The second explosion was exactly where my family had been waiting

I’ll forever remember the 2013 Boston Marathon as the day I came way too close to losing absolutely everything, when my family was almost taken, leaving me with nothing, alone and broken.

It started like any other race morning: very early, but that’s the only normal thing about the Boston Marathon. I left the hotel and took the subway to the Boston Common where 27,000 of us boarded buses to Hopkinton.

We arrived at the Athletes Village around 7:00 a.m. You could feel the nervous energy and anticipation in the air as we looked for a spot for our three-hour wait. Veteran Boston runners brought mats and blankets to lie on, while us rookies scrounged for cardboard boxes and plastic bags to protect us from the morning chill and dew.

I tried to soak it all in, from the goofy MC and his endless jabbering to the low murmur of everyone comparing notes and trying to stay warm. Finally, they called for Wave 1 to make its way to the start. My hard marathon was the one I ran to qualify and I was planning to run Boston easy; but that familiar feeling in my stomach told me I wasn’t running anything easy, not today, and thank God I didn’t.

I was in corral seven of eight. Typically, the first wave is right up front, but not in Boston, unless you were in corral one. Standing on my toes, all I could see was a massive ocean of runners. The start line was nowhere in sight.

At 10:00 we started moving, like a tsunami of humans crashing toward the starting line. The clock showed just over five minutes as I hit the line, meaning the elite runners were already past the one mile point, and it had taken me more than five minutes to get to the start.

Joey Lee 1939813_10204605910404404_1252819027483505464_o
In training…

I started pretty fast – about the same pace as my qualifying race. But it felt easy, easier than in the qualifier for sure. The street was packed, but everyone was keeping pace and I didn’t have to dodge anyone going slow. I kept thinking, “I’m either going to have a really good race or really struggle at the end.” I probably should have slowed down, but I wanted to see what I could do.

I had heard there were some long, isolated, and quiet parts of the course. I had heard wrong: there were some spots with hardly any people, but they were few and far between. For the most part, the entire 26.2 miles is lined with people offering refreshments, everything from water and ice pops to licorice and gummi bears.

Not only was the crowd handing out stuff, but they cheered for absolutely everyone, held their hands out offering high fives and, in one spot, giving kisses. Yes, I’ll admit, I high-fived thousands of tiny hands. Oh, and the kisses? Around mile 13, the women of Wellesley College gather in what’s known as The Scream Tunnel, screaming encouragement to the runners and trying to get kisses from them. They hold signs that read, “Kiss me, I’m a chemistry major,” and “Kiss me, I’m from Oklahoma,” among other things. I didn’t get as many kisses as I did high fives, but I sure tried. And the good news is, I didn’t even slow down as I was smooching.

Mile 20 is the infamous Heartbreak Hill. By the time I reached it, I was really beginning to feel the miles. I made it up the hill and through the next couple of miles, but was definitely slowing down.

When I reached mile 23, my legs disappeared and were replaced by molten lead; burning, aching and getting heavier with each step. We were back in Boston and the crowds lining the streets were growing bigger, so I did everything I could to keep pushing.

But at some point I had to give in. My breathing was out of hand and my legs were screaming. I had to walk, at least at the water stations. The problem is, water stations are like gateway drugs – once I let myself walk one, it was easy to justify walking at random spots, and that’s what I did. I ended up walking four or five times in the last few miles and the crowds’ cheers began to sound like taunts, so I’d start running again. But I was still on a good pace and enjoying the experience, only wishing the finish line experience would arrive quickly.

Finally, I saw my family, right at the 26 mile point. My wife Casey was smiling and yelling, and Dad was holding my daughter Ginger above the crowd, and then I was past them and finished. I was ecstatic and exhausted, having just crossed off one of the biggies from my life’s “to-do” list.

Boston Marathon Finishline 15 April 13 (2)As soon as I stopped running, I got cold, not just normal cold, but bone chilling, “I’m soaked in sweat, exhausted and have no food in me” cold. So I pressed through the sea of finishers to get my medal and tin foil survival blanket. I eventually got my pre-race checked bag with a couple items of clothing in it, hurriedly put them on, and hobbled to the family meeting area.

Thankfully, I was too tired and too cold to hang around, so we caught the subway back to the hotel. I immediately filled the tub with steaming water and dove in. But that bath was short-lived. I heard the news blaring, “There have been explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line.”

I watched the events down the street unfold. And my pride and sense of accomplishment were replaced with anger, horror, and disbelief. The story was no longer that 27,000 runners had fulfilled their dream of running the Superbowl of marathons. Now the story was some insane person had detonated bombs in the crowd.

We all felt horrible for those who were killed or injured, and their loved ones, victims only guilty of loving and supporting someone in the race. But then my feelings went from bad to worse.

As we watched the live coverage, we realized the location of the second explosion was exactly where my wife, one year old daughter, Mom, and Dad had been waiting.

When I run an “easy” marathon, it’s usually around the four hour mark, right around the time when the bombs detonated. If one thing had gone differently that day, if I had decided to run easy, they would have still been standing there waiting for me. I was stunned, shocked and thankful.

As soon as I realized how close we had come to being victims, I grabbed Ginger and Casey and hugged them as tight as I could. Thirteen years ago I lost my first wife and barely recovered, I don’t think I have it in me to make it through losing Casey; let alone losing Casey, Ginger, Mom, and Dad.

Honestly, even as I write this, I tremble and my eyes fill with tears. I was so lucky, if everything hadn’t lined up like it did. I could have lost them all, narrowly missing it by minutes. We figure we were on the subway as the explosions occurred. The text Casey had sent me was just a few minutes before the explotions went off, and my family had been walking just a couple minutes to find me when she sent it.

The mood in the lobby at breakfast the next morning was like nothing I’d ever seen before. After a race like that, we usually brag, make excuses and joke around. But not this morning, we hardly looked at each other. I don’t know if we were feeling guilty we were okay, or just devastated by what happened. If we did make eye contact, it was brief, with a nod of understanding, and then you looked away, like you were harboring some dirty secret.

One item most runners covet is the Boston Athletic Association jacket. You can easily identify the runners by it and they sell thousands each year. I wanted mine so badly I broke a cardinal rule and bought it before the race. I was so scared I had jinxed myself by doing so I left it in the bag, and buried it in my suitcase as soon as I got to the hotel. Given the events of this year’s race, I seriously considered not even taking it out of the bag. But I reconsidered and wore it as we continued our vacation around New England. Not as a matter of pride, but as a matter of solidarity and to show that these terrorists can’t defeat us, they only make us stronger and bring us closer together.

It was humbling and a bit embarrassing as we traveled, when people saw the jacket, they’d all ask how we were doing and if I got to finish the race. We told them how lucky we were and how grateful we were to be alive and healthy; and these total strangers would express how thankful they were.

To this day, every time I put that jacket on, I think of eight year old Martin Richard, Lu Lingzi, Krystle Campbell, and their families, the hundreds injured and traumatized, just how close I came to losing everything that means anything to me, and how lucky I am that the Lord was watching over us that day.

Joey Lee
Madison, Mississippi
April 15, 2013
Age – 44
Bib # 7362