I never had to fight off any negative emotions. They just didn’t stand a chance

I usually can’t wait to write a race recap, and my recap of Boston was of course going to be no exception. But circumstances have obviously changed.

Despite the emotional turmoil, though, I do want to get these thoughts down, because as time passes, I will forget some of the details – and I don’t want to forget them.

I don’t want to forget all the awesome and uplifting moments of the day, because that’s what Boston is really all about.

Yes, in some ways it feels wrong to be recounting the good stuff when so many are hurting – and will continue to hurt for days and months and years. And I am in no way discounting that, or forgetting it.
I have moments of complete and utter despair, thinking of the tragedy and the lives lost and the hundreds of people so horribly injured. Every time I hear a siren, my heart skips a beat.

But I read an article last week, and I keep coming back to it again and again, and every time I read it, I do so with tears in my eyes. As the author writes, survivor’s guilt is not something you’d expect to be experiencing as a marathon runner, but it’s a pretty apt description of what I and countless others are feeling right now.

What struck me most, though, was this quote:

“The image of 78-year-old Bill Iffrig, knocked to the ground by the force of the explosion just 15 feet from the finish, has been viewed over and over worldwide. He got up to complete the full 26.2 miles. But will he be able to recover the feeling he had when he was 30 feet away from his goal?”

I sincerely hope he can, because that feeling is what we work toward for days, months, and years. Our pursuit of that feeling is what defines us as runners. It’s what drives us to keep moving forward, and to overcome whatever is thrown in our path, and to constantly push to do more and improve ourselves.

It’s what unites us at any race, and especially at Boston, where crowds of anonymous spectators feel it right along with you, as if it was their finish line, too.

That feeling envelops the city on Marathon Monday – and that feeling is the light that will shine through this darkness, and lead us to our next run, and our next race, and for many of us, to Boston 2014.

So we do need to remember it – and this is my recollection.

A beautiful sunrise was what greeted me as I drove to meet the bus that would bring me to Hopkinton. I saw it as a good omen, but it did little to calm my nerves, which had kicked into high gear Sunday night, as I expected they would.

I spent the bus ride mostly to myself, listening to music and reading all the amazing messages of encouragement and well-wishes I had received from friends far and wide. And it truly made such a difference to have all those positive words and thoughts in mind as I got closer and closer to putting all these months of training to the test.

Arriving to the race start was nothing short of surreal. I’d seen pictures, I’d heard about it, and I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but there is nothing in the world like finally experiencing it firsthand – and that’s basically how I’d describe the entire 26.2 miles.

I got out and walked around the Athletes’ Village for a short while, just so I could take it all in, but I didn’t linger too long, because it was still pretty cold, and I was happy to be able to get back to the warm bus and have a comfortable seat to wait in, instead of having to sit on the ground.

I thought the waiting would seem to take forever, but the time flew by, and before I knew it, I was making my final preparations – final trips to the bathroom; applications of sunscreen and Body Glide; checking and re-checking to make sure I had all my Gu and fuel where I could easily grab it; tying and re-tying my shoes; and taking lots and LOTS of deep breaths.

I started walking over to the bag check buses around 9:30, dropped my bag, and then made my way down toward the start, shaking the whole way – not from the cold (it had warmed up quite a bit by now), but from nervousness.

After one final stop at the porta-potties just before the start line, I made my way into my corral. I was in the second wave of runners, and the 9th (and final) corral, so the actual start was nowhere in sight. But I knew it was there, and I’d be crossing it within minutes.

It’s nearly impossible to describe what it felt like to be standing there. I teared up several times, and just kept thinking how incredible it was I was actually about to run the Boston Marathon. I was here. I had been thinking about this and imagining this for so, so long, and to finally be there and be in that moment – it’s overwhelming.

But as the countdown continued, I became increasingly calm. I remembered all the people who were out there supporting me and cheering me on, both virtually and in real life.

And I remembered all the training – all the track workouts, all the tempo runs, all the 20-milers, all the negative splits, all the hills. I was ready for this. I was prepared. I had put in the work, and now I just had to take my victory lap.

