You hear horror stories about Heartbreak Hill, the famously steep climb at around mile 20 of the Boston Marathon, but even though I'd been running for more than four hours, I sprinted up it last April without even noticing.
I'm not the fastest runner, and I'd been tired since about mile seven, vowing with almost every step never to put myself through this again: This is too hard. I can't make it. I don't even like this! But sometime just before mile 20, I took out my earbuds and heard a spectator say: "You know what's happened, right? Something bad has happened at the finish line."
Suddenly I started putting things together — the police car that had just sped through the course, the onlookers who were trying to divert us to side roads — and yet nothing made sense. Later I would find out from my fiance, Daniel — who found out from Twitter — that two bombs had exploded near the finish line. But at that moment I just wanted to get to mile 22, where he and my family were waiting to cheer me on. I had struggled through more than six months of training and — in its own way, this part was harder — raised $5,000 for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in honor of Daniel's father, who has colon cancer. But I wasn't thinking about any of that; I just started sprinting.
It wasn't long before a police officer halted us and race volunteers started handing out Mylar blankets, saying, "We can't allow you to go any farther." It was so hard to stop, to absorb that it was over and to stand there wondering if everyone I knew at the race that day was OK. No one understood exactly what had happened — by then we had only heard rumors of a bomb — but I knew it had to be bad for the authorities to shut down such a huge race.
When Daniel finally found me where they had corralled us, I just wanted to get home to New Hampshire, away from all of it.
We drove back to Boston the next day, past armed military guards, to collect the bag I had checked on race day, and a volunteer asked, "Did you get your medal yesterday?" I teared up and just shook my head no. There was this overwhelming feeling of sadness. Long-distance running teaches you that no matter how impossible a goal sounds, you can get there if you take it one step at a time. It's supposed to build you up, but I felt defeated — never mind that I didn't finish. People had been killed; others lay in the hospital fighting for their lives, and I was powerless to help. I knew I was one of the lucky ones that day, and yet what stuck with me was a sense of loss.
For a long time, running has been an important part of my life. It has taught me patience and perseverance. When I first became a runner in college — because I wanted to compete in a 6K with my mom — I could barely manage a quarter mile. But each time, I would go a little farther or a minute longer. Running became a way to cope with stress, work through feelings and take care of myself. Last year, by raising money for Dana-Farber, it also became something I was doing to help other people. (A friend had signed up to run the Boston Marathon for another charity, and I thought, I can do that. It will be my way to support Daniel's dad through his treatment.) And running was how Daniel proposed to me, goading me into doing a training run with him one day. At first it looked as if he had stopped to tie his shoe, but he was actually down on one knee.
Now it seemed I would always associate running with tragedy. I hated the thought of that. The volunteer placed a medal around my neck and congratulated me, but when I got home, I put it and my bib where I wouldn't accidentally catch sight of them. I didn't run at all for three months.
Then, come summer, my friend said she was going to sign up again to run Boston, and was I? I didn't hesitate. We had resolved right after the race that we would see it through. And even though it had taken me months to face the idea of getting back on the road, I was determined: I have to do this. I have to finish this. You train for a marathon fearing you might not get to the end because you can't go any farther physically, or because mentally you give up. Instead, something terrible had happened, but I wouldn't let it stop me. I thought of the people who had been injured. I had read their stories in the news coverage; they had been through something horrendous, lost limbs, had their lives changed forever, and yet they weren't stopping. How could I? I can run again to honor them and to continue my support of cancer research.
In July, Daniel accompanied me on my first run, just a couple of miles around our town. I cried, recalling what had happened the last time I had laced up, but it has since gotten easier. During long training runs in the cold and snowy New Hampshire winter, I've remembered those who were hurt in the blasts, how much they have overcome, and it has given me motivation to keep running. In our home office, I hung up my medal, my bib and a poster Daniel bought me of a famous Boston magazine cover of marathoners' sneakers arranged in a heart. At first it was painful to see, but every day I get stronger and closer to my dream of a happier ending. If training is a marathon of its own, I'm on mile 21 now. The finish line is in sight, and this year I plan to cross it.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, April 2014.