“I had no cell phone, no I.D., no money, no hotel room key. However, I did have my lipstick.”

First of all, I want to explain how I even got to run the Boston Marathon in the first place.

If you know anything about the sport of long distance running world, you probably know the Boston Marathon is the big race. This year was the 117th Boston Marathon. Elite runners from around the world compete in this marathon, and about 20,000 qualified runners make up the majority of the field. A Boston Qualified runner is one who has run a certified marathon course below a certain time based on gender and age. And it is tough to qualify! Currently for my age group (40-45), a female runner must run under a 3:45 marathon to qualify. That’s never gonna happen for me! At age 45 (in 14 months) my qualifying time will be 3:55. Possibly doable—with lots of work—a goal I have set for myself. My husband Jimmy has missed his current qualifying time by just four minutes. Anyway…

The Boston Marathon also offers about 6000 charity runner spots. And that is how both Jimmy and I were able to run the Boston Marathon this year. Through a medical organization to which Jimmy belongs, we became charity donation runners. Our charity was National Run a Mile Days, which promotes fitness in children. Most of the charity runners I met and saw were running for various medical causes (cancer research, organ donation, liver disease, etc.). We were placed in Wave 3 (the last wave of the marathon) with all of the other charity runners plus some older qualified runners. Each wave nine corrals, and I think we were in corral 6. My friend Heather and our “Koach” Kenneth Williams are both Boston Qualifiers! And as I said, both Jimmy and I would love to qualify one day. I am confident Jimmy will.

Jimmy and I had a most delightful trip to Boston….until the end of the race…

When we arrived on Friday, we checked into our hotel and right away walked to the Expo. There we picked up our race packet, which included our race number and our race t-shirt. I was so happy this marathon offered women’s and men’s shirts (they are different!). A women’s shirt fits so much better. Anyway, after picking up the pertinent items, we made our way with thousands of other people to the huge expo. We stayed for three or four hours, and we enjoyed every minute of it! We actually ended up visiting the expo three times while we were in Boston.

Bill Rodgers autographs

There was so much to see and do. Demonstrations of various products, food and beverage samples, videos of the marathon, shopping, and meeting some famous runners! I stopped at every booth that featured a famous runner selling his book. We bought copies and had them autographed, and I also had my picture made with them. I had so much fun chatting with these runners!

As soon as we entered the expo area, we were approached by some writers from Runner’s World magazine. They interviewed Heather, and used her interview in an online article! (She is photo 3.) Very exciting!

The morning before the marathon, Heather and I joined Koach, some other Mississippi runners, and about twenty runners from all over the U.S. for three mile run with Bart Yasso. He was so nice! Jimmy and I had heard him speak while we were in Utah for the St. George Marathon. His life has been extremely interesting, and his byline is “Never limit where running can take you.” And running has taken him all over the world! After the run, we all had coffee together at Starbucks. It was such a pleasant morning.

Heather and I with Bart Yasso

The Boston Marathon proved to be the most difficult marathon I have run to date (my fourth marathon). I had set a time goal of 4 hours, 29 minutes, which is ten minutes faster than my previous PR. My plan was to run the first ten miles at a 10:00 pace, then pick up the pace a little bit through mile 21, and lastly, run as hard as I could from mile 21 to the end. Miles 16-21 were just as challenging as I was told they would be—four big hills culminating with “Heartbreak Hill,” which I cried on.

By mile 21, I could not pick up my pace any, because at that point “running as hard as I could” resulted in my barely hanging on to my current average pace. At this point in the race I began walking more often than every two miles like I had trained. My legs were screaming at me. My mind was engaged in an internal battle… “just walk and forget your goal… No! Keep on going. You can do it. One foot in front of the other…” I kept thinking about Heather, and how I wanted to be able to tell her that I pushed myself the entire marathon. So I kept pushing.

I passed the 40K checkpoint, the last one before the end of the marathon (42K, 26.2 miles). I was mentally celebrating the fact I had only 1.2 miles left of this grueling race. I walked one more time after this checkpoint. I told some random person I didn’t think I could finish. Then I pulled myself together and began running. Fast. My legs were numb, my mental status was focused on the finish line and finding Jimmy and Heather. I just looked straight ahead and ran. And ran. And ran.

crowd stopped SI
This Sports Illustrated photo shows the runners stopped about a half mile from the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I know I am not in this photo, because I could not see the front of the stopped runners, and there were businesses lining a sidewalk in the area where I was stopped.

And then it was like I hit a wall. All of a sudden all of the runners ahead of me stopped. Hundreds of runners, at a complete standstill. My first thought was that a runner was down. I figured the emergency people would assist him or her off the road and we would continue our race. I stopped my watch. I noticed my time and distance. 4 hours, 23 minutes. 25.8 miles.

