The first thing that happened to me during my debut Boston Marathon was two veteran runners made sure I got corralled onto the right bus in Boston Commons. I don’t know if they recognized how overwhelmed I was by the crowds, but they kept their eye on me and guided me through the chaos. We never exchanged names. On the bus I found an empty seat next to another runner who I knew was fast. His bib number was 4,000 lower than mine. And he was quiet too.
When we reached Hopkinton I thanked the driver before exiting. He wished me good luck. The BAA volunteers greeting us in the parking lot directed us where we needed to go. It was 7 a.m. and they were cheery. They had already been standing in the cold for hours. As I waited in line for the port-a-potties I listened to the conversations around me: strangers exchanging training stories and wishing each other well. Eventually I worked up the nerve to the same.
On the line I made friends with a woman from Florida. We confessed that it was our first Boston and how anxious we felt. She said she had only trained on flats. I had trained on mountain passes. So I told her what I was told: don’t go out too fast. You’ll blow out your legs from the downhill and have nothing left for the last six miles. We crossed our fingers and wished each other luck. The race began and we lost track of each other after the first mile.
Throughout the race I saw remarkable things: A man pushing himself backwards up a hill in a wheelchair with one leg. I nodded at him. Or at least I tried to. I passed a man running with a prosthetic limb and a blind woman running with a guide. Every so often I would come upon members of the military running or walking the course with heavy packs. The crowd would inevitably break out into chants of USA! USA! USA! It was fitting. Marathon Monday is on Patriots Day in Massachusetts. I saw my family posted where they said they would be at mile 10. I got a little choked up as I continued on.
At the halfway point the thought of backing off ran through my mind as it always does during a marathon. But I didn’t. You couldn’t have asked for a better day Munson, I told myself. I ignored the blisters forming under my big toes. There was nothing I could do about them then. I accepted popsicles from strangers and occasionally touched hands with someone in the crowd because that is what you do at Boston. The last four miles I saw the Citgo sign and ran towards it. My old apartment was just around the bend.
As I slingshot around the final corner and onto Boylston Street I could see the finish line. I strode the final quarter mile. I was close. I was happy. The crowd was bigger and louder here than anywhere else. I collected hugs from the volunteers at the end – my former high school coaches – and was wrapped in a warming blanket. And then I found my family. This is what it means to finish the Boston Marathon. At least that is what it was like for me.
One hour later I was showering in my hotel room and some asshole changed that. I came out of the bathroom to see images of explosions at the finish line. Someone blew up my city. They blew up people I had just seen. I usually cry a little after I race. I think it’s the endorphins crashing. I didn’t after I finished this time. I broke down in my room. And it had nothing to do with endorphins.
I looked out the window from the 22nd floor and watched ambulances streaming towards Copley. We packed our bags and checked out, collected the car, and tried to navigate closed streets towards 93 and the suburbs. In the backseat I watched fellow runners who were just finishing or never got to looking cold and confused. A woman who had a phone put her hand across her eyes and wept. BPD fanned out across the city and tried to organize the chaos. Helicopters were overhead. This is not my city I kept thinking. Some asshole just blew up my city.
Right before we got onto the highway we pulled over for seven ambulances that were heading to area hospitals. We would later learn that a bomb was planted outside Tufts Medical Center and another that wasn’t detonated was underneath the bleachers where my parents had been sitting an hour before. The entire ride home I fielded text messages from concerned family and friends.
They reported that the phone lines were clogged. Later we learned the lines were cut in case the bombs were being detonated by phone. At home we looked through pictures my parents took of me the night before the race at the finish line. We were looking to see if there was anything in the background we should have noticed but didn’t.
Before bed I received an email from someone saying that they were choosing to focus on the positive things that happened that day. I wanted to write back Fuck you. You weren’t there. It’s not your hometown. But I didn’t. I just closed my laptop and thought terrible things. For me, less than five hours after people’s legs got blown off and three others were killed is too early for focusing on the positives of the day.
I am scared that things will change. You run Boston because of the crowd support. Boston is the crowd. It is the volunteers. It is getting to cross the finish line and saying you did it. I choke up when I think of how my day began and how I finished and what thousands of others didn’t get to feel at the finish line. People remember last year’s race because thousands of runners didn’t start the race due to the intense heat. People will remember this year’s race because of the thousands who started and didn’t get to finish.
My brother in law is Israeli. He texted support saying he has experience with this sort of event: The best advice I ever got was from an old man who told me that no matter what happens keep living, keep smiling life goes on. They only win if you do actually live in fear. So with a fresh qualifying time under my belt I intend to run the 118th Boston Marathon. And I am going to do it wearing a giant middle finger on my chest.