A Runner’s Story of 26.13 Miles

Of course, if you asked, I could have told you hundreds of ways I thought my story would play out, but never did I imagine an ending as tragic as this. As we all know, this day that was supposed to be of joy and celebration became a day where running a marathon was of no importance. However, my story still needs to start from the beginning to understand how quickly the day changed from running towards the finish line, to running for my life…

My name is Ginger and I live in Arizona. I am a wife, mother, amateur athlete and freelance designer.

Two years ago I never would have believed you if you told me I was going to run the Boston Marathon. I was a cyclist and triathlete, but not “a runner.” And even when I did run, I was not very fast.

However, the more I ran, the more I liked it and the faster I got (thanks to my Tuesday 5:15am track workout group!). In January 2012 I ran my first marathon, the Carlsbad Marathon, “for fun” with a friend. I was on pace to qualify for Boston except made a wrong turn on the course, putting me at the finish line but with three miles still left to run. Marathon #1: DQ

I was pretty upset about having trained for 26.2 and only have run 23.2, and determined to finish what I set out to do. So on the drive home to Tucson that same day I signed up for the Lost Dutchman Marathon in Arizona three weeks later. I gave it my all and ran all 26.2 miles, this time with a Boston qualifying time (never mind the fact I couldn’t walk for a week afterwards!). Marathon #2: BQ!

In September 2012, I registered for Boston. I paid my registration, reserved my hotel and planned my training for the next six months.

Of course nothing goes as planned. With 14 weeks to go, right as base training is done and things are getting serious, I had my ITB go out on me.

I could barely walk, let alone run. I took four weeks completely off and became obsessed with IB recovery. I didn’t think I was going to be able to go, but I couldn’t imagine April 15th coming and me not being there. Perseverance became my theme.

I was gradually able to get back to a run/walk. I started the marathon cramming plan. 6, 9, 14, 17, 20 miles on Saturdays. Weekdays were spent deep water running. This went against all training plans, but at this point I was going for fun and I just wanted to finish. I knew I could cross the finish line even if I had to walk.

Prologue: I turn over and look at the clock for what has to be the hundredth time that night. 4:00am. Still 1-1/2 hours until I need to wake up. I close my eyes again but do not go back to sleep fearing one of the multiple alarm clocks I have set will not go off and thus fail to wake me in time. Instead I lay there in the darkness thinking about the day ahead with nervous anticipation.

You see, it is the morning of my first Boston Marathon. THE Boston Marathon. The marathon of all marathons. The marathon all runners know about. The marathon most runners dream about running one day, while knowing only a select number have the ability to qualify and the opportunity to participate. For 116 years, runners from around the world have been running the historic 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston, through the beautiful New England streets lined with thousands of enthusiastic fans cheering them on. Today was number 117 and I was going to be a part of it!

I had qualified, I had been accepted and I had trained. And in just a few hours I would feel the exhilaration of crossing the Boston Finish Line, be holding my coveted Boston Marathon Medal, wearing the prestigious finishers shirt, and have MY story to tell about how I ran the 117th Boston Marathon…

Marathon Weekend: The Boston Marathon is not just about showing up at the start line on Patriots’ Day morning and waiting for the gun to go off.

It is an entire weekend of excitement, energy and anticipation. Runners start to fill the streets of Boston days before the marathon. It is easy to pick them out of the crowd, not only because of their stature and choice to wear athletic shoes as a fashion statement, but because of the iconic Boston Marathon Jacket.

Veterans of the race wear previous years jackets proclaiming “Yes, I have run this race before and am back to run it again!” Newbies, like myself, are wearing the brand new 2013 jacket screaming “I am a first timer and am so excited to be here!” Regardless which jacket we were wearing, those of us wearing them would exchange an unspoken look or nod of being part of the same club. As race day grew closer, so did the number of jackets walking around the city.

Getting my number

The Expo: First stop of marathon weekend is the race expo in Hynes Convention Center, where you go to pick up your race bag and spend oodles of money on marathon memorabilia (including the afore mentioned race jacket).

Along with what was anticipated to be 80,000 others, I milled around the large exhibit hall munching on samples of power bars, checking out the latest running gear and watching the looped video that previewed the entire course and scared you even more about the Newton Hills.

