Running Boston: A bittersweet accomplishment

The horrific event that occurred in 2013 at the world’s most coveted finish line has forever marked the Boston Marathon. For the 17,000 or so runners who crossed, their accomplishment is darkened by a coward’s attack on the greatest spectators in the world. For the approximately 5,000 runners whose run to Boston was halted, they have unfinished business to take care of.

And for me, I carry my finisher’s medal with a heavy heart. A bittersweet accomplishment, really.

After years of watching my mom’s uncle run the Boston Marathon, I knew I had to follow in his footsteps. I had to make the 26.2-mile trek from Hopkinton into my city.

I qualified for the 2013 race through the American Liver Foundation’s Run for Research charity team. I raised more than $5,000 for liver research, something more difficult than the training itself.

As the months, weeks, days and then hours ticked by to my 10:40 a.m. starting time on Patriots’ Day, I was overwhelmed with emotion (and nausea). This was it.

The gun went off. Some ten paces into the race, my eyes welled up. A smile came across my face. “I am running the Boston Marathon,” I thought. The downhill miles ticked by fairly quickly. But not too quickly. I maintained my training pace — 8:45. “Don’t go out too fast,” I thought. “The downhills now will kill you later.”

Before I knew it, I was in Framingham. I checked myself out in a storefront’s windows, which had been turned into mirrors. “Look at those legs,” I thought.

Approaching mile 10.5, I saw my first fans watching from where we used to cheer on my mom’s uncle. It was just what I needed to propel me up the course’s first hill into Wellesley.

I approached the infamous Scream Tunnel at Wellesley College. Checking my watch, I saw I’d clear the halfway point several minutes under two hours. Perfect. Right on pace.

I enjoyed the last mile or two of downhill before making my way to Newton Wellesley Hospital (where I was born nearly 26 years ago). The American Liver Foundation had set up camp here, and I had been one of the first team members to run by in my orange “Run for Research” singlet.

Just past the hospital I saw my parents, my husband and my father-in-law. They were holding signs and screaming. But there was no time to stop. I had to keep my almost perfectly even splits. I quickly ran by and made the famous right turn at the Newton fire station. Now the race was getting started: Heartbreak Hill.

Nearing mile 21, I almost missed my close high school and college friends. But they spotted me. “Hey, is that Heather?” one of them called out. I veered to the right, ecstatic.

“Do you see what my sign says?” my close running friend asked. “It says You can eat this hill for breakfast!” Her words of encouragement and her pacing brought me to the top of the last heartbreaking hill. I had to take it from here, she said.

After the hills, my pace was hovering around 9:15. I could see my goal of breaking four hours slowly slip away. How? I had run sub-nines for the first half of the race! But as I ran downhill through Boston College, the drunken shrieks, cheers, high-fives, all pulled me closer and closer to the Boylston Street finish.

I grimaced every time my feet hit the pavement. My quads were in searing pain. No amount of reading about the downhills of the Boston course could have prepared me. Next time I’ll train downhill.

Miles 22 through 25 were utter misery. I frantically tried to calculate how much farther I had to go against my pace time. Would I break four hours? At mile 24.75 my watch read 3:41. A sinking feeling. No. I wasn’t going to do it.

And then it happened. Somehow, from somewhere deep inside me, I found a little more juice. I pushed through Kenmore Square, barely glancing up at my family. I knew they were there, that was good enough. And then like a mirage, the sign: One mile to go. This is it. Dig.

I make the famous right turn onto Hereford Street. Slight uphill. And then the even more famous left turn onto Boylston Street. I check my watch. Well under four hours. I thought about slowing down. I had sub-four in the bag, why keep pushing? But then I remember something Steve “Pre” Prefontaine said. And fittingly, what a friend wrote on his sign back at Heartbreak Hill. “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” I had to leave it all on the course. The medics could take care of me if I collapsed. Sprint.

As I cross the most famous finish line in the world, they say my name. I make sure to look up at the cameras. I need to get my medal before I collapse. I stagger through the hoards of people. I collect my mylar blanket. Some water. Gatorade. A banana. And then I spot the medals. They place it on my neck and I feel like a champion. That feeling was gone in minutes.

I am about to turn off Boylston Street, asking for directions to the Westin, where my team was meeting. Boom. I turn around and see a plume of smoke. And then another boom. Another plume. Someone says it must be a generator. But two?

I think it must be cannons like they have at Patriots games every time the Pats score. But I finished around four hours. Surely the cannons would be fired once the elites crossed. And wouldn’t I have known about this tradition? No, it’s not cannons. It’s not a generator.

Starting to worry, I try to call my family. No service. I borrow a volunteer’s phone. No answer.

I keep walking, looking for the hotel as I start to shiver under my space blanket. I try my phone again and reach my husband. “Are you OK?” I ask. “Yeah, why?” I explain. He updates Facebook to let people know I am safe.

After what seems like an eternity of pacing in the North America Ballroom of the Westin, I saw my mom. I ran to her and we both started crying hysterically. It hit me that I was minutes away from being caught in the massacre. A 21st-century Boston Massacre.

Once we were safely out of the city I came to the realization we wouldn’t celebrate my sub-four marathon (3:56:41). We could try, but it would be tainted.

The next 48 hours were a roller coaster of emotions. People told me to enjoy my achievement, but how? Those victims, that 8-year-old boy, were injured and killed supporting us runners. The horrific irony of spectators losing their legs as they watched people complete a 26.2 mile run.

