Life

Returning To The Boston Marathon Offered A Lesson In Facing Fears

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When two pressure cooker bombs detonated at the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, I was not among the estimated 264 persons treated for injuries. Nor was I one of thousands of runners, volunteers and spectators who were caught in the vicinity of the blasts and — due to the authorities’ immediate response — unable to escape. I was miles away at a friend’s apartment near mile 22. Most of us were glued to the television, watching in equal parts horror and disbelief as emergency responders waded into the smoke and debris. A few of us updated social media to let others know they were okay, since nearby cellphone towers were overloaded.

I’d only been a New England resident since January and this was my first experience with the marathon. An act of terror that, as we later learned, would claim the lives of a young woman, a visiting Chinese student, an 8-year-old boy and an officer with M.I.T. campus police. No, I hadn’t been torn apart by shrapnel at the bomb sites. Nor was I gunned down by the suspects during a police chase three days later. Yet that bombing seemed to alter me irrevocably. I remember the voice in my head:

“Will you ever attend the marathon again, let alone stay in Boston? Because it’s not looking good, partner.”

No, it wasn’t looking good. Over the next two years, I’d never consciously decided to avoid the big race, but I always found myself somewhere else whenever Marathon Monday approached. In 2014 it was a cross-country trip with friends to run a relay race in Utah, an experience I wrote about for Trail Runner magazine. The year after that, it was a trip home to Texas to introduce my Yankee girlfriend, Laura to my decidedly un-Yankee family. It wasn’t until the 120th running of the Boston Marathon was just around the corner that I realized what was happening. I was looking for something to do, or somewhere else to be, because I didn’t want to be in Boston.

That’s when Laura suggested, and kept suggesting, that we stay in the city for the race. I couldn’t find a good enough excuse not to be there, so we stayed.

According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” This list of unfortunate events also includes terrorism, which the APA’s online help center added to its records in September 2001. The entry provides many examples of what “terrorism” might be, or what kinds of “trauma” it can cause, but the section “Who Is Affected?” has always interested me the most. The first two possibilities include survivors and witnesses of terrorist acts, and while the second applied to me and my friends indirectly, applying it to myself never felt right.

The third one did:

People who experience traumatization from learning of relatives, friends and acquaintances who were subject to the violence, or from exposure to repeated media accounts of the trauma.

Aside from a few acquaintances, I didn’t know anyone when I moved to Boston. The first people I met were members of a local running club, and they introduced me to their friends who-also-happened-to-be-runners. I quickly learned that running in Boston meant running with others, and attending these group outings — be they impromptu meetings or scheduled training runs — was my ticket to making a home for myself in a new place.

So of course I knew several people who were running the marathon that day. That’s why we were hanging around the 22-mile mark — not to use the city holiday as an excuse for excessive drinking (as many Boston-area college students do), but to celebrate the runners we knew and didn’t know as they sped past us towards mile 23. We split time between cheering along the route, watching local news coverage of the race, and checking in with the Boston Athletic Association’s tracking system to monitor the progress of our friends.

When the first bomb exploded at 2:49 p.m. local time, the race clock hit four hours, nine minutes and 43 seconds — the amount of time that had passed since the third wave left from the starting line. I knew a few qualifiers, but most of my marathon friends were charity runners who had been shooting for the four-hour mark.

The fear I felt for my new friends was paralyzing. I’m not afraid to call it traumatic.

 

“I’ve never been this far down before,” Laura said to me the 24-mile mark. In the past, she and her friends had always hung around the finish line in downtown. That’s where the biggest crowds would always gather — not to mention all the television cameras and decorative banners. It’s also where two brothers decided to place two homemade explosives during my first year in town. That time, Laura had been in Florida with a fellow music teacher.

After the bombs went off, life was a confusing, terrifying mess. Phones were useless, though every once in awhile we’d see a text message or Facebook post confirming someone’s well-being. That’s how I learned that one of my new friends had finished had around the three-hour mark, while two more were stopped just before making their final push. By the time they’d reached the marathon route’s last big turn, Boston police and emergency officials had already stopped the race.

Three years later, we scattered along the final few miles of the marathon route to cheer our friends to the finish line. A few were running the hallowed 26.2 miles for the first time, while others were doing it again. Once the street closures were lifted and the official timed race was over, we crossed the river to meet up with everyone at a favorite bar.

As we drank, I wasn’t thinking about trauma recovery or the oft-reported fact that no arrests were made that day. Instead, I enjoyed the company of friends and thought about which mile marker I’d like to camp out at for the 121st marathon in 2017. I wasn’t planning any cross country road trips or considering my April travel options anymore. Boston is my home, the marathon is one of it’s biggest events — so I’ll be there, from now on. Cheering.

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