Monday, April 29, 2013

What I Saw

It was about 2:40 on Marathon Monday afternoon as I rounded the corner onto Boylston Street.  I felt pretty good considering how far I’d just run.  Time for the final stretch, I was finally here!  As I usually do, I took the corner tight and hugged the left side of Boylston Street.  I am almost always along the edge of the course, closer to the crowd and the cheers.  I’ve run about 26 miles at this point, so I have no desire to run a single step further than I have to… and I can never remember at this point that my parents are pretty much always on the opposite side of the street looking for me.  I picked up the pace, leaving everything on the course.  I was having an awesome race, I wanted to finish it with a nice kick.  I remember hearing my parents yelling my name cheering me on through the noise of the crowd.  I took off down Boylston that last quarter mile, waving my arms frantically to fire up the crowd.  I crossed the finish line throwing my hands up in triumph!  I had done it.  I had finished my 12th Boston Marathon and I had run better than I targeted

Strangely, the paint I wore seemed to rush into my eyes (particularly the right eye) as I finished.  This was my ninth painted Boston, and this was a problem I’d never had before.  It made it a bit more difficult to fiddle with my phone, as I couldn’t see very clearly.  I slowed to a walk, grabbing my phone from the armband I wore, attempting to stop my workout tracking as close to my finish time as possible.  It took a bit, but I managed to unlock the phone and stop and save the workout.  I crammed the phone back into its pouch on my arm and meandered down the road slowly.    As I crossed under the arch, someone stuck a camera and a mic in my face and interviewed me.  I was covered in red paint, so the interview wasn’t surprising… just the location.  Photographers swarm the area, both on top of the arch and everywhere else.  The video cameras though, tend to be a few blocks down the chute.  I’m still not sure who it was who interviewed me, or even what was said.  I probably never will know.  But I stopped and spoke with whoever it was for a bit, trying to walk in place the whole time.  If I stopped moving, the lactic acid would hit me hard.  I don’t stop moving until long after the race

After the interview, I stopped again to thank a few of the volunteers in the finish chute.  After a couple more brief conversations, I decided to get a photo of myself with the arch in the background.  I fiddled with the phone for a bit, but between paint in my eye and on the plastic wrap I used to paint proof the phone, it took a while.  Eventually I got to the camera, and asked a volunteer to take a photo for me.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t see the screen well enough and weren’t able to get one.  I thanked them for trying and walked half a block to get water, and some paper towels to try to get some of the paint from around my eye.  I wanted that picture though and turned back around once I had a bottle of water.  As I stood right behind the arch, and reached for my phone again, the day took a drastic turn

BOOM!  It sounded like a celebratory cannon.  Or at least thats what I told myself.  This was Marathon Monday, I refused to entertain other possibilities.  Deep inside, I already felt something was wrong.  I looked up from my phone and towards the finish line.  As I stood in near the Old South Church all I saw was the arch, it blocked most of my view in that direction.  From my vantage point, everything *looked* normal.  I saw some random guy in the chute near me jump up and do a little jig.  Apparently he thought it was a celebratory cannon as well.  For about ten seconds I pondered:  What in the world were they celebrating about 4 hours in? And where was that cannon?  It certainly seemed close by…

BOOM!  A second explosion.  My worst fears were confirmed.  Something was wrong.  Three thoughts immediately overwhelmed me:

1) Call Mom.  My parents were close by, I had just passed them further down Boylston minutes before.  The explosions, especially the first, were so close to me that I was sure they were ok.  But they knew I had just finished the race.  They knew that the explosions were between us.  I didn’t want them running in to look for me and getting hurt in the process.  I had to let them know I was OK.  Who knew if there would be more…

2) Helplessness.  I was overwhelmed by the most powerful feeling of helplessness.  I stood there, powerless as the day came crashing down around me.  I wanted to help… needed to help… but I could do nothing.  I had left it all on the course.  Even my adrenaline stores were depleted.  I could barely walk, and I could barely see.  What could I do?  I was a liability being there, to myself and to others.  I was helpless, I was worthless

3) Craig should be here.  I was grasping desperately for anything I could do.  Anything!  I’m sure partially to make up for my own perceived inadequacies at the time, I couldn’t help but wish my little brother had been able to come cheer me on this year.  He’s a volunteer firefighter back home… he could help, I could not

Moments after, I realized something else:

I was supposed to be here!  For reasons unknown to me, I was meant to be a part of this.  There were too many things that led to me being *right there*…  I was put at this place, at this time for something… but what?  This made the helplessness even more unbearable.  Why was I here if I could do nothing?  Why must I endure this if I am powerless to do anything about it?  There was too much for it to be coincidence.  This catastrophe that had just defiled the most important day in my world… I was meant to be in the center of it.    I was safely past, but then I was stopped.  I was held right there by seemingly random minutia.  But why?  I could do nothing to help

I don’t know how long I stood there.  I suspect it was only a few seconds, but time was at a standstill.  So much was happening around me, and so many thoughts rushing through my head.  I came to the painful conclusion that I couldn’t do anything and began to walk away.  I didn't look back.  Nothing has ever hurt me more than this.  I have called Boston home for many years, and now in its darkest hour I was helpless and walking away from my city’s trials.  My body trembled uncontrollably and continued to for quite some time.  It wasn’t shivering.  The cold no longer bothered me.  But I was shaking, likely anxiety

