A makeshift memorial near the finish line of the Boston Marathon 2013. (Photo: Shutterstock)
I’m a runner because my Mom is a runner.
I think I was in the ninth grade the first time I ever went for a run on my own. I believe we called it “jogging” back then. This was directly inspired by my mom, who had run the Boston Marathon a few years earlier. “Running Boston” is a big deal where I’m from; I grew up 12 minutes away from the marathon’s starting line in Hopkington. My mom went on to run Boston two more times before I’d finish college. Seeing her run Boston made me want to run Boston.
I was never a track star, or any type of athlete, really; I’d just do my three-mile runs now and then. Back in 2000, I decided I’d train to run the Boston Marathon as a “bandit” (a.k.a., without a number). I worked my way up to a 10-mile training run, one of those “It’s January, five degrees out, wind whipping from the Hudson River” training runs, before I convinced myself that my knees were so messed up from snowboarding (at the ripe old age of 24!) that I’d never be able to do it. So I just gave up.
About ten years later, in 2010, our friends at Camp Interactive (an amazing charity that helps inner-city youth learn technology skills) asked if I wanted to run the New York City Marathon for them as a fundraiser. This was about a year into building Foursquare , arguably one of the harder challenges I’ve ever taken on , so although my first thought was, “I tried the marathon thing before and I don’t think I can do it”, my second thought was, “If I can handle Foursquare, I’m sure I can handle a marathon”. So I trained. And I ran it. And I finished. 4:19. Not the best time—I had to walk a little—but hey, I finished it.
The police officers who were blocking off the street said there was “an accident.” Runners started piling up — people who just ran for four hours and 25 miles coming to an abrupt stop with nowhere else to go, nowhere to walk.
I went through this again in 2012, when Camp Interactive offered me a fundraising spot for the NYC Triathlon. First thought: “Sounds great, but I can’t swim.” Second thought: “If I can handle Foursquare, I’m sure I can survive a one-mile swim”. So I trained. I did it (though I almost drowned; long story). And I finished.
Then in 2013, Camp Interactive offered both my wife, Chelsa, and I the opportunity to run the Boston Marathon. No hesitation this time . Getting a number for Boston is no easy task: Normally you have to qualify, and to quality you have to be fast, which means you ran a sub-3:10 marathon elsewhere. But a spot on the Camp Interactive fundraising team was a golden ticket that gave me a chance to run without qualifying. It was a shot to run the race I watched my Mom run way back when, the one that that inspired me to start running in the first place. Running Boston was a big deal to me.
So we trained, and we ran it. Chelsa ran on a bum knee yet still ran super-fast. I felt good until I hit Heartbreak Hill, then struggled from mile 20 on. I had to walk a bit, but I was going to finish. I really wanted to finish.
I was about half a mile from the finish line when the bombs went off. I didn’t hear them (I was wearing headphones) or see them (I hadn’t yet turned the corner from Mass Ave onto Boylston). I was one of the first five-or-so people to get stopped in what ended up being a mass of about 4,000 people who didn’t get to finish the race. None of us knew that a bomb went off—the police officers who were blocking off the street said there was “an accident,” and we all assumed there was a car crash somewhere on Comm Ave. Why else would you close the course mid-race? Why else would you close the finish line? Runners started piling up — people who just ran for four hours and 25 miles coming to an abrupt stop with nowhere else to go, nowhere to walk. The sun was just starting to disappear over the top of the buildings, and it started getting cold really fast. We had no idea what was going on, so we just stood there. Probably five or ten minutes passed.
I had no idea where my wife was, except for that fact that she was in front of me somewhere.
I first heard about the bombs via a Twitter direct message sent from my buddy Ryan Sarver. “Are you okay? Bombs at finish line.” Whoa, bombs? Finish line? Cell service was super-spotty. I wasn’t getting any texts. Most runners didn’t have their phones, and the few who did had little battery left by this point. A few minutes later, a mass of people started running in our direction, many crying, some covered in debris. I started getting texts from friends: “Are you okay?” “Is Chelsa okay?” “Are your parents okay?”
