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Boston tragedy brings community together

Like most people, runners and non-runners alike, I met the news of the tragedy at Monday’s Boston Marathon with stunned disbelief.

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Mike Burnstein on his way to a long-dreamed-of finish at Boston on Monday, April 15, 2013. His euphoria, however, would be short lived (see Page 4).

Like most people, runners and non-runners alike, I met the news of the tragedy at Monday’s Boston Marathon with stunned disbelief. One of my son’s teenage friends captured the horror succinctly in a Facebook post: “Bomb a marathon? Why?”

While we trail runners sometimes diss road running and its monotony, the reaction of the running community to Monday’s tragedy at the king of road marathons makes me proud to simply call myself a runner. Not only did the tragedy link road and trail runners, it connected runners and non-runners alike.

I’ve never run 26.2 miles on pavement, but, the more I learn about the race, Boston (provided I could actually qualify) would be my choice. The following observations come from trail runners participating in the 117th running of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (For more accounts, please visit our Facebook page.)


IAN TORRENCE, 40, of Flagstaff, Arizona, is the lead ultrarunning coach at McMillan Running.

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Accomplished trail ultrarunner Ian Torrence.

I was back in my hotel room when the bombs exploded. Had they done so an hour earlier I would have been in the middle of the horror. I’m still trying to comprehend all the events, the outcomes, and what it’ll mean for every running event from here on out. Will the landscape of running be changed forever? My guess is that we will continue on as strong as ever, even stronger. Runners are a resilient bunch. If there were ever a sub-set of population that can rebound and grow stronger during a time of hardship, it’ll be the runners.

I’ve asked myself if I’d ever return to Boston: Would this tragic incident keep me from participating in an event like the Boston Marathon ever again? I guess it wouldn’t. I’ve considered returning to Boston next year just to spite the wicked who are responsible.

I’m a trail runner and a road runner. Though our sports may vary in a few details, the fact remains that we love what we do and enjoy whom we do it with. An event like this only cements these bonds. I saw many good friends while in Boston, both before and after the bombing. They were trail runners, road runners and non-runners, folks there only to support their loved ones in the event.

I was amazed at what I saw while I ran to Boston from Hopkinton. Every mile of the course was lined with fans! I have never run an event that had so much support, crowds, cheering and throngs of people. I can only imagine the amount of support and unity that this tragic turn of events will create.

There is no reason to scurry back to the remote trails I usually tread, but to stand firm and support all those who were injured and who lost loved ones at the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon.

GABRIELLE ELISSA ORSI, 36, of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, is a system administrator for Colorado Mountain College.

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Gabrielle Elissa Orsi on Hope Pass at the 2010 TransRockies Run, Colorado.

This year, I wasn’t aiming to race the Boston Marathon—I was just going to use it as a training run for the Vermont 100-mile race in July, and soak it all in. I’m grateful that I managed to complete the race just a few minutes before the bombing, and that I was in a rush to leave the finish area. I had a massage appointment at 2:40 p.m. that I was late for, which seems so petty now. I was able to catch my flight home to Denver later that day. I’m saddened by the tragedy, and shaken too by my close brush with the murderous intentions of the still-unknown perpetrator(s).

It’s hard to describe what it feels like to prepare day after day, often alone, for a difficult event months away, like the Boston Marathon. On race day, though, the solitude is over: tens of thousands of people are lining the streets to cheer you on and you’re joined by 27,000 other runners. What makes Boston a special race—besides the fact that it’s been held for 117 years and attracts the best runners in the world—is that there are continuous crowds for 26.2 miles. The race course is jammed with cheering spectators. That’s why so many runners run marathon after marathon trying to get that magic “BQ, ” Boston qualifying time.

When you’re running the Boston Marathon, you feel like a rock star! If you’ve never run it or been in Boston on Patriots Day, let me tell you what it’s like:

Thousands of ordinary people reach out their hands over barricades along the race course to touch you and high-five you. If you write your name on your shirt, everyone yells it. I had forgotten to do that so people yelled for “Number 16775!” and “Zoom Zoom!” (a logo on my shirt) .

Little kids lean out eagerly from the sidewalk trying to hand you candy, orange slices, popsicles … I ran past one family that had set up a trampoline on their front lawn and they all were jumping up on it with pom-poms while blasting music. There was party after party along the route with people holding up signs (“Bee-ahs in 20 miles, ” “#bawstonlovesyou,” “You Think Running Is Hard, My Arms Are Killing Me From Holding This Sign, ” “We’re Proud of You, Total Stranger” and countless signs rooting for “Mom,” “Dad,” and other runners’ names).