After the expo we walked down Boylston Street to the where they were setting up the finish line. I admired it with awe, snapped a few photos and hope my undertrained legs would be able to carry me there on Monday. However, I knew deep down that not crossing that finish line was not an option, because I had come a long way and would do anything to get there.

Little did I know…

The rest of the weekend was spent doing typical touristy things that would leave me with very tired legs come race day. We took in a Red Sox game at Fenway (Sox won, bottom of the tenth!), walked the campus of Boston University (where my husband completed his masters online this year), strolled through the Boston Common and stopped for a 26.2 Samuel Adams brew at Cheers (NORM!). Well, my husband did. I had a 26.2 cup of water.

We ended the weekend Sunday night with the pre-race marathon pasta dinner at the Civic Center. There is nothing better than a free, steaming hot plate of carbs to put in your belly the night before the race. We met up with an old college friend who was also running Boston for the first time. Over dinner we shared stories of how we qualified for Boston, the hurdles we had to overcome during our training, what we had heard about the course and what our goals were for the next day. I am sure the conversation was similar at the hundreds of other tables surrounding us.

As I was laying out my gear and going to bed that night, I told my husband “This has been an absolutely perfect weekend. Now I just have 26.2 miles to run to cross that finish line to have the perfect ending.”

Race Morning: It’s here. If you have ever participated in any sporting event you know the feeling of race morning. Pretty much you could throw up at any moment (although I would save this for later). Questioning my sanity six months ago when I signed up to do this, I manage to get my race gear on, layer myself in warm clothes (it was 39 degrees outside!), check (and recheck) the gear in my official BAA race bag, and walk the half mile from our hotel over to Boston Common to get on the buses at 6:30 in the morning.

Staging area, Boston Common, 6:30am

As the Boston Marathon is a point-to-point race, runners are required to take an hour long ride on one of the 380 school buses they have arranged to transport them out to the Athletes’ Village staging area in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.

On the bus I sat next to a woman from Boston who was running for the MS charity. Thankfully the ride went by quickly as I listened to her stories of her training runs along the course and what to look for during the run. She was a charity runner and this was her first marathon. She was diagnosed with MS last year, had raised over $5000 for her charity and she just wanted to finish.

I don’t think she did.

Athletes’ Village: After an hour long bus ride, you and 27,000 other runners who have to pee very badly, arrive at Athletes’ Village.

Athletes’ Village is a school yard that has basically been turned into a temporary refugee camp surrounded by porta potties for the runners to wait until their start of the race (Note: most runners are there for about two hours).

Wrapped in our plastic trash bags for warmth and carrying our bright yellow race bags filled with our only possessions, we resemble what a convention of the homeless might look like. Runners filled every inch of space in the compound – sitting, walking, stretching, laying down, jogging, slathering themselves with Vaseline and sunscreen, standing in porta pottie lines, sleeping, eating, etc. Nervous chatter and excitement filled the air.

Here in Athletes’ Village I had plans to meet up with a woman I met online. Kind of like a marathon blind date. I had met her in one of the Runners World online forums and we had discovered through email we were about the same age, in the same wave, had approximately the same qualifying time, we were both injured and had the same goal for Boston (which, by the way, was to relax and enjoy the whole experience!). Matchmakers.com could have not done a better job! We had agreed we would meet before the race and start out together in an “uncommitted marathon relationship”. Meaning, if one of us wanted to go faster at anytime, we would.

Finding someone you never met in a large crowd is not easy, but we finally meet up at the buses where we drop off our race bags. We make our introductions as we head over to the porta potty lines for our final pit stop. Unfortunately the lines were long, moved slowly and we gravely underestimated the time to walk the .75 mile to the corrals.

Line of runners on walk to start

Along with a few other Wave 2 runners, we quickly tried to weave our way through the remaining 8,000 runners who were lining up for Wave 3, and finally made it to the start line. Only just a few minutes too late. Our wave had already left and they told us we now had to wait 20 minutes for the next wave to go off. In the moment I dismissed this because I was just there to have fun and didn’t care when I started. Plus, it gave us a good photo op at the start line. Later, I wonder if I would have started when I was supposed to, if I would have been past the finish line when the terror occurred.