I had no cell phone, no I.D., no money, no hotel room key. However, I did have my lipstick.

When you finish (or are nearly finished) a marathon, your brain is in a fog. You have just pushed yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally just about as far as you can push. Normally, when you cross the finish line you keep on moving. That is important. Your muscles start to cramp, and walking usually eases some of that pain. You walk on through the finish line chute. You continue walking to get your finisher’s medal. You walk on through to get the much-needed refreshments, and then you keep moving on to the family waiting area where you find your family and friends. The key is to just keep moving. Within about a minute of our stopping, both my legs seized into cramps, reaching from my waist to my ankles. I still had no idea why we were stopped, and neither did anyone else around me. I hung on to two strangers, trying not to cry about my legs hurting so bad. They were both so kind. One of them kept trying to show me different stretches to relieve my pain. The other one had a cell phone, so he tried to figure out what was going on.

About half the runners around me had cell phones. Everyone was texting, calling, emailing, trying to access the internet. Finally, word began to travel.

“We think there is a bomb threat at the finish line.”

“There have been two explosions at the finish line.”

“There were two bombs at the finish line.”

Ironically, no one, including myself seemed to panic. There were no tears. It was not chaotic. We were all just standing there, mentally numb. The information seemed hard to process. Bombs at the finish line? What does that mean? I could not form a mental picture. It is so hard to explain, and I know it must hard to understand if you were not there, but we just did not understand what was going on. We had no idea of the extent of the damage. We had no reports of injuries or deaths. We had no way of comprehending the horror unfolding just a half mile down the road.

One of the men standing beside me, (the one who was helping me to stretch), shared his Clif Bar with me. Then as the news began to sink in, he realized that his family was at the finish line. He worked for John Hancock, and his family was waiting for him to finish in the VIP tent at the finish line. He said, “I’m going to the finish.” He asked me if I wanted to come with him. I was unsure about what to do… I began to follow him. We moved a barrier and got on the sidewalk, but he began moving faster and faster, and I just couldn’t keep up with him, because my legs were hurting so badly. He slipped away from me, so I just stopped. His name was Scott. I have no idea if his family were victims.

I rejoined the runners in the middle of the road. We all began shaking, because we were wet with sweat from running and the wind was really blowing. Spectators came into the road passing out trash bags for us to wrap up in. I put one on like a dress, and then took another one to wrap up in too. Then a man began passing out discarded clothes he had picked up along the race course. I took a man’s shirt and tied it around my legs.

A lady (I think from a hotel) worked her way through the runners with a silver pitcher of water and a sleeve of paper cups. I drank a cup of water. We still just stood there. I borrowed three or four strangers’ cell phones and texted Jimmy that I was OK; that we were stopped about a half mile from the finish line. He didn’t receive those texts until two hours later. Cell service was basically non-existent at this point. More people were passing out water bottles. I drank a bottle of water.

I still was not in a panic. It is such a blessing we runners did not really know what was going on, or I think mass panic would have set in. I knew my texts were not going through, and I hoped Jimmy was not worried about me. I knew my family and friends were tracking me online, and they would be wondering why I stopped running. I had no idea they were back home watching it all unfold on TV–worried sick about Jimmy, Heather, Koach, and me…

Helicopters flew overhead. Police motorcycles zoomed by on the other two lanes of the road (adjacent to the lanes the runners were in). A long, long line of unmarked grey police cars came flying down the side of the road we runners were in. We had to quickly move to either side to make room for them. The gravity of the situation still did not register…

I lost track of time. It was like a slow motion dream. Runners idly talking. Wondering what to do. Where to go? I kept asking myself, “What does that mean? Bombs at the finish line?” I could not process that information (again, I attribute it to mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion from running for over four hours.)

At some point (I am guessing about 90 minutes later), a policeman worked his way alongside the road of runners, making announcements at every block. When I could hear him, he said, “The race is over. You need to evacuate this area immediately. If you are staying in a hotel downtown, begin walking to your hotel. If you need to retrieve your runner’s bag from the buses, walk down Berkely. If you need to get elsewhere, go ___ (I don’t remember where he said), buses will be there to take you to (somewhere). I just paid attention to the part “Begin walking to your hotel.”

I did panic a little bit at this point. I had no idea where I was or where my hotel was. At first I just stood there, unsure of which crowd to follow. I walked a short distance in no particular direction (wrapped in two garbage bags and a shirt tied around my legs), and found another police officer. I told him the name of my hotel and asked for directions. He said, “Go down to Mass. Ave., and turn left. Then follow that street until you reach Huntington. Turn left (or was it right?). Then you will see your hotel. I was confused. I asked him to tell me again. And then again. And after he patiently repeated those simple directions for the fourth time, and man walked up behind me and said, “I’ll take you. I’m staying there, too.” I was so grateful!