I didn’t hear the gun, but I did hear the announcement our wave was underway. We slowly started moving forward, and when I finally crossed the start about five minutes later, I did so with the hugest grin on my face. It was time to get this done!

As with much of the race, the first few miles are kind of a blur. But I can say with certainty they were, as promised, lined with spectators. Everyone tells you there are cheering crowds lining the entire course, but you really can’t believe it until you see it. In the early miles, there are a few spots that are a little quieter, but you’re never ever out there alone, and the quiet moments are few and far between.

My main focus for the first seven or eight miles was to keep my pace conservative. The advice I heard over and over and over and over again when I told people I was running Boston was the same – “Start slow, and save your energy for the hills.”

So that’s how I trained. I finished every single one of my 20-mile runs with negative splits, even though the last miles of those 20-milers were filled with hills. I knew how to finish strong on tired legs, and I kept telling myself that throughout the day. I knew how to start slow and run smart, and that’s what I needed to do.

Miles 1 – 8 were mostly successful – 8:17, 8:14, 7:57, 8:05, 7:58, 7:56, 7:57, 7:56. I worried a tiny bit about the sub-8 miles, but since they were just slightly under 8, I wasn’t too nervous. The pace was feeling good and comfortable, and since this part of the course was mostly downhill, I felt keeping it to just slightly under 8 was showing a lot of restraint, so I kept at it.

And the crowds just continued to increase. I reached out for more high-fives than I ever have before, and smiled more than I thought was possible. I knew I’d reach the point where I was struggling and getting tired, but I also knew that the energy from the crowd would help carry me along at that point the same way it was carrying me along now.

I focused on holding my pace steady through the halfway point, and as we neared Wellesley, I listened. I had been told you could hear the screams from nearly a mile away, and that was no exaggeration.

As we began running past the infamous scream tunnel, I just laughed out loud in disbelief. It. Was. Amazing. And it just went on and on and on. The screams were so loud it literally hurt my ears. I ran, and I grinned, and I took it all in, and it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced in a race.

Just after that, I spotted my friend Anna, who took this awesome picture that so perfectly captures the incredible joy I was experiencing at that moment.

I love this picture now more than ever, as it’s helping me to hold onto that feeling at a time when it’s hard to feel joyful.

And just like that, it seemed, I was at the halfway point. My splits were holding steady, too – 8:01, 8:03, 8:05, 7:59, 8:00.

I was still feeling great, but knew the worst was still to come, so I just cruised through miles 14 to 16 – 8:01, 7:57, 8:02 – and found myself thinking “hey – only ten miles to go!”

And that, honestly, I think is one of the most amazing things about this race for me. The entire time – even through the hills, and even through the final, exhausting, painful few miles – I never really had to fight off negative emotions. They just didn’t stand a chance.

I never once thought “I don’t want to be doing this.” I never once had to give myself a pep talk and chase out the mental demons that usually appear at some point over the course of 26.2 miles. The spirit and energy of this race are unmatched, and it filled me with an optimism that I’ve never before experienced in a marathon.

I took full advantage of that as I made my way through the infamous Newton hills. They were unquestionably tough – not so much because of how steep or long they were, but because of where they were.

Miles 16 – 21 of a marathon are not the point at which you want to climb one hill after another, but I was ready for this. I had trained for this, and I would get through this. I knew that.

Some of them felt worse than others, and I tried to avoid looking at my watch too much, because I knew my pace was going to be all over the place as we made our way up and down.

On some of them, I felt like I was barely moving, and was so relieved to get to the top. And on others, I felt like I cruised right up.

But I was relieved to see the 20-mile marker, because I knew that meant just one more to go. Heartbreak.

Amazingly, as I ran up that hill, I felt better and better with every step. I found myself dodging and weaving so I could pass people. I was passing people on Heartbreak Hill! I was almost to the top of Heartbreak Hill. I was conquering Heartbreak Hill.

And as I reached the top, the sense of relief was incredible. That was it. It was, quite literally, all downhill from here.

My pace held up pretty well through the hills – 8:02, 8:13, 8:02, 7:58, 8:07, 8:08 – and I was beginning to attempt the crazy and nearly impossible marathon math, trying to figure out if I was going to make my goal or not.

