Friday, June 21, 2013
I ran in the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. This is the story of what happened before 2:50pm that day. The story about which I have not really been asked; about which I have been a borderline amnesiac.
There is a story after 2:50pm too, a story that includes both breathless fear and also a guardian angel that helped reunite me with my family (who were thankfully physically unharmed) and to whom I will forever be grateful. That story I have told repeatedly over the past month, at first a desperate stream of words to anyone who would listen, and now a more reluctant and circumscribed version, perhaps in response to the naturally ebbing interest of others who are moving on.
But the story of what happened before the tragic events of that day, that story, for me at least, is one of the casualties of the attack. In no way comparable to the grievous harm inflicted on so many (both physical and psychological), but a loss in its own right. My sense is that anyone who attempts a marathon has stories that are at once in common with and distinct from everyone else’s. But this year those stories – giddy, magnificent, silly, mundane – became unworthy in an instant, trivial against the enormity of such incomprehensible violence. And so, since that day there has been very little "remember when we were running and..." or "how funny was it when…" between my running partner and me. I have been deprived of creating the narrative on which memories of a first marathon are made and preserved. I want that story back. I want my run back. Back from those who took it from me and so many others running that day.
The problem is, I'm still trying to remember. I recall my mom taking my picture in my kitchen at 5am as I double-checked my fuel pack (and that even with double and triple checks I forgot my banana and was so happy to find one at our team's pre-race meeting spot). I remember the nervous energy of the bus ride to Hopkinton. I remember the DJ in the tent where we waited before the start dedicating Alicia Keys' "This Girl is on Fire" to a member of our team. I remember lining up, watching the second wave runners rush by us in the third wave to the start, and the crowds of the corrals. I remember feeling conflicted about putting my sweatshirt in the clothes donation bag as we filed in to start. I remember trying to get my satellite location on my GPS watch and it seeming to take forever. I remember thinking that I am part of something much bigger than myself, much bigger than my own experience.
I can still feel the exhilaration of crossing the starting line, my surprise at how difficult running through a water station is (all those cups!), scanning the crowd at various spots for friends we thought we'd see. I remember knowing my legs were tight at mile 13 but we had hit our split! I heard the sounds of the screaming women at Wellesley and thought, "this is really happening". And I learned that in fact I don't like having strangers call out my name (I had written “Kate” on my shirt); that at times, when the road was narrow, the metal barriers pressing in from both sides, I felt like an animal in a cage at the zoo being watched, and perhaps in my case anonymity and headphones might actually be a good idea for any future road race. As we approached the hills I remember thinking (and possibly muttering) that I am not doing this again. I couldn't speak by the time our friend ran out from the crowd around mile 19, jumping and shouting and throwing Jolly Ranchers at us. I almost missed seeing my sister and her husband, who were waiting for us after Heartbreak Hill; the picture she took of us passing by does not show the pain I already felt at that point - the strain it had become; so much worse than during our longest training run. Was it the sun making me feel so sick to my stomach, I wondered? I remember asking my running partner "is there any shade AT ALL on this course??" I poured water over my head repeatedly; I didn't want to drink too much because I felt so sick and yet I was drawn to all available water and hoped it would somehow quench my thirst by osmosis through my skin. I had given up on my fuel belt, now sloshing around my waist with warm Gatorade, and moved from water station to water station. I stopped running and walked for a bit around mile 24 to stretch my legs and try to keep myself from vomiting. Then I kept running; kept thinking about my kids; kept telling myself “you gave birth without drugs, God damn it, this is nothing”; kept thinking about the family in Newtown, Connecticut whose son’s initials were written on my shirt, pretending that pain is a zero sum game, and the more I experienced the more they would be relieved of theirs. I told myself anything and everything just to keep my legs moving forward.
