Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Heartbreak takes on new meaning

I am not sure where to begin and struggle to put my emotions into words. I am intentionally leaving white space above to symbolically show that there are no words. 
What began as an extremely exciting day filled with electric energy for a great event was ruined by horrific attacks and overwhelming emotions.

I woke up Monday morning like a little kid on Christmas, my heart was racing, pounding 70 beats per minute, well above the norm for me.  I packed a bag full of my running gear and another bag with signs I made for friends and of course, a cowbell or two (in case one broke).  I drove to work and along the way when I got into Cambridge I saw a runner walking towards Boston with the familiar BAA plastic bag slung over his shoulder.  I slowed and rolled my window down to yell to him "Good Luck today!" and smiled as I continued on to work.  Slightly jealous that I wasn't joining the crowds heading to Hopkinton, but looking forward to tracking my friends throughout the day and then going to cheer for them as they neared the finish line.

Admittedly, I did not get a lot of work done.  I was productive for the first few hours, but as soon as the live coverage started streaming online I was watching and cheering from my desk.  Just watching the images of runners gathered in Hopkinton and the start of each wave filled me with joy.  Boring to some, who have obviously never attempted the 26.2 mile journey, but thrilling to me because I know what it takes and I know that course beats you up and spits you out at the end unlike any other challenge. 

Watching the elite women and the two american contenders Shalane and Kara hang with the lead pack for most of the race only seconds separating them made me want to stand up in my cubicle and clap in front of my monitor.  It was incredible and I felt like I rode the roller coaster ride from Hopkinton to Boston with them.  Then I switched to tracking my friends from the back of the pack.  Text alerts chimed on my phone everytime they reached certain milestones on the course.  They were all doing great and maintaining the paces that they had trained for.

As soon as the last person I was tracking passed the 30K mark on the course, I changed into my running gear and left work.  It was a little before 2:00pm.  I put my things in my car and ran across the Mass Ave. bridge through crowds of people walking by with medals already around their necks.  I got to the intersection of Mass Ave and Comm Ave and texted my friend Jenine who was coming in with her two daughters to cheer.  They were parking near Copley and then planning to maybe meet up.  I walked around a bit looking for the best place to try and spot my friends.  I could go closer to the turn onto Hereford and the finish area, but it may be too crowded and I wouldn't be able to get a spot on the street so friends could see me.  So I decided to go in the opposite direction down the course towards mile 25 and ended up standing half a mile from the finish right before the course dips down under Mass Ave.

I checked my phone to see what times people had passed 30K and did the math trying to figure out when I might see everyone.  Pulled a sign out of my bag and began ringing my cowbell for all of the runners.  Texted my friend Jenine to try and meet up.  She was at the intersection of Berkley and St James and headed towards the finish area.  I expected to see my fastest friend any minute and then I got a text alert that he had finished.  I missed him.  Damn it.  Stopped looking at my phone and scanned the runners looking for my next fastest friend.  Chatted with a few of the other spectators.  One girl 5 or 10 feet away from my kept yelling "you're almost there" and I wanted to tell her to stop, but I bit my tongue and stayed silent.  My phone vibrated and another person I was tracking had finished in 3:57.  Crap, I need to pay attention.

Over all of the cheering and cowbells and mom's talking to their kids saying "Dad should be coming soon" and a nice guy volunteering to lift the small child over the barrier to run in with his father.......there was a loud BOOM.  It sounded like a cannon went off and people looked at each other with strange looks of "what was that?" I thought it was strange, they usually start a race with cannons, they don't shoot them off during the race, but it's also Patriots Day in Boston so maybe it was unrelated...........then another one BOOM!  We all looked at each other and knew instantly that something was wrong.  That wasn't normal and that wasn't part of the celebratory sounds.

The cop standing nearby suddenly walked into the middle of the course and stopped the runners in their tracks.  Confusion and frustration spread through the crowd.  Runners started packing the area and asking why they couldn't continue.  The only answer we had for them was that we heard two very loud explosions.  I tried to call Jenine but the call wouldn't connect.  I tried to call one of my friends on the course and the call was dropped.  I texted feverishly to them and nothing, no response.  I posted to Facebook "does anyone know what just happened?" hoping someone, somewhere knew something.  Unable to reach anyone I offered my phone to nearby runners in case they could get through to their friends and family members.  A few texts went through, but all calls were dropped.  I quickly snapped this photo of the scene:

After 25.7 miles, they were so close to glory and suddenly robbed of the experience and simultaneously overcome with worry and fear for their loved ones waiting for them at the finish area.  And most of them were only wearing shorts and tank tops, sweaty and exhausted and unable to get water or dry clothes or even a mylar blanket.  I gave one girl using my phone to try and text her husband my jacket because she was shaking and sobbing.  Cops and ambulances flooded the area, bike cops came from further down the course and we opened the barricades for them to get through.  Helicopters hovered above.  Something was definitely very very bad. 