There are charity groups in matching outfits standing by the side of the road cheering runners raising funds to fight cancer, melanoma, heart disease, liver disease–thousands of entries are reserved for runners affiliated with a charity. Along the route, spired churches have signs with Bible quotes. My memory encompasses blind runners running with guides. People in wheelchairs competing in the race. I ran past a mom running while pushing her child in a wheelchair.

Families set up their own little “aid stations” and hand out cups of lemonade and Twizzlers from tables in their yards. A high-school band was playing in full uniform. A group of a dozen African drummers drumming. A bagpiper piping. A bluegrass band is a blurry memory at the side of the road around mile 17—I remember a woman was playing the washboard by stroking it with a giant metal spoon while the banjo player plucked furiously.

Around mile 18, at Heartbreak Hill, college kids throwing house parties and wearing crazy outfits (tutus, pilgrims) offer you cold beer. Someone had written messages in chalk on the course and drawn big hearts on the road up the famous hill. There are local businesses with handmade signs (my favorite was a hardware store with giant mirrors: “Runners! Check out your style here!” My style was … sweaty).

I ran past identical twin sisters running in matching orange-and-black outfits. Soldiers marched the race course in full camouflage uniform with packs. And I passed a group of friends all dressed as characters from the Wizard of Oz—written on their backs: “THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE BOSTON!”

The road unwinds before you, heading east and down to the sea. (See the course in under three minutes!)

Each mile and kilometer mark is permanently painted on the road.

I must have high-fived literally hundreds of people–I just ran past the crowds with my hand held out and touched hand after hand. By mile 20, my hands were numb and stinging. Whenever I felt tired, there would be some little kid with shining eyes by the side of the road holding out their hand, so I would do run over and do another high five and instantly feel better. I saw people from Germany, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Italy, Austria, Brazil, Mexico, New Zealand running. I sat next to a woman from France on the bus ride to the start.

The marathon course passes Wellesley College. One of the traditions of the Boston Marathon is that the Wellesley College Scream Tunnel.

The students hold signs saying “Kiss Me” and a million variations on that theme (“Kiss Me, I’m from California,” “Kiss Me, I’m A Masshole,” “Kiss Me, I’m Graduating Without A Job! “), and they cheer so loudly that you can literally hear them half a mile before you see them. Boston College too–the students line the barricades screaming and holding out their hands to you.

When you enter the race’s final stretch the cheering is deafening and that whole area is packed with spectators. It always is a huge thrill to see the finish line of any race, especially a marathon, but this time I had a twinge of regret that this amazing experience was about to end.

A runner next to me turned to me and said, “Isn’t this AWESOME?” I just pumped my arms in the air in agreement and cheered. We crossed the finish line.

I wanted to linger and see more, but I left instead.

I used to joke and say that running the Boston Marathon feels something like what the liberation of Paris in 1944 must have felt like for American troops. OK, that’s facetious, but a tiny bit true. Is there another sport where people come out to root for total strangers, who are neither famous nor winning?

Up until I heard the news about the bombs, it was a beautiful weekend in Boston. Perfect weather. A tremendous event. I was thrilled to be there for the second time.

It’s hard to describe how much joy and energy and trust the whole big-city marathon experience contains. It’s open to everyone—just make your way to the road to join the party.

I think people realize, even if they don’t run, that there’s something simple and primal about you and the marathon distance. I think they know that the hardest parts aren’t the middle miles, but at the start and during the final miles—when you have to decide to begin, and then decide to continue when it would be so much easier not to.

That to finish the race, at those points, from the heart, you must say a great big YES to the entire race, and accept everything it will hand you.

I didn’t see or hear the explosions yesterday. I was spared. What I saw instead was something much better, and I hope ultimately more memorable. I saw the race itself.

SCOTT DUNLAP, 43, of Woodside, California, covers trail running on A Trail Runner’s Blog (this article an excerpt from his blog). The race was his ninth consecutive Boston Marathon, and he says he will definitely return next year.

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Scott Dunlap running Boston, April 15, 2013, with Joan Benoit Samuelson in the background.

The finish line was packed by the time I got there, and my functional alcoholism was getting impatient with a 15-to-