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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Our collective spirit

Yesterday started much like other mornings when I have set out to run the Boston Marathon.  A little breakfast.  Last check of my gear bag.  A ride to the bus to Hopkinton.

The DFMC team gathers together at a church in Hopkinton, a final celebratory gathering before heading to the corrals for the start of the marathon.  We gave Dennis a big send-off as he prepared to participate in the hand-cycle portion of the race.  We gathered for our team picture.  We proudly applauded our "Living Proof" teammates...cancer survivors out there to cover the 26.2 in an effort to end cancer.  We shared hugs and nervous chatter in the line for the port-a-potties.  We signed banners for patients.  We got ourselves ready to go...ready to revel in the day that we all worked so hard to reach.

The race went as most do.  Some miles felt good...others were tough.  I struggled in the hills, but just kept telling myself to keep moving.  I got high-fives and smiles from my family and friends in Newton.  I missed some other friends along the way, but knowing they were out there kept me motivated and moving.  Cheers of "'Noog" in reference to my hometown of Chattanooga from friends made me smile as I shuffled up Heartbreak Hill.  The mobility impaired runners, the soldiers, the wheelchair athletes, the Hoyts, the everyday heroes...they were all out there running their race...not giving up and pushing themselves each and every mile.   I really worked to keep running to get to Mile 25 where the DFMC patient partners were, especially Team Matty who has held a special place in my heart over the last two seasons.  I knew if I could get there running, I would finish. Motivated by these young heroic patients and families, I started on the final 1.2 miles.

As I rounded the corner from Hereford to Boylston, I heard my husband and sister calling my name.  I wasn't sure if my family would be there but I was excited to catch a glimpse of them as I made the turn.  Sometimes the traffic is too difficult to make it from Newton, but I was glad to see the two of them although I couldn't tell if anyone else was there.

I shuffled toward the finish line, taking in the cheers of the crowd that were 7 or 8 deep along both sides of the street.  And finish, I did.  In fact, I had one of my best runs.  But it doesn't matter.  Finishing no longer matters.  Things changed quickly as I moved through the finishing area.

As I waited to get my bag, there was a loud boom.  Fireworks?  Never heard those before at the finish.  A cannon?  Seems odd in the middle of the city but maybe in honor of Patriots Day.  Some nearby officers said shots fired, but it was too big a noise for that.  Gas explosion?  Could have been...I hope everyone is okay.  And then another.

So many of us wandered about in a state of confusion, but there was not an immediate sense of urgency yet.  I started to move towards the runner exit and when I glanced up Boylston St. to my right as I was moving along, I knew something was very wrong but I didn't know what it was.  Police officers, medics, volunteers...they were all running and driving towards the Finish line.  Now it was urgent and people were beginning to panic. 

I made my way out and found a DFMC volunteer to walk back to our meeting place with me.  I had been calling and texting my husband and sister.  Are you okay?  Where are you?  What happened?  No response.  I tried to call my parents.  No service.  I was frantic.  As we were walking, we still had no idea what happened but hoped for the best.

After what felt like an eternity, I received a text my from husband asking where I was, and although I couldn't respond, I knew they were okay.  I didn't know where they were and I didn't know if my parents and kids were also in town.   And we still had no idea what had happened.

As we made it back to the Marriott (the DFMC meeting area), the news was reporting two explosions at the marathon finish line.  There were a lot of injuries.  I came up the escalator to find our friends filled with fear and overwhelmed by the events.  They had been waiting on Boylston to watch their mother (my friend) finish and the explosions went off to their right and to their left.  Three young boys, their dad, and their grandmother.  It was heartbreaking to see the trauma in their eyes, and just knowing their mom was safe was not enough.  They needed to see her and hug her.

As we waited, my sister and Andrew made it to the Marriott a few minutes later with my cousin who had been watching the race with them in Newton and met up with them again in Boston.  I was so relieved to have them in my sights, and was thankful to know the kids were not in the city for the finish.

I was finally able to call my parents using my friend's phone and reached my dad.  They had taken my kids back home and were coming home from getting ice cream, unaware of the events in Boston.  I didn't have cell phone numbers of other friends to try to send text messages to see if they were okay.  There were two other women from our town on the DFMC team, and other friends running for other charities but I had no way to get in touch with them.  They hadn't checked in with Dana-Farber, and we couldn't get online to check the tracking system.  My phone was filled with messages but I couldn't respond, and I couldn't ask if anyone had heard from them or from their families who were supposed to be at the finish.

At the Marriott, the DFMC sets up a runners refuge for after the marathon. We have space to get changed and get something to eat and a massage.  It's a place that is normally filled with high-fives and a lot of hugs and laughter.  It's a time that is usually spent with our DFMC teammates cheering the finishers and celebrating together, but yesterday was a somber gathering in front of the news wondering if everyone was okay.  On a normal marathon day, a steady stream of DFMC finishers makes their way to the refuge, but the runners stopped coming in....they weren't finishing and were were directed off course.  There was no immediate way to find out where everyone was.  We got changed and I was trying to quickly get something to drink and eat when volunteers came running in to tell us the hotel was being evacuated.