Once the barricade was opened, some runners tried to bypass the cop blocking the course.  We, myself and the other spectators in the area, tried to discourage them because something bad had happened and they closed the course for a reason.  It was clearly not safe to go that way.  I explained the emergency responders need to deal with the situation and more people flooding the area would only complicate things.  If they were worried about family it was still safer to stay put because everyone knows that are on the course somewhere and they could come this way to find them.  Some of the runners just needed to sit down.  Some started crying, some just sighed and accepted the situation.  One girl completely lost it, she must have been running her first Boston Marathon and she got within half a mile of finishing and was told to stop.

Having run the race twice before and watched several times I felt the pain and frustration for all of them getting so close to realizing a dream and not being able to finish.  At the same time I was overwhelmed with helplessness.  There were hundreds of runners and spectators and then drunk people coming out of the baseball game at Fenway.  Some mindlessly going towards the finish despite being told it wasn't safe.  Runners were freezing.  No one could get their cell phones to work.  Someone mentioned that emails were going through and I sent a quick message to my coworkers to let them know I was ok and to ask for information if they had any.

I got a few emails back explaining two bombs had gone off at the finish area.  People were starting to come from that area and describing the scene.  One guy said 35 people were dead another said hundreds injured, but no one dead.  And there was NOTHING we could do.  It was such a horrible feeling.  I wished I had the bags of discarded clothing that were collected at the start line or bottles of water to give out.  All I could do was hug the girl using my phone and try to reassure her that the fact that we couldn't reach her husband didn't mean he was harmed, it just meant that the cell phone towers were overwhelmed and no one could get through.

After a while I felt the need to walk the course and try to find my friends.  I needed to feel like I was doing SOMETHING.  I felt horrible taking my jacket back from the girl I gave it to, but we parted ways and she headed towards the finish to try and find her family.  I PRAY with all my heart that they were reunited.  I walked down Comm. Ave towards Kenmore Square and past more runners and hoards of baseball fans yelling explitives and drunken slurs not understanding the gravity of the situation, Fenway and the surrounding buildings were evacuated BECAUSE of the explosions in the direction they were walking, but they refused to listen to anyone and kept staggering towards the unknown.

I made it to the middle of Kenmore Square and quickly realized I was alone and would not be able to find anyone.  The street was completely empty and cops were taping off the course and guarding the T station.  There were a few people speaking in foriegn languages trying to figure out which way to go.  I tried to ask them where they needed to get to and gave them directions.  I started to walk back to Cambridge.  As I walked I passed another man trying to find his way and unable to clearly communicate.  He was tryng to get to Central Square so I told him I was headed that way and he could follow me.  Another woman was trying to get to the common and I had to think about it for a little bit and get my bearings, but eventually was able to guide her as well. 

Walking over the Mass Ave bridge towards Cambridge I imagined it must be what it was like in New York on 9/11, hoards of people with no place to go trying to get out of the city.  My mom called me, my phone was working but just barely.  The call dropped twice before I was able to tell her I was ok.  I chatted with the man I was leading ot Central Square, he was from Nepal.  He immigrated here a few months ago and was working at a Dunkin Donuts and an indian restaurant in hopes of becoming a citizen.  I asked him how long it took to travel from Nepal to Boston and he said 2 days.  A familiy behind us was discussing trying to get on the T or taking a cab and I directed them to a cab stand outside of my work.  I made it back to my car and dropped off my things and went into work to check in with everyone and re-charge my phone.  I sat down for the first time in hours and my whole body was still shaking.

I eventually made it home that night, still in shock and not sure I will ever completely recover from the events of the day, but incredibly thankful that all of my friends and family members are accounted for and safe.  My heart goes out to all of the runners and spectators impacted by Monday's explosions and I cannot express enough how impressed I am with the quick and professional response from all emergency personnel.  I am incredibly proud to call Boston my home. 
Artwork credit - Dan Blakeslee

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