From the (happy) beginning through the (horrible) ending

As I sit down to share my experience at the 2013 Boston Marathon, I’m still not sure where to begin or where to end. Do I focus only on what happened after 2:50pm on Monday and those who were injured and killed? Do I talk about the hundreds of heroes that rushed into harm’s way to help? Do I recount all the good memories that were made in the days leading up to the marathon? Is it disrespectful to share the details of my race? If I don’t talk about the race, does that let the terrorists “win” in some small way?

After sorting through all my emotions and feelings again and again, I still don’t know which is the “right” thing to do. So I’m going to do the only thing I really know how to do — share my Boston experience from the (happy) beginning through the (horrible) ending.

I arrived in Boston on Friday and was so excited to spend a child-free weekend with my husband, see good friends who live in the Boston area, meet in person new friends I knew only through social media and, lastly, experience all the hype and history that surrounds the famous marathon.

My dear friend, Sarah, who was waiting at the finish line for me
before getting paged to come to work at the ER

Those who know me or have been following my story know I was pushing my training to a new level for this race. I had hired a coach who gave me detailed training plans each week and challenged me to run harder and faster than ever before (while also giving me more rest days than I’ve ever taken — I learned so much about quality versus quantity in the last few months.)

My training had been going well and all signs pointed to a great race for me on Monday…until just one week before the race when I was out for an eight mile run. I was on a hilly, forested trail, and just 1.5 miles into the run, my left knee started to hurt right underneath the knee cap. It is common to get little niggles early in a run that go away within a mile or two, so I kept running. This one seemed to go away for a little while but then came back strong at mile 6 when I was racing downhill back towards my car.

Long story short, I ended up doing no running at all the rest of the week and spent all my time icing my knee and resting as much as possible. On Saturday morning in Boston, my husband and I headed out for a three mile jog just to loosen my legs and hopefully boost my confidence in regards to my knee. I ended up in pain just a half mile into the run and had to turn around and walk back to our friend’s house, utterly dejected.

I did my best to put any negative thoughts about my knee aside and enjoyed the next two days in Boston with friends.

I remember the soft pink glow of the sky as I first looked outside my hotel window early Monday morning. The day had finally arrived! I sent my husband one last text before leaving the hotel room (I had kicked him out to stay with friends the night before the race… I always sleep horribly and it only makes it worse when the person next to me, who doesn’t have a race to run, is sleeping like a baby), telling him how nervous I was about my knee.

Kate and I at the finish line

I met up with Kate and my college friend, Sara, in the early morning hours before the race and we all rode a bus together to Athletes’ Village. Other than a major wardrobe malfunction for Kate (thanks to her dog who likes to eat underwear and had left an enormous hole in her running tights…that she somehow failed to notice earlier), the three of us were amazingly stress-free and calm before the race.

Kate with running tights
Pre-race hug with Sara in the starting corral

As I stood at the starting line, I looked around and took in all the sights and sounds surrounding me. The excitement, anxiety, hope, and anticipation were almost palpable. None of us knew exactly what was in store for us that day — you never really know how your body is going to respond physically, mentally and emotionally to 26.2 miles on any given day — but none of us could have fathomed this would be a day that would forever be etched in our hearts for reasons having nothing to do with running.

I had told my husband I was planning to finish the race no matter what. That I might be walking for long portions of it — or limping along — as my knee was going to dictate the race. I resolved to start off slow and just take it one step at a time. I planned to see him at our pre-arranged meeting spots of miles 9 and 16, and then at the finish line.

If all went well and I had no knee issues whatsoever, I was hoping to run a 3:30 marathon. As I assessed my chances that morning, I gave myself 10% likelihood of this actually happening. Suddenly, the race began and I cruised along at an easy pace on the initial downhill sections. The miles slowly but surely ticked off one by one. I waved enthusiastically at my husband and friends at mile 9 and continued on. Another wave and a quick kiss from my husband at mile 16 before I hit the toughest part of the course — the infamous hills from mile 17-21 that culminate with Heartbreak Hill.

All smiles at Mile 16

I trudged up and down what felt like endless hills after mile 17 and wasn’t paying enough attention to know when I had actually finished with Heartbreak Hill. I was too distracted by the hundreds of thousands of screaming spectators lining the course.