We were shuttled through the attached mall which had already been shut down and evacuated.  All of the stores were dark and closed up.  There were policemen with bomb-sniffing dogs making their way through and no one was being allowed in.  We were only allowed out one exit. 

Thankfully, my cousin lives in the South End so we started walking towards her house.  There were people everywhere.  Runners in the wrapped in their mylar blankets trying to stay warm.  Families looking for familiy members.  Sirens all around.  Helicopters overhead.  It was surreal.  Reports of more explosives.  Building lockdowns.  Evacuations.  And people were talking about bombs.

On our way, we bumped into our friends who had tried to get to their car but were sent away from teh parking garage.  The same family who had seen the explosions.  They walked with us to my cousins where we tried to piece together what was happening and reach out to our families and friends to let them know we were okay, and were able to find out about our other friends who we were concerned about.  As far as we could tell, everyone was safe.

About 3 hours after we finished, we were able to get our car from the garage where it was parked.  Our friends had to leave their car since the garage exit was still shutdown.  We all made it home, still in shock, happy to be together, happy to be safe, shaken, grateful, sad, confused, grieving.

We sat in disbelief as we watched news coverage of the days events.  Stunned disbelief and utter confusion about why and how this happened.

When I get up the morning after the marathon, it is usually a time to look back with excitement.  I usually sit back with a cup of coffee and watch the recorded TV coverage of the elite runners.  I download photos and read race reports from teammates and friends. 

But not today.  Today, I woke with a very deep sadness of the lives that were lost.  The unknown.  The "what-ifs" from yesterday.  I felt pride in this community this morning...the city of Boston and the surrounding areas, the larger running community, the friends and family who reached out in concern. 

There were volunteers and medical staff that ran towards the explosions.  There were runners who went directly to hospitals to give blood after they were stopped on the course.  Strangers were giving cold and tired runners food, money, cell phones, a place to sleep, a ride.  People joined together.

The spectators that line the Boston Marathon course are a huge part of what makes this race what it is.  Runners gladly take water, oranges, candy, beer from strangers along the course, and there is no doubt that the what they are offering is not tainted.  The is a trust between runners and the crowd.   They make hilarious signs.  They dress up.  They play music.  They scream your name, your number, your charity.  They give you hugs, high-fives.  They make you go.  All 26.2 miles.  Runners expect the sore legs, the black toenails, the exhaustion.  We ask for it.  These fans, they just go out to make the runners feel better.   The people that were injured yesterday were fans.  Spectators.  Family members and friends.  Children.  The timing was of these explosions was intended for everyday people out supporting one of the signature events in this area.

We found out today that a friends' daughter was injured in the second blast.  She is a college student in Boston and was walking into the Apple store.  She is going to be okay, and was released from the hospital today.  And sadly, if it is even okay to say, she's one of the "lucky" ones. She will recover, at least physically.  Emotionally, this will take a toll on everyone.  And I can not stop thinking about the young boy who gave his dad a hug as he finished and then walked back to where the explosion went off.  Young Martin represents the children of so very many of the runners who ran yesterday, and who treasured the kisses and hugs of their children kids so much more deeply today.  So many lives will never ever be the same, and there are many obstacles and a lot of healing to be done.  I hope our community that has rallied so much in the last 24-hours fights on for these people over the very long road, and lets them know that they are not alone.

As runners for charity programs, we have strong resolve to create and foster change.  We are all out there for a reason, driven by personal experiences.  To fight back, to give back, and to persevere. We were the third wave runners making our way across or towards the finish line when these explosions went off.  At the Dana-Farber pasta party on Sunday, the Boston Marathon race director stopped by to share his thoughts with us. Dave McGillivray believes in giving back.  He began the charity program with the BAA, and he reminded us of the importance of the work we were doing by raising funds through running.  He implored us to keep going. 

And we will.  I can't fully wrap my head around what happened yesterday.  There are too many what-ifs and too many tragic ends to what began as a beautiful day.  There were thousands of people out there representing months of hard work, from 50 states and even more countries.  Runners are a tight group.  The large majority of us were not racing each other.  We were not out there to win.  We were trying to carry each other across 26.2 miles.  Helping each other beyond the finish line.  Uniting in trying to achieve a common goal.

I am shaken, but I am not deterred.  The reason I run is too important, too necessary.  This team has done so much good and we provide hope.  The reason why we run has not changed, nor has the end result of $4.6 million dollars for necessary cancer research.  That can not be taken away or altered.  We can not let yesterday's events detract from what we've accomplished, and what we still have to do.  Our collective spirit is much, much bigger than that. 

The number of text messages, email, phone calls, and house visits that we have all received since 2:50 p.m. yesterday has been moving and overwhelming and emotional.  I am blessed and thankful for my friends and for my family, and for your compassion and concern.  Never in a million years did I dream that such a beautiful and special event for our family could turn into something so gravely disturbing and heartbreaking.  Thank you for sharing the love with us all.

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