But I’m a marathoner now. I’ve proven to myself and the city of Boston I can persevere through physical and mental toil. My legs are resilient. Days after conquering the unforgiving course, I can make my way down the stairs without holding onto a railing. My mind is resilient. The tears come less now. But it’s hard to hear people call my finish line a crime scene. But I’m a marathoner. I will overcome. And more importantly, I will toe the line in Hopkinton in 2014.


2014: Running back to Boston

The buildup to the 118th running of the Boston Marathon was intense, and it started on the evening of April 15, 2013 — a day that will forever mark the world’s greatest marathon. “Boston Strong” became a rallying cry, not just in a city still reeling from an attack on Patriots’ Day, but across the country and around the world.

I ran my first marathon on April 15, 2013. Having grown up cheering on the runners in Natick, I was excited for my first to be Boston. I hit my sub-four goal with a time of 3:56:42. And I raised more than $5,000 for the American Liver Foundation’s Run for Research team. I didn’t plan on coming back unless I qualified (3:35 or better for my age and gender). Those who know me know I stick to a plan.

But as I turned off Boylston Street and onto Clarendon at 2:50 p.m., the bombs went off, and my plan changed. Of course I had to come back in 2014 — it was going to be a race like no other.

So for another year I trained. I fundraised. I shaved seven minutes off my Boston time in New York in November (on a course where personal records are hard to come by).

I cried when I watched coverage, read articles, and saw pictures of that fateful day at 2:50 p.m., exactly ten minutes after I crossed the finish line. But they weren’t true cries. My throat choked up. Tears came. But I held them back. I gritted my teeth and embarked on yet another training journey, during the winter of the Polar Vortex.

As the months and weeks leading up to April 21, 2014 went by, I started prepping myself mentally. I knew this was going to be an amazing race, but I kept forgetting how emotional it would be. How hard it would be to turn onto Boylston Street and run by the site of two bombings.

The week before the big day, I ran in Stage 308 of the One Run for Boston, a relay started last year by three Brits. Runners ran from Los Angeles to Boston to honor the fallen. On April 11, I joined about 20 other runners for a 9-mile run from the World Trade Center to Harlem. I cried at the start. A memorial to commemorate those lost on September 11th and running for those affected by the Boston Marathon bombings? It was too much. But we ran. And it was an incredible experience. It got me even more psyched for Boston.

In the early morning of April 21, the 36,000 runners in Athletes’ Village in Hopkinton stopped their nervous chatter and put down their Vaseline and bananas to observe a moment of silence, reflecting on the events of April 15, 2013. I welled up but then refocused on the task at hand: 26.2 miles to Boston.

We all knew the weather was going to be rough (high of 66 degrees). I had my goals (3:30-3:40), but mostly wanted to enjoy the race and finish strong. Dare I say it, Boston Strong?

The crowds were like nothing I’ve ever witnessed before. We really did come back stronger than ever.

I ran hard, but even, until mile 18, when I hit the Newton Hills. The heat was getting to me, and I started slowing as I crested Heartbreak Hill. I knew my 3:30 was gone, but that was OK. Today wasn’t really about that, as much as my competitive self tried to fight back. “Enjoy every step,” I kept saying. “Every painful step.”

Once I saw the Citgo sign looming in the distance, I was rejuvenated. I knew what was waiting for me, as I turned right on Hereford and left on Boylston. So I pressed on, gritting my teeth with every step.

I couldn’t have prepared myself for Boylston Street, with the finish line in sight, “just” 385 yards down the road. The crowd put the Wellesley Scream Tunnel and Boston College kids to shame. Faster and faster I sped down Boylston. This is it. My GPS watch lost reception — who cares? I looked up at the cameras (I still don’t know how the picture came out — ugly, I’m sure) and nearly collapsed over the finish line.

I fell into the arms of a volunteer as she carried me to the medical tent. They gave me fluids, congratulated me (“Why do you do this for us crazies?” I asked). Once I got my color back and caught my breath, they dismissed me. I meandered along Boylston, receiving my coveted medal and a blanket.

I was amazed I had been so strong emotionally. My focus was on the crowd and the finish line. I thought I would break down as I passed Marathon Sports, where the first bomb went off. But I didn’t. The crowd was carrying me.

But then I turned onto Clarendon Street, and I lost it. I started crying hysterically. I thought I was going to collapse. This is where I saw the bombs go off. This is where I thought they were cannons, generators. I hyperventilated into the jacket of a volunteer (a U.S. Marshall). She didn’t talk. She just hugged me. As I started to regain composure, she told me she lost a cousin in Iraq. I started bawling again. Where did this come from? As I tried to process why this was happening, it dawned on me: I never really cried. This was my closure: nearly the same time and place that started it all a year ago.

I will still grieve, every April 15, every Boston Marathon. But a weight has been lifted — one I never knew I was carrying. My legs cry in pain every time I move, but my heart is lighter.

The Boston Marathon hurt me last year. But that same great race made me stronger and gave me back my finish line. And with it, a new PR of 3:42:34.

And then in October 2014 in Chicago, I qualified for the 2016 Boston Marathon with a time of 3:31:42…

Heather Irvine
Brooklyn, NY
April 15, 2013
Age – 25
Bib # 21273

April 21, 2014
Age – 26
Bib # 25632

April 18, 2016
Age – 28
Bib # 17787