Start line in Hopkinton, 10:30am

I must interject here that meeting my marathon buddy was the one of the best things that happened to me for the Boston Marathon. Things are always so much better when you have someone to share them with. Strangely enough, although I was surrounded by thousands of other people, I was ultimately alone to run the race. But now I had a new friend and she became my someone. My best friend for the next 20 miles. Two strangers, from different states, brought together by the same wave number and common thread of running, who could share their first experience of Boston with each other. We talked about family and training but mostly talked about what was happening around us. We pointed out to each other the sites along the way, commented on the great fans, kept each other on pace and reminded each other to GU and hydrate. We also kept reminding each other that this really was happening. We were running the Boston Marathon.

THE FIRST 5K: Without much pomp and circumstance the gun goes off and we start. The first 5k is all downhill and somewhat of a blur. Within moments hundreds of runners fly by us and we do a quick glance back to confirm we are not the last ones. It is hard holding back, but going out too fast at Boston is a mistake many veterans have warned us about, so we do a good job reminding each other to relax and slow down, because we have a long way to go. I take note of the absolutely beautiful weather and scenery. Ashland comes and goes.

10K: After mile 4 we settle into a rhythm and decide to walk through the water stations to make sure we are hydrating well. The crowds are AMAZING and yelling my name (which I printed on my shirt) as I run by, making me feel like a super star. I can’t believe how many people have come out to watch us run. We see thousands of runners ahead of us and behind us, but it is not too crowded to stay together and run our pace. We enter into Framingham and see the train station. Feeling great!

8 MILES: Natick is next. I think it was my favorite stretch of the race. The town was really cute and the fans were great! We appreciated everybody who had their speakers out motivating us with “Eye of the Tiger” and other great music to pump us up. It is fun reading all the signs the fans have made and giving the kids high fives as I run past. The miles are going by quickly.

The Scream Tunnel

13.1: Half way! We are getting ready to enter into the famous Wellesley Scream tunnel. And a scream tunnel it is! If you are a single guy looking for a date I suggest you train for a half marathon and just stop here. There are a lot of self proclaimed “sexually frustrated” girls with signs reading “Kiss me I am from Alaska” or “Stop running after your dream because she is standing right here.” Kudos for all you girls for coming out and screaming for so long! At this point my stomach is starting to feel a little queasy. I try to ignore it and move forward.

Mile 16: Newton. Home to the Newton Hills and the infamous Heartbreak Hill. This is the point in the race we have been waiting for. Five more miles to the top of Heartbreak and then downhill from there. We have been slowly climbing since mile 14, but are on the lookout for the right hand turn at the fire station, where the first of three hills officially starts. We finally see it up ahead. We make the turn onto a crowd filled street and start climbing.

My seat mate on the school bus warned me the first hill was the steepest and just to keep my eye out for the 35 MPH sign that marked the top. I actually felt pretty good going up the hill and was relieved the sign wasn’t as far as I had anticipated. It was when I started going down my stomach started to slosh and protest. Mind over matter. I ignored it and focused on the beautiful houses and cheering fans.

We run downhill for a bit and start our second ascent. I don’t remember this one much, as I just put my head down and focused on getting to the top. One more to go.

Mile 20: Heartbreak Hill! You can’t miss it because thousands of fans are screaming and holding signs telling you that you are there! At this point I am really starting to not feel good so instead of embracing the fans, I put on my ipod, focus on the road in front of me and try to convince myself once I get to the top I will feel better. Drinking a beer from a red cup the BC students were holding out was the last thing I wanted to do! I see others walking. I keep running. I get to the top and my body is not cooperating. My marathon buddy had fallen behind on the hill, but now runs by. I silently wish her luck but have no desire to try and keep up with her. My pace slows. I look down and my Garmin has stopped working. This is not going well.


Eric takes a picture of me at mile 22

MILE 22: Yay! Brighton. This is where Eric is. 100 yards past the water station on the left he told me. I look ahead and am so excited to see him. I stop and give him a stinky hug and kiss. He offers me M&M’s. Pretty much the last thing I wanted. I decline, wave goodbye, and keep running. Only four more miles. I tell myself that is nothing. I do four miles all the time. It will be over in a flash. Everyone is suffering right now and this is the time to dig deep. We make a left hand turn onto Comm Ave and I am hit with a cold head wind. Never mind what I was just thinking.

