Three years ago this month I traveled to Boston to run the marathon. Along with 25,000 others that year, I had trained hard to qualify and make the cut. The previous year had been a turbulent one; my training had been a bit manic in an attempt to run off something that ultimately required time and compassion to heal. I had also had an injury over the winter, so it was with a bruised body and a bruised spirit that I got on a plane to Massachusetts. When the middle-aged, slightly overweight customs agent asked me the nature of my trip, I told her I was running the marathon. She lit up and asked me how long I had been running. I told her about 20 years ... That I hadn't just started last week. "I started last week!" she said. She wished me luck and sent me on my way with a huge grin.
The energy of the city was palpable. The hostel was filled with athletes in their running tights and shoes (yes, even while they were just hanging out), draped with every hue of previous Boston marathon jackets. I made some conversation in the common room, while runners buzzed about preparing meals and snacks (I don't think the fridges of that hostel had ever contained so much nutrient-dense food!).
But mostly I kept to myself. It was the first time I had traveled alone in many years and, with the run on Monday morning, I had two full days to explore Boston. I took the 'T' everywhere, exploring Cambridge and Harvard Yard, touring Fenway park (and then taking a stroll along the Charles with a handsome young man from Australia that I met on the tour), and visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum (spectacular if you have the opportunity). My last run before the race took me through Boston Common, past Cheers, and around Beacon Hill. I tried to watch a Red Sox game with an old university friend who was in town to run as well, but it was rained out and we went for a beer instead. I took in the Boston Symphony Orchestra and wandered along the Freedom Trail. I waited in a line 100 deep for a cannoli at Mike's Bakery, with its shiny tin ceiling. I meandered around crumbling cemeteries - many of them Unitarian - and sat quietly in beautiful New England churches, steeped in history and tradition.
My plan for the race was to simply enjoy it. Without adequate preparation (due to my injury), I knew I wasn't going to achieve a personal best. I intended to take my time, absorb the experience and tweet along the way. I woke up early Monday morning and stood with hoards of other runners to board the buses to the Athlete's Village. It was all well-coordinated and civilized, everyone brimming with excitement while rubbing sleep from their eyes. I remember thinking on the trip out to Hopkinton that it felt like a long drive ... especially knowing I'd have to run it back!
The village was filled with people warming up, stretching, eating and chatting. It's a long shuffle from the village to the starting line, the corrals packed with runners unsure if they're there yet ("there" being only the start). It's tempting to want to start running too early ... the adrenaline of the day makes you feel like a horse chomping at the bit ... but there are too many bodies around to move any faster, and there's a long way to go ahead. "Discard" layers were shed as we inched forward that would be collected by volunteers and given to thrift stores (where most of them originated). We moved across the starting mats and the energy swelled as we picked up the pace en masse to the din of spectators cheering and ringing cowbells.
That cacophony did not stop for 42.2 km. I have run a lot of races in my life and I have never experienced anything like the Boston Marathon. From start to finish, spectators at least six deep cheering themselves hoarse, waving signs and yelling encouragement to perfect strangers. There was no opportunity to sink into a meditation - there was too much to look at, too much to take in. Despite my poor training, I felt terrific. Through the crowds of young women at Wellesley screaming to be kissed, over the hills in Newton, past Fenway Park ... the high went on and on, and I tweeted as I went.
Turning left onto Boylston Street and seeing the finish line up ahead was a thrilling moment - the culmination of a journey that grouped me with the top runners in the world. I crossed the finish line within moments of my friend and we posed for a photo together, draped in our blankets and medals.
A colleague from work was running that day too; I had passed him a few miles before the finish and pondered going back to watch him cross. Unfortunately, I had a tight time frame to catch my plane, so I headed for my hostel instead which was a few blocks from the finish. I was inside for approximately 20 minutes, changing into dry clothes and packing up. By the time I got to the entrance of the nearest 'T' station, it was locked.
A man ran up to me, panicked, yelling about a bomb. I thought it strange, but he seemed okay himself, and I was focused on not missing my flight. I found another station that was still open, and made my way to Logan. I tried to connect to the network to send out a final tweet, but found it consistently busy. It wasn't until I was through security and waiting at the gate that I saw the news on the overhead monitors. Bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
I was stunned. I wept as a confused mess of emotions and thoughts swept through me. This was within the first minutes after the bombs ... no one knew what was happening. The airport eventually was shut down for a time, but my flight was allowed to leave before it did. There was another finisher on that plane with me to Ottawa ... he didn't seem as affected by the news, and was kind and supportive, sitting with me on the flight when I asked.
I've spent many times over the past three years reflecting on what has come up for me since that day. There is a lot of guilt. I guess it can be called survivor's guilt, but I feel guilty even for calling it that. I missed the explosions by about half an hour. Had I been further back in the starting corrals; had my preparation proved to be truly inadequate; had I taken more time to revel in the experience; had I gone back to the finish line to cheer on my colleague ... I felt guilty that I had been able to safely and triumphantly finish my race when thousands of runners were denied that opportunity. I felt guilty that I didn't heed the shocked bystander at the 'T' station and that I didn't go to help. I felt guilty that I felt so emotionally affected despite being well out of harm's way, while others were terribly - and fatally - injured. I felt guilty for feeling guilty.
I also felt like I had a glimpse of my own funeral. Thanks to social media and my incessant tweeting, a huge group of my contacts knew I was there. I was told later that most of my colleagues and students had been following my progress through the race. My Facebook timeline reveals a collective gasp, followed by a frantic attempt to connect with me. Because of the packed lines in Boston, I wasn't able to send a note that I was safe - no phone calls, no texts, no tweets - until a good amount of time had gone by. My timeline reveals so much love and concern for my safety and well-being ... I continue to feel humbled.
The emotions about that day - positive and negative - continue to emerge regularly. When I read others' accounts of their experiences, when I see unexpected news reports about the surviving perpetrator, when I have conversations ... especially when people make light of it ... even writing this piece. I refuse to let the horrific violence of the day take away from my incredibly joyful experience (although I feel guilty about that too). That's what terror does. I want to savour the powerfully positive memories from that weekend, and all it symbolized for me. Boston and the running community rallied in the wake of the event, standing strong and celebrating the spirit of the marathon.
I will be going back to Boston next week for the first time. I am running as a guide to a visually-impaired athlete named Tim with whom I've run three times at local races. It's Tim who has qualified, and it's Tim who is chasing a personal record. This has been an interesting experience, marked by my usual navel gazing: Do I deserve to run the course at Boston without qualifying myself? Am I entitled to celebrate the day when I'm "just" the support crew? True to form, I am putting pressure on myself to be more than human - to always be one step ahead of Tim, to not find it an effort.
My partner and kids are coming with me this year. We'll have a great two days prior to the race, filled with sight-seeing and watching the Jays play the Sox at Fenway. I'm nervous about where they should stand to watch ... irrationally, I worry about them being at the finish line. I know that it will be hard for me to contain my tears as Tim and I make that left onto Boylston. I anticipate a flood of emotions, which I doubt I'll fully be able to unravel. I hope to let it flow over me, and I'm hoping it will be cleansing.