I thought I was pretty darn close, and I also thought it was time to let myself go. I was exhausted, and my legs were hurting, but I knew I had it in me to pick up the pace a little and finish strong.

And once I gave myself permission to go, my body completely took over, and I suddenly felt like I was absolutely flying.

The fact the last five miles of the course are mostly downhill definitely helped, but there was also the fact that, after all the downhill miles at the start, my quads were screaming – just as I had been told they would be. So as nice as it was to not be climbing up hills anymore, it was pretty darn painful to be running down them.

But I knew it was going to hurt. Whether uphill, downhill, or flat, the final five miles of a marathon ALWAYS hurt. The key is whether or not you embrace that pain or fight it. I chose to embrace it. It wasn’t going to go away until I stopped running, and the only way to stop running sooner was to run faster. So that’s what I did.

I barely looked at my watch at all during those last few miles. I ran fast, and I ran with my heart, because I knew if I was going to reach my goal, that’s what would get me there.

I flew into the outskirts of the city, and the crowds were just getting bigger. Miles 22 and 23 – 7:45, 7:47. And I began to see familiar sights (and another friend cheering me on, in Coolidge Corner!), and I ran faster.

Miles 24 and 25 – 7:43, 7:30.

And there I was – one mile away from finishing my first Boston Marathon. I’m smiling just thinking about it.

I had nothing left, but I found more anyway. Mile 26 – 7:31.

And I made that final turn – left on Boylston – and there was a couple running near me, and I heard the man say to the woman as they spotted the finish line “There it is!” And that’s what we were all thinking as we moved forward. There it is.

All the work, all the training, all the hopes, the dreams, all the energy that had carried us along all the way from the start line in Hopkinton. It was all right here, and it was a moment like no other.

I scanned the crowd for my friends, and was so glad I was able to spot them, and hear them yelling for me.

I ran that final .2 mile at a 6:31 pace, smiling from ear to ear.

And when it was done, when I had crossed that finish line – the one I’ve been seeing images of for months and months – I couldn’t quite believe it.

I shuffled forward with the mass of runners, collecting my space blanket, and water, and kept walking forward, and all I could think about was how much I wanted that medal.

I had to walk a little further, but then there it was. The volunteer hung it around my neck and he could tell I was about to cry (as I had been doing on and off ever since crossing the finish), and he put an arm on my shoulder and congratulated me.

I continued shuffling and crying – tears of joy, and relief, and utter amazement – and made my way to the buses to get my bag. Once I had it, I immediately grabbed my phone and turned it on so I could check my official time. (My Garmin said 3:30:20, but there’s usually some discrepancy between that and the official clock, and I wanted to know for sure.)

The number of messages, emails, and Facebook posts I had gotten since I turned my phone off earlier that morning was unbelievable. And I didn’t even have to check the BAA website to find my time, because some of my friends who had been tracking me had included it in their congratulatory messages. 3:30:19!!!

I got my 11-minute PR, and I ran an 8-minute pace for 26.2 miles. I. Had. Done. It. I couldn’t stop smiling.

I wanted to jump up and down, but I was in too much pain. So I hobbled over to the changing tent and got some warm clothes on – I was starting to cool down, and the breeze had picked up, so I was getting really cold. Once I changed, I made my way over to the family meeting area, where my friends were all waiting for me.

We hugged and celebrated and took pictures. It really was one of the greatest moments of my life.

And then it all changed.

All the images I have of that final stretch down Boylston, all those memories of walking through the chute and thanking the volunteers, who were smiling and so clearly enjoying and reveling in their role in the day’s events – when I think about it now, my heart breaks, imagining that same scene 40 minutes later.

I think of the horror, the fear, the confusion – and how those volunteers who had been happily congratulating swarms of exhausted but elated runners, and those spectators who were there lifting all of our spirits and carrying us across that finish line – how their lives were all changed in an instant.

As we stood in the family meeting area talking and laughing, we heard a very loud boom. We all stopped and looked around, and then not even a minute later, we heard a second one.