MILE 23: I loose the battle with my stomach. Luckily there is a patch of dirt uninhabited by fans that I can spew my undigested GU, water, and Gatorade forever marking my territory in Brookline. I feel slightly better, but am cold and dizzy. I try to run again but can’t seem to get things going. Out of nowhere a man appears, a fellow runner with an 8,000 number (meaning he is fast and was in the first wave). He comes over to me and tells me to walk and let my stomach settle and to let my body recover. “You are at the Boston Marathon and it is too beautiful of a day for you to make yourself sick these last few miles. Walk with me and we will run at one mile to go.”

So we walk. Fans are cheering my name and telling me I look great (umm, I don’t think so). People are yelling “Go Arizona. Bear Down Arizona” you are almost there. I give them a weak smile and wish I had the energy to tell them that three miles is not ALMOST there and that I want to stop now.

But my new friend starts talking to me and telling me this is his eighth Boston. He is having a really bad day and has already been out there for 4-1/2 hours. He tells me stories about his past marathons and his daughter who graduated from BU. I am so grateful for this man who walked with me those two miles when I was at my lowest and told stories to take my mind off my suffering and the temptation to sit down for a bit. He reminded me what I needed to remember. No one but me cares what the clock says when I cross the finish line. I am here to enjoy the day, enjoy the experience. I am at the Boston Marathon.

The Citgo sign that towers over Comm Ave. is what all Boston Marathon runners are on the lookout for. You can see it for a long time, but when you actually get to it, it means you only have one mile to go. We reach it and start running again. Ok, it’s more like shuffling, but definitely faster than walking. He only makes it a few yards but encourages me to keep going. Which somehow I do.

MILE 26: I know the last .2 mile is the longest part of the race and I just need to put one foot in front of the other to get there. I am alternating between running and walking at this point. I make a right turn onto Hereford. It is uphill. My 8,000 number running friend goes by and I silently wish him luck. Finally, the left turn onto Boylston. I see the finish line. The crowds are going wild. Four more blocks!

Mile 26.13: Just keep running. Just keep running. I am focused on the finish line. I am running down the center of the street, staring at the big beautiful blue banner straight ahead of me that signifies the end of my journey. It creeps closer. One block to go.

Suddenly I hear a loud bang in front of me. It startles me out of my zone. I am not sure what is happening. Are there fireworks at the finish? I then look left in time to see a large fireball several hundred feet in front of me. It shoots up the side of a building and sends a blast of air, flying debris and a billowing cloud of smoke.

Some runners ahead of me keep going. I want to finish, but instinct tells me to turn around. I make a 180 degree turn to my right and start running away from the finish line, away from where I have been trying to get for the past six months and 26 long miles. I keep running and making my way to the left side of the street, hoping to find a place to sit down until I know if it is safe to finish. It’s OK if I take a few minutes to sit down, right? They will still let me finish I think to myself.

Blasts and my location

Seconds later, to my immediate right a second explosion happens. I feel the shock waves. Fear sinks in. We are being attacked. People are bombing us from above. It is not safe here and I need to get out. Everyone starts screaming, pushing and running. I can’t get past the barrier. Something originally there to separate spectators from runners is now separating all of us from safety. A man next to me, as if reading my thoughts, rips apart the barricade to let me and others through. I run up a side street (Ring Road I later learned) and stop under a bridge. People are running towards me screaming. More fear sinks in. Where is my husband? Was he at the finish? Oh God. I need to find him. We need to get out of here.

I start running again and speed dial him on my cell phone. Thankfully he answers. Expecting to hear my tired, elated voice telling him I finished. Instead I scream into the phone “We are being bombed. There are explosions.”

He replies “What? Where are you? Did you finish?”

“No,” I scream. “There is a bomb at the finish line.”

At that moment I see a store entrance to my left. I run in and ask where I am. A surprised woman tells me “Shaws.”

I yell into the phone, “I am at Shaws, you need to come find me. We need to get out of here.”


Explosions at finish – from New York Times

I hear him say he is on the T and headed my way, and I hang up. I later learn at that moment his T disappears into the underground tunnel. At the next stop they announce the train is out of service and everyone must exit the train. He leaves the station and starts his own marathon run through the still ongoing race, spectators and police lines to find me.

I sit down on the floor in the grocery store entrance, next to the carts, shaking uncontrollably from cold, fear and just running 26.2 miles. I can’t move. People are coming into the store asking what happened. I recount the details I know. As I am doing this, more people come through the door carrying two runners with bloody legs. The store manager comes out and gives me water and brings me inside to sit on a chair. I sit there shaking, unable to do much more.

Moments later it is announced they are evacuating the store. All patrons need to put down their items or finish making their purchases and leave. Leave? How can I leave? Where do I go? I try to call Eric. No service. Just then a text comes through from him saying he is on Huntington Street. I ask a store clerk where that is and she points across the street. I stumble out the door into the cold and wind. I only have my shorts and sweaty T-shirt on and am frozen to the core. My legs have tightened up and I can barely walk. Police and emergency vehicles are racing down the streets everywhere. The sound of sirens fill the air. It is complete chaos. I search the crowds of people and finally see my husband waving his arms from across the street. I make my way through the crowd, a short walk that seemed longer than the 26 miles I had just run, and finally fall into his arms.

The Finish Line: This is where I would normally tell you what my finishing time was, bragging it was better than expected, or giving excuses why it wasn’t as good as I wanted. Instead, I tell you I didn’t finish. But it doesn’t matter. I am just grateful my husband and I were unharmed, yet, at the same time I am so sad for those who are were not so lucky.

This is where I wanted to post a picture of me wrapped in my mylar blanket, holding my medal, looking completely worn down but with a huge smile on my face. Instead, I post pictures of the front page of the Boston Globe with the headline “Marathon Terror” and pictures of unclaimed race bags of the thousands of runners, including myself, who could not finish.

Race bags of those who did not finish

This is where I was planning to be able to look back and remember the feeling of crossing the finish line, the sense of accomplishment and exhilaration. Instead, I remember the loud blasts and clouds of smoke, the screams of people around me, the feeling of utter fear and running for my life when I had nothing left in me.

This was not the story I imagined I would be telling. However, it is my story of the 117th Boston Marathon and I am so thankful to be here to tell it. I know there are others who were there at the finish line who can’t tell their story because they are no longer with us. And there are far too many who have stories of much deeper heartache – stories about the death of a friend or loved one, about never being able to walk again or the carnage they saw. My heart goes out to them.

There will be a 118th Boston Marathon. I know there will be because runners are strong and we finish what we start. I can imagine the stories told there will be of remembrance of those who were killed, stories of recovery of those who were injured, stories of the heroic that saved lives, stories of overcoming fear to run another year and stories of the resilient city of Boston. And most importantly, the story of justice that was brought to the people who did this.

Post Race Party: There was no party. There was no celebration.

It took Eric and I about an hour to walk back to our hotel. I figure I put about 30 miles on my legs that day. Police and bomb squads were everywhere but nowhere felt safe. We sat in our hotel room and watched with shock and disbelief as the carnage unfolded on TV. We talked with family and friends. We learned of the death of the eight year old little boy and thought of our eight year old son who was back in Tucson with his grandparents. That is where we wanted to be. Home.

The Day After: The next day we walked over to get my race bag. Now people wearing marathon jackets gave each other a different kind of look. A look of understanding, sadness and strength. When they gave me my race bag they gave me a medal as well. It was a kind gesture and nice to finally hold in my hand.

We walked through Boston Common and along Freedom Trail. Police milled about on every street corner. Sirens still rang out regularly. When I saw others carrying their yellow race bags I knew they did not finish as well. I wondered how far they had gotten, how close they were.

We walked back to the hotel, packed up and headed for the airport. The 117th Boston Marathon was over. It was time to go home.

Ginger Cross
Tucson, Arizona
April 21, 2014
Age – 41
Bib # 19951

Ginger Cross posted a fascinating and detailed account of her 2013 Boston race on her excellent website. We appreciate her letting us share this compelling story.