5:30 AM: Wake up to “Eye of the Tiger” in my hotel room. Begin to freak out, which lasts all morning.
7 AM: Get on one of the very last school buses to take me, along with 27,000 other runners, to the starting line in Hopkinton.
9:15 AM: Find solace in a port-a-potty.
10:23 AM-1:37 PM: Ran my fastest marathon. Ever.
It starts out like every other marathon I’ve ever run. I’m a nervous wreck, too nervous to poop. I put on a sparkly headband (for the official race photos of course) and contemplate how sore my legs feel. My little brother is sleeping like a rock and all I can think is, “Mom, wake him up we’re going to be late.”
As we rush to Boston Commons, a wave of nostalgia takes over me at seeing familiar sights from a year ago: massive mobs of runners waiting for their spot on a bright yellow school bus, those school buses stretching on for miles and never seeming to end.
On the bus, anxious chatter fills the air; there is talk of qualifying times and the sound of sloshing water bottles and, “how many Bostons have you run?” among other intimidation tactics.
Yet unlike last year when I sat scared senseless on the bus next to these crazy people feeling, at the edge of my first marathon, feeling like an outsider, this year I belonged. It helps that my mom doesn’t repeat last year’s episode of “America’s most embarrassing mothers” by pressing her face to the bus window to take pictures of me across the aisle … instead she plays it cool and excitedly says, “I’ll see you at miles 10 and 20 just like last year.”
The bus driver starts the engine and skyscrapers and Boston Marathon billboards quickly turn to tall trees, one lane roads and modest farm houses straight out of Little House on the Prairie.
I know we’ve arrived when I see the athlete’s village, a fortress of compression socks, dreams and Gatorade, all held together by a wall of port-o-potties. I take care of my nervous bowel problems and rush off to the starting line. I am just one in a sea of runners. Watches are poised, sweatshirts are shed and major life decisions are contemplated as the announcer gives us a ten second countdown. Three, two, one. We’re off.
It started off like every other marathon.
1:37 PM: “Mom, mom all I want to know is what time did I do?”
“Um, let me check my text update. Hold on.”
Alex, it’s ok if you didn’t beat your PR. You just ran a marathon four weeks ago. Your body isn’t even fully recovered yet.
“Yes yes yes yes yes yes YES!” I yell out, pumping my fist in the air.
2:45 PM: (after reuniting with my family and friends at the finish line family meeting area).
“Let’s go get lunch, I’m hungry.”
“No, let’s go to the hotel first, it’s literally right across the street.”
“Come on, Mom, I just ran a marathon. I want food.”
“All right, all right, you’re right. Let’s go.”
2:49 PM: Two bombs explode near the finish line.
2:53 PM: We look for a Table inside Flour Café bustling with locals and sweaty runners eager to replenish lost energy stores.
I go to the bathroom and on my way pass two sobbing ladies, both dressed in tasteful black dresses and wearing Boston Marathon VIP badges. With my sweat-matted hair and shiny medal, they take me for a runner. Between sobs they ask, “Did you hear? About the bomb?” My bewildered stare tells them I have not. “People died,” they say.
It’s packed and there is no place to sit. We see two guys hurriedly gather their belongings. Seeing this as an opportunity for a table, we go over and ask “Can we take your table?” “Yeah, we’re getting out of here” one of the two guys replies. “What?” is my instinctive reaction. Flashing me his cell phone with CNN breaking news he says, “Look. A bomb exploded at the finish line.” They tear off and we are left dumbfounded.
I look behind me out the large glass window of the café to see hundreds of people – runners, spectators, citizens, anyone and everyone on the streets – running in the same direction. It is the most surreal moment of my life. One ambulance drives by. Then another. Then another. I count them as they go, about two every minute. There is chaos outside, yet inside this little café I somehow feel removed from it. No one can see me but I can see them. Time stops inside that café as we contemplate what to do. Our family friend from Boston advises us to stay here and wait.
Our cell phones are blowing up with calls and text messages from concerned friends and family, but our phones aren’t working. Nobody’s are. Everyone in the café is exchanging confused glances and asking who has a signal. The messages come pouring in but none can be returned. An, “I’m thinking about you,” message quickly turns into, “I’m really concerned,” which becomes, “Alex, please just text me back so I know you’re ok.” Only later do we find out the city temporarily shut down cell service for fear another bomb would be activated by cell phone like the last two.
Deciding that maybe we will have better reception at our hotel, or that wi-fi could possibly help, we brave the street. We arrive at the Fairmont Copley Plaza to see police guarding the hotel. As my mom goes to reach for the door a policeman outstretches his arms and says, “No one is allowed inside the hotel.” My mom fumbles in her purse for the room key and raises it in the air. “Look. We are staying here.” “Fine,” he says, “but once you enter you can’t leave.” We exchange glances and say, “okay.”
The lobby is bustling with restless guests, most of them related to the marathon in some way or another, as it is the host hotel for the event. We are on lockdown for the rest of the night. At some point, cell service resumes and I am able to let worried friends and family know that I am safe.
The next day, the streets are fenced off and the city feels deserted, like a scene from I am Legend. The few people roaming outside are media. I convince my reluctant mother and nervous little brother to join me on a stroll outside for some fresh air before our flight that afternoon. Gates are being put up liberally by the National Guard, preserving the remnants of Marathon Monday. Caution tape was Boston's artwork. Just beyond the tape and gates lie crumpled up water cups and discarded Mylar blankets, but instead of sweaty runners celebrating their accomplishment there are police cars and an empty void.
We leave Boston closed in somberness.
I came to realize through this horrific experience that I am loved. The dozens and dozens of text messages, phone calls and emails making sure I was okay from best friends and family to college professors and old high school acquaintances were overwhelming. But they showed me that I am part of a larger community that cares for me. Every time I pass someone in a Boston Marathon jacket we give each other a nod. We don’t know each other, but that nod says I love you nonetheless.