I don’t even really remember what we said to each other, but I think the prevailing sentiment was just “what the hell was that?” The street had suddenly gotten very quiet, and everyone was looking around and trying to see what was going on. We were a few blocks away, so couldn’t see anything – not even smoke – so nobody really knew how bad the situation was.

Then the sirens started. And they never stopped. Ambulances, police cars, fire trucks – speeding past us, and heading in the direction of the finish line we had just left a short while ago.

Two of my friends headed back to their cars to start back for home, and the rest of us decided we’d make our way to the restaurant where we had planned to meet up with the other running club members who had come up on the bus.

The restaurant we planned to meet at was just a few blocks up from the finish line, and as we walked up Boylston Street, the street was a ghost town. The tables lined with water and Gatorade were still there, but there was not a runner in sight.

My already delirious post-marathon brain tried to figure out what was going on. Were we actually on Boylston Street, or had we taken a wrong turn? I knew the race couldn’t be over yet – there had to still be more runners crossing the finish line, but where were they? Had they moved the finisher’s chute for some reason? I couldn’t make sense of it.

And now that I look back on it all, I think there was a small part of my brain that allowed me to consider the possibility that it was some sort of attack, but just as quickly as that thought came into my head, I blocked it out. I didn’t want to believe something like that could have happened, so I didn’t let myself believe it.

At this point, my husband called me to see how I was doing – I had called earlier but he hadn’t answered, so I’d left him a voicemail. And he hadn’t heard anything on the news yet, so he was just calling to talk to me about the race.

We talked briefly, but then I could hear policemen yelling for everyone to get off the street, so I told Scott we were going to get into the restaurant and find our friends – that there had been two loud noises, and something was going on, but we weren’t sure what, and I’d call him back later.

Apparently, after we hung up, his phone began ringing off the hook with people calling to check on me, and I’m so thankful we talked when we did, so at least he knew that I was OK.

Our time in the restaurant was an odd mix of celebrating and staring at the TV in disbelief. The news trickled in very slowly, and eventually we learned the explosions had been bombs, and that people had been injured, and at that point they were saying two had died.

Immediately after running a marathon, your brain is fried. You’re physically exhausted, of course, and mentally, you’re not all there. It’s a very surreal experience, and as much as you’re completely drained emotionally, your body is also bursting at the seams with endorphins. It’s a very strange state of being, and even under normal post-race circumstances, you experience a kind of disconnect with the world.

And as I watched this story unfolding, I simply couldn’t process it. And frankly, I’m still having trouble. My phone was flashing what seemed like every 30 seconds with a new message or email or voicemail from someone wanting to know if I was OK. And yet, I still didn’t fully comprehend just how lucky my friends and I had been. None of it seemed real.

Then, as we were getting ready to pay our bill, someone in the restaurant stood up and yelled “Everyone needs to get out now!!” That was the first time all day that I truly felt scared.

We went out the back door and gathered in the alley, and made our way back to the bus, and half an hour later we were on our way out of the city.

As I sit here, a week later, there’s still a part of me that is in disbelief, and a part of me that still can’t stop asking “Why?” This race is a living, breathing example of the best of humanity – the runners, the spectators, the volunteers – from all over the world and from all different backgrounds – are all in it together. All in for Boston.

The same way my heart breaks when I think about how the day ended, it swells when I think about how it felt to be out there on the course – you feel such an incredible energy as you’re running – it becomes a part of you.

I’ve heard it said the finish line of a marathon is a magical place, but in Boston, the entire 26.2 miles are magic.

That this year’s race ended under such tragic circumstances is just unfathomable, and unforgivable.

But as the week has passed, the outpouring of support and solidarity from the running community has proven to be stronger than that darkness.

There’s a lot I still feel very confused and conflicted about in the wake of all this, but there are a few things I am 100% certain about:

We are runners, and we will not quit. We will not back down. We will not let fear stop us.

And we will come through this stronger, and more determined than ever.

Already counting down the days ’til Boston 2014.

Michelle San Antonio
Wakefield, Rhode Island
April 15, 2013
Age – 41
Bib # 17587

[My Blog]