I already had my phone in my hand, but I could barely use it. I called Mom as quickly as possible.  I couldn’t read the names due to the paint in my eye, but I was able to find it based on the length of the name in my address book.  I needed to get the call through now, I knew that the networks would be overwhelmed momentarily.  When she answered I said something along the lines of “I’m OK.  I can’t hear you… just go to the hotel.  I’ll meet you at the hotel”  I couldn’t hear her response, but I knew they were ok.  I was sure they were still where they had been when I ran by minutes before.  They were in a safer area… they could relay the news to the rest of the family.  I hung up the call and moved on, still unsure of exactly what happened, but knowing it was bad

As I shuffled down the chute, I passed Dartmouth.  I needed a heat sheet.  I had only a pair of shorts and paint on, and it was chilly.  I grabbed a heat sheet and kept moving.  I asked a few volunteers what was going on.  They didn’t know.  Just keep moving they said.  Clarendon Street was up ahead.  I saw a volunteer still handing out medals to the fleeing runners.  I hesitated.  I wanted a medal.  I had earned it this year, I had run well today, and gotten the crowd fired up along the way.  Part of me still hesitated.  I couldn’t take advantage of this chaos to get something I shouldn’t have.  I usually get one though.  Plus, I knew this one would come to mean a lot in the days ahead.  This medal would not be like any other in terms of sentimental value.  I reached out for a medal, thanking the volunteer.   Clutching my phone, my medal and a few bottles of water, I moved on

I turned down Clarendon, on several occasions asking distraught folks “Are you OK?”  The answer to that, I knew, was relative.  Here… yes physically they were.  But many of these folks saw the unspeakable.  By this point I had heard chatter.  Bombs, limbs lost… I knew it to be true, but still hoped it was just people overreacting.  I still wanted to believe everything was OK

The few bottles of water I carried quickly dwindled to just the one I had been drinking.  I didn’t *need* more than that.  I offered my phone to make calls, but at this point networks were overwhelmed.  I don’t think any of those calls went through.  I distinctly remember one woman asking me ‘Are you sure?  It’s long distance.’  At that point in time the cost of long distance calls didn’t matter.  I didn’t care who they were calling.  On the other end was someone who was surely panicking, praying that this runner was OK

I saw the media area.  Normally I like this spot and spend a lot of time here.  I often joke that I am a media whore.  I’ve been in quite a few articles and videos and so on as a result of my marathon attire.  Now was different.  This was bigger than me, much bigger.  My playful marathon antics weren’t significant in the current circumstances.  I didn’t want to be interviewed, I deliberately avoided it.  I could contribute nothing to this ‘story’

As I tried to navigate my way back to the hotel, I left the finish area.  Wearing paint, shorts and a flimsy heat sheet, it was a bit chilly.  That was the last thing on my mind.  I honestly didn’t even notice anymore.  Once the bombs went off, I forgot that it was cold.  But many people on the streets didn’t… I was offered several jackets.  Literally people offering the clothes off their back to warm up a runner who needed it.  I didn’t though.  I didn’t want a free $100 jacket, if they were to give it to someone, there were others who needed it much more than me.  Eventually I did accept the offer of a second heat sheet.  That would be enough to keep me warm

My sense of orientation was off.  It normally is after the marathon.  I was wandering around aimlessly for a bit.  Random small talk between myself and other runners served as a small amount of comfort.  None of us knew what happened yet.  As I got further from the finish, I got more information.  They were bombs, I could no longer hope I was wrong.  Just then, in the distance, another explosion.  It wasn’t over.  The nightmare wasn’t over yet.  I grabbed my phone again.  I logged into Facebook.  Quickly posting “third bomb just went off… I’m ok”.  I knew my family had shared the news that I was OK after the first two, but now there was another.  I didn’t want a renewed panic from loved ones.  I couldn’t read any of it, but I went into my text messages.  I typed ‘ok’ to every one of them, and there were quite a few.  I hate text messaging, so especially with that in consideration, I was humbled by how many I got.  I needed to let people know I was *still* ok

A random guy with a notepad walking next to me asked if he could ask me a couple questions.  So much for avoiding the media!  I agreed, mostly because I figured he would have a lot more information about what had happened than I did.  He asked me what I saw.  ‘I didn’t see anything’ I told him. ‘It was behind me’… The interview continued.  ‘I saw the first responders running towards the explosions.  I saw the race volunteers helping to get people out of the chute safely’.  And then it hit me hard:

What did I see?  I saw Boston at its best

I saw first responders putting their lives on the line to help others.  There had been two explosions, and no one knew if there would be more.  They charged in to help, to use their training and experience to mitigate the harm done.  They risked their health and safety for people they didn't know

I saw volunteers hold their ground and help get people out safely.  These were people with no ‘training’ and people who really didn’t know what was going on.  Empowered by a unicorn on their jacket, and the need of their city, they did what they could, holding their ground and doing exactly what they planned to that day… they made sure that the runners got throughout the chute safely and in a somewhat orderly fashion

I saw random people helping random people in any way they could.  Offering a hug, their phone, clothes off their back, food, shelter, directions… anything.  I saw strangers become family, sacrificing what they could to support those who needed it

I saw businesses being human.  Restaurants providing free food and shelter.  Hotels sacrificing their profits to help those without a room

I was blessed in that I not only was safe physically, but I was spared of the visuals of what had happened behind me.  I only saw what happened after

What I saw was wonderful.  I saw countless people finding ways to help each other in a time of need

I saw Boston… I saw humanity at its best

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