And then I saw the Citgo sign. And the sign that tells you that you have one more mile to run. And I knew. I finally knew. I would finish. The doubt that had plagued me for much of the race disappeared. I started to lean on the crowd, to let in their calls of support. To finally enjoy hearing my name. "You can do it Kate. You're almost there." I knew I was off my pace. I would not finish in my goal of four hours, but I would finish. I looked at my watch one more time and it registered 4 hours and 7 minutes. I had a picture in my head and I played it over and over: my family at the finish line, my three little boys beaming proud, the hot shower I would take, the water I would drink. I started chanting in my head "right on Hereford, left on Boylston" and thought of the T-shirt with the same slogan that I had almost bought before the race as a gift to my running partner and myself. I will go back and get those after the race, I thought. I saw the Green line T out of the corner of my left eye and wondered if my sister and brother-in-law were on it, traveling in from Heartbreak Hill. How funny if when I saw them at the finish they said, "We SAW you from the T! We saw you running at the end!"
And then I was told to stop.
The past weeks have been more complicated than I could have ever imagined. Some of the "what ifs" and the "if onlys" are too painful for me to think about just yet. I have instead obsessed over the exact distance between where I was stopped, just shy of Massachusetts Avenue, and the finish line. I recently returned to Boylston Street, walking backward from the finish line to roughly where I remember standing that day, confused and cold, my body and brain so depleted that I could not understand the command to stop. I did not feel right walking it in the same direction I would have run, had things been different that day. I did not feel worthy. Using my GPS app, I determined that it is about .76 of a mile. To be honest I thought I was a little closer. I had estimated it at about .4. We joked after, half-heartedly, that we would get a "25.8" sticker for my car instead of 26.2. And even as I obsess over it, I'm not sure it matters. I don't know that crossing that distance, on its own or even following 25.44 miles, would fix anything anyway.
I do not feel "Boston Strong". Frankly, I’m not quite sure what the term means. I am shaken to my core. Shaken at a cellular level. That does not mean I am afraid. I am not afraid. I am not terrorized. But I AM traumatized. Because being unafraid and having your world turned upside down are unfortunately not mutually exclusive.
And I have not yet determined what steps forward will help repair that. Will I run another Boston Marathon? The Boston Athletic Association has graciously invited us back, and I applaud them for that decision - but I don't yet know if I can. If my family can. Will I run another marathon at all? Will I run out that final distance that eluded me? Will I find some other way to feel complete? I don't have the answers to these questions, but I reject any implication that not showing up next year, if that is my choice, is a victory for the cowards who attacked us that day. I don't think the answers come for everyone in the same time, and certainly not within the time it takes for the standard news cycle to run its course and for most people to move on with their lives. It has, after all, only been one month. And even the snapshot I share today is only that; additional details continue to come to me (even as I write this) and I hope I can record them and preserve them in some way going forward.
I ran hundreds of miles in 18 weeks of training. I pulled several muscles. I strained my Achilles' tendon. I went to physical therapy for many weeks. I spent precious hours away from my husband, my children and my job -- running. I raised thousands of dollars for Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital (and am comforted that the charity I ran for is playing such a huge role in healing those hurt). And on April 15, 2013, I ran 25.44 miles in just over 4 hours.
And with all of that, I never could have imagined that the .76 of a mile I didn’t run would hurt the most. Not because I was robbed of finishing, although that is certainly a part of it. But because it was in the time when that distance went untraveled that I feared the worst had happened; that I allowed myself to believe the unthinkable. And it was in that untraveled distance that my story changed - not just the ending, but also the beginning and the middle too.
So that is why I'm re-telling (and re-claiming) it now. Because it matters. Because for months I exhorted and drove myself to April 15. Because I trained through a harsh, sometimes brutal, winter. And because when the day came I actually ran. And even though my accomplishments after 2:50pm are framed in terms of survival (mine and my friends’ and my family's), that doesn't mean my accomplishments, and the accomplishments of all the runners that day before 2:50pm do not exist.
And maybe, just maybe, some day I'll believe my own words. Maybe I will take my medal out from its confinement to my sock drawer, and I'll put it on. Maybe I will smile at my memories of what I did before things came apart on that day. Maybe I will allow myself to feel accomplished, even proud. And maybe, in doing so, I’ll propel myself a little further past the harder memories of what followed. Because even if I accept the BAA's generous offer to join them next year, that still wouldn’t write the ending to this story - but it would be a story unto itself I am sure.