossibly thick streams of people now were. “Is this like 9/11?” my 12-year-old asked. She is still in that stage where she actually thinks I hold all of the answers. I don’t really know, I confessed. But look at the smoke—it doesn’t seem so big. Buildings are still up. It will be okay, I think, I told her. We just need to go to the river.
As we crossed Storrow Drive, two young women ran past in high heels. “What did you see?” I asked, their speed suggesting a terrible knowledge.
The one on the left exhaled the impossible words, her voice cracking and her eyes fixed straight ahead: “Blood. So much blood.”
THIS. IS. NOT. HAPPENING. Now was the time to teach my girls something I learned while I was a Boston University journalism student, from my favorite professor, Larry Tye of the Boston Globe: eyewitness accounts cannot be trusted. In times of crisis, people don’t see things straight. It’s not that they are liars, but they are not trained watchers, I told them. That young lady is probably wrong, I said.
Everything was still OK. Probably. I said.
Just in case it wasn’t we were getting out of the city.
My younger daughter nodded a singular, certain nod. I think it is safe to say that this child has been through far more than her peers, and the reason she has emerged so well from this hellacious year is that she possesses a strong desire to actually want to be calmed down. She is more than willing to suspend her disbelief, to trust that brain tumors won’t return and bombs won’t hurt; the world just needs to give her an itsy-bitsy reason for faith. So when I told her all would be well, she believed me.
My older girl isn’t so easily swayed. Being a little older, she has cracked the code and figured out that I am, gasp, not always right. And so she panicked, announced she couldn’t breathe, needed her inhaler…which had been abandoned along with her Shirley Temple on Newbury Street.
“You are NOT ALLOWED have a medical emergency,” I growled through gritted teeth as we fled with what seemed like half of Boston. “CALM DOWN AND BREATHE DAMMIT.”
For some reason, that made sense to her. And calm down she did–at least enough to breathe.
A man sitting on a park bench confirmed it was bombs, said there were more—at the JFK Library, at Downtown Crossing. The city seemed completely unsafe. Will the bridge to Cambridge be bombed? I swore this group would swim across the river if it was necessary.
No swimming required. We walked right across the Salt and Pepper Shaker bridge—the same bridge I ran over several times a week as a college student, the same one my girls and I stood on to watch the Red Sox World Series parade in 2007.
We passed MIT. “When are we stopping?” Daughter #2 asked. Not yet, I said. For some reason, MIT didn’t seem safe enough.
We kept going til we got to the Marriott in Kendall Square. We stared in disbelief at the TV in the hotel’s foyer, with a clutch of others with whom we had an instant bond–not the happy bond we had had on our corner in Natick. An awful bond.
Christy didn’t get to cross the finish line that day but instead became an she qualifies as an ultra-marathoner in my book, since she didn’t get to stop til Kendall Square. Once cell service had been restored we directed her in via her kettlebell. She gave us salty, sweaty hugs. We had no clean clothes for her—we had unintentionally abandoned them in the chaos and they were now part of a sprawling crime scene. Then we intentionally abandoned the Prius for the night—who knew if more bombs lurked in the financial district—took a $270 cab ride home.
Two weeks to the day have passed. The dead have been buried. The blood has been bleached from the pavement in front of Marathon Sports and, I suppose, the limbs that were torn from bodies both there and in front of the Forum have been disintegrated as medical waste. Copley Square has reopened. The black and blue I mysteriously came home with that day—did I fall?—has faded and the fancy Rocheforte glass my too-shaky hands broke later that night as I poured myself a drink has been replaced. Not that it matters; I’ve given up beer for now. Alcohol’s a depressant, and this has been depressing enough. Christy has moved to Arizona to be with the Cowboy and I’ve removed from my trunk the green fold-up spectator seats we used at Mile 10, stored them away for another day—a concert, a picnic, a trip to the beach.
In other words, life is settling in to a new type of normal. That’s a huge relief. That’s also utterly unacceptable.
Some days it seems impossible that we’ll ever get back The Marathon I left behind at Mile 10—the one of runner-shaped cookies, super-speedsters wearing cheeseburger costumes and silly signs that say “Shortcut”. But it’s only as impossible as climbing Heartbreak Hill; we’ll all get up and over this in our own time—no, wait, over is not the right word. You don’t get over something like this. But we will get beyond it. Some in better shape than others.
Like my choice of outfits that day, this beloved race of ours has layers. We’ll shed the filthy, nasty outer layer that was foisted upon us. And once we do, there’s layers upon layers of the good stuff just underneath.
That’s all I’ve got. You take care, and you keep on running.