I had no idea where Chelsa was, except for that fact that she was in front of me somewhere. We got split up around mile 16. I’m thinking: “Bombs at the finish line? I’m four mins from finishing the race . . . and Chelsa can’t be any more than 10 mins ahead of me.” (My stomach just dropped as I typed this, and all the emotion came rushing back.) And somewhere in that half mile from here to the finish line, my mom, my dad and my cousin Michelle were waiting to cheer us on for that last stretch down Boylston Street.
Another five minutes passed. I got a text message from Michelle first. She was okay. Within a few minutes, she was able to confirm that my mom and dad were okay too. A few minutes later I got a text from Chelsa that she had already crossed the finish line and was okay, though she was in a panic because she didn’t know where she was (she doesn’t know Boston at all) and couldn’t get in touch with anyone.
Now, what just took you five seconds to read took me about ten minutes to piece together — which was a pretty awful ten minutes. And while I’m trying to send and re-send all these texts, I’m also letting people borrow my phone so they can call and text their friends and families to tell them they’re okay, and my phone is buzzing like crazy from my friends texting and calling trying to figure out if I’m okay, and on top of that a bunch of reporters keep calling trying to get me to report live from the scene (they had my phone number from Foursquare stuff — this was especially annoying).
She was crying, and she had dust and debris from the bombs in her hair. She had been standing directly across the street from where both bombs went off.
Meanwhile, back in New York City (and elsewhere, I suppose), I had lots of friends keeping tabs on my progress through Foursquare and Twitter thanks to an app (UberCheckin) I set up to auto-check-in at each mile marker. Those following along on the internets were seeing my checkins and tweets as I made it past Mile 22… Mile 23… Mile 24… Mile 25 … but then, nothing. My brother was one of the people who was following along on Twitter, heard about the bombings (via Instant Messenger from our buddy Will), noticed I never made it past mile 25 and felt some of what I felt while stuck at Mile 25. I wasn’t able to get my first “I’m ok” tweet out until 3:07 (about 20 mins after the bombs went off), which can feel like forever when you take connectivity for granted.
I ended up stuck at the corner of Mass and Comm Avenues for about 45 minutes. After lots of dropped calls and texts-that-barely-sent, my cousin Michelle and I found each other. She was crying, and she had dust and debris from the bombs in her hair. She had been standing directly across the street from where both bombs went off.
I went straight to the office. I sat at my desk numb and aimless until I made myself go home. I cried at my desk twice that week.
Together, we walked to Symphony Hall — the rendezvous point chosen over the course of 50 dropped text messages. Somewhere along the line, my mom found my dad. My dad found Chelsa. When we all saw each other for the first time, I cried. My Mom was holding Chelsa, who was shaking from being in shock. They were crying too. We were all a mess.
I never saw the finish line. Or any of the blood or smoke. We got in the car, drove home and listened to the radio. We all went to dinner together and sat there and watched the news for two hours. My mom and I drove back to NYC the next day, and I went straight to the office. I sat at my desk numb and aimless until I made myself go home. I cried at my desk twice that week. I was trying hard to just get back to normal, and it wasn’t working. Chelsa and I both got hit with norovirus later that week. We ended up laying on the couch for five days straight just watching the news.
Fast forward a few weeks. I got a package in the mail from my mom with the marathon medal I wasn’t able to pick up in person. (She grabbed it for me a few days after the bombing — runners who didn’t get to finish were still given an estimated completion time and awarded a medal). I wore it under my sweatshirt for a few days.
Fast forward a month. In May, I got an email from the Boston Marathon folks breaking the news that anyone who didn’t get to cross the finish line would get the chance to run again in 2014. I was surprised by the number of people who asked me, “Are you going to do it? Are you sure? Aren’t you worried?” But no hesitation this time, either —I was 100% in. Fast forward a year. Last weekend, I caught a post on Tumblr honoring both the victims and the survivors. It hit me much harder than I expected emotionally. It’s what motivated me to write this post.
So here we are today, four days out. I’m ready to run it again. I’m ready to finish it this time. I’m hoping finishing will give me some closure/relief from whatever is still left over from last year. It’s clear that there’s still some unresolved shock and grief that I didn’t deal with a year ago, and I’m looking forward to letting that go.
This race means a lot to me. I’m fired up for it.
As mentioned, I’m running to support Camp Interactive — an organization full of great people dedicated to helping inner-city kids learn technology and leadership skills. If you can, I’d love it if you’d be willing to chip in a few bucks to support their cause.
This piece originally appeared on Medium.