I followed this nice man to my hotel, and we were still oblivious to our surroundings. Emergency personnel were everywhere. Policemen were at every street corner. Runners filled the streets, walking…and we just walked, shivering to our hotel. I did not get the man’s name, but I found out that he was a urologist from Atlanta, and he was attending the same medical meeting as Jimmy.

We made it to the hotel, and later I realized it was now two hours since the race had been stopped. As I entered the hotel lobby, praying that Jimmy was in our room since I did not have a room key, I ran into one of our friends who was at the marathon to work the medical tent. He is a cardiologist like Jimmy, and he and his family were our neighbors when he and Jimmy were doing their medical training in Jackson. He was white as a sheet and visibly shaken. I asked him what happened. What is going on at the finish?

He asked me if I had seen Jimmy. Had I heard from him? And then he proceeded to tell me in great detail what he had just experienced. I stood there with my mouth open….in horror…..he described what by now all of you have seen on TV, and more. Tears came to my eyes. It all sunk in. I began to feel sick, like I was about to throw up. He kept on telling me about all the people he had treated–their injuries, their prognosis, the blood, the chaos. My heart was pounding, and it was then that I panicked. Where was Jimmy? Where was Heather? Where was Koach? I began to do the math in my head.I knew what their predicted finish times were (way ahead of me). Could they have been in that area? I was stopped by a hotel employee. He was checking all people who wanted to enter the elevators…only hotel guests were allowed. “Could you please show me your room key” he asked. I frantically explained I had just run. I had no I.D., no cell phone, no room key, but I needed to get to my room to check on my husband. I told him my name and my room number. He checked his list and let me through.

That was the longest elevator ride of my life. I timidly knocked on our hotel door, praying. Jimmy asked, “Roan, is that you?” YES! He let me in. I have never been so glad to see him and to hug him! And then I was about to be sick so I ran to the bathroom.

What followed was just as surreal as the entire afternoon. We watched live Boston news until well after midnight. We were on lockdown in our hotel. At first in our rooms, but later we were allowed to come to the hotel restaurant to eat…and then back to our rooms. The SWAT team was guarding the front of our hotel. Emergency and police and FBI vehicles whizzed past our hotel for hours. On and on and on…

Our cell phones began to work again, although sporadically. Jimmy received two burst of texts, including the ones I had sent hours before. We were able to contact all of our family and friends and assure them physically we were OK, if mentally and emotionally shaken.

Jimmy relayed to me he had finished the race, gotten his medal and mylar blanket, and was working his way to the refreshments when the he heard and felt the first explosion. He estimates he was about 300’ away. His first thought was that was an odd place for a cannon… Then he heard the second one. He and all of runners around him were quickly evacuated… He eventually made his way back to the hotel to wait for me. By his calculations and by tracking me online he was pretty confident I was safe with the stopped runners.

We left our hotel at 4:30 AM the next morning, amid yellow crime scene tape and with SWAT officers still in the lobby. We walked a block or so to catch a taxi to the airport. We were still in a daze.
The events of April 15th still weigh heavily on my mind. Actually, I am having a hard time getting it out of my mind, even for a brief time period. The “what if’s” haunt me, and I am heartbroken and profoundly sad for all of the victims and their families and loved ones.

Runners United For Boston

Jimmy presenting me with a finisher’s medal (his).

On Monday, April 22, one week after the 2013 Boston Marathon, a couple of runners from the Corinth area organized a fundraiser for One Fund Boston. It was called Runners United for Boston, and we raised $2000. It was a special and somewhat emotional night.

Area runners who ran the 2013 Boston Marathon were invited and were joined by over 100 runners from the local communities. The city allowed us one hour to run the Coke 10K route–as much as you could run in one hour. I think Clay is the only one from our family who actually ran the entire route. Olivia and Julie ran 5 miles, Lynn, Leah, Sam and I ran/walked about three miles, and I am not sure how far Jimmy ran. It was a very laid back occasion–we took many pictures and talked and visited along the way.

The event organizers (Jody and Janet), made a finish line out of blue and yellow crepe paper for Koach and I to cross—We were part of the 5700 runners who were stopped by the bombings. Koach and I crossed this finish line together, and we were presented with finishers’ medals!

Exactly one month after the Boston Marathon, I received my finisher’s medal via Fed Ex. It was an exciting package to open! I left it on the kitchen counter to admire throughout the day, and then that night I placed it in its home–with my other marathon and half-marathon medals–in the bottom drawer of my night stand!

Roan Johnson
Saltillo, Mississippi
April 15, 2013
Age – 43
Bib # 23842
40k – 4:15:28

Roan Johnson’s blog “Joyful Always,” where this account was first published, can be found at http://joyfuljohnsons.blogspot.com. We appreciate her sharing this story with BOSTONlog.