I have run other “big” marathons in the past, most notably Chicago and NYC, but this was unlike anything I had ever experienced. While the crowds at NYC are huge, I didn’t always find them to be loud. Boston was different from that perspective. The spectators were literally screaming their encouragement the entire length of the course, not just along the famous Wellesley corridor. I had brought my ipod along just in case I needed some extra motivation but found I didn’t need it even once. I can’t say enough good things about the people who came out to scream and yell their encouragement as well as offer anything from wet sponges to ice pops to oranges to keg stands. (Yes, someone had a “free keg stands to runners” sign and a keg nearby!)

I did my best to run only by feel and was continually amazed as my knee remained pain-free. And every glance at my watch told me I was running right on pace to reach my goal. The only real annoyance during my run was the fact I needed to go to the bathroom. It was just a matter of when I would stop and whether or not I could make it the entire distance without running into a porta-potty along the course. (The downside of having no pre-race jitters was my inability to take care of the all-important pre-race poop… I know all of you runners reading this will understand!) Ultimately, I gave in to the growing demand from my body and ran into a bathroom at mile 22.

The last few miles were a blur. I distinctly remember finding myself with a huge grin on my face as I high-fived children and adults alike. The roar of the crowd, while already deafening, continued to grow as I took a left turn on Boylston Street and saw the finish line looming before me.

I crossed the line and looked down to see a 3:30:30 on my watch. A five minute PR for me on the first marathon since my 40th birthday on what is a difficult course. I couldn’t have been happier. As I stumbled through the finish line corral, I collected a bottle of water, bottle of Gatorade, protein bar, bag of food and a foil wrap to keep me warm. Lastly, someone put a finisher’s medal around my neck and tears immediately welled up in my eyes. I had done it. All those months of hard work and I had reached my goal.

As I gathered my bag from the baggage bus, I could hear my husband and Sarah yelling my name. I exited the runner’s-only area and was greeted with hugs and congratulations.

We chatted for a few minutes at the finish line and then started back towards our hotel. It was a mile walk that led us through the Boston Common. I was planning to take a quick ice bath and shower and then we were going to head out to celebrate.

Just as we arrived at the hotel, Sarah received a text from the hospital where she works, alerting her to explosions at the finish line. I was so confused. I couldn’t even process the words at first. An explosion? Two explosions? The finish line of the marathon?!

Within minutes, my husband and I began to receive frantic texts and phone calls from friends and family worried about our safety. I was immediately concerned for all the other friends I had running the race, their friends and family, and the thousands of other runners and spectators still out there. Our attempts to check on others were impeded by the fact the police had shut down cell towers in case more bombs were going to be detonated by cell phones.

The anxiety only grew as we were told we should evacuate the city. Sarah ended up having to run (literally) to the hospital as she couldn’t find a taxi, while her friend drove us out of the city and dropped us off at Sarah’s house. We ultimately heard back that all our friends were safe but our anguish and despair only increased as reports came back with casualties, stories of limbs being ripped from bodies, erroneous reports of additional bombs throughout the city and the knowledge thousands of runners were separated from family and friends.

The emotions were overwhelming and I found myself crying often over the next few hours as we sat at our friend’s house and tried to comprehend what had just happened. We couldn’t help but think “what if?”

What if my knee hadn’t held out and I had been still on the course and my husband had gone to stand with Sarah (at her spot between where the two explosions occurred)?
What if we had decided to go back to the sidelines and cheer for our friends who were still out there?
What if my parents and kids had been with us (as we had planned at one point)?
What if Sarah had stayed a while longer instead of meeting us?

In the end, we were among the lucky ones. So why is it I feel so traumatized? Why is it when my friend, Marya, sends me a text asking simply “How are you?” I find myself suddenly crying? Why is it I still don’t feel safe??

My heart is still a mix of emotions right now — from gratitude we were spared, to heartbreak for those injured and killed, to anger at the suspects, to guilt I was able to finish the marathon, to fear that next time I will not be so lucky.

Whenever I have something I need to sort through in my heart or in my head, I go for a run. Unfortunately, my body is deep in recovery mode and I am still not yet able to run. I am not able to do the one thing that I so desperately need to do right now.

But I know that I will run again. And I will run Boston again. And I will volunteer at the finish line of an upcoming race. And I will continue to be part of this amazing running community I love so much.

And Boston 2013 will forever have a place in my heart.

Kristen Labarca
Portland, Oregon
April 15, 2013
Age – 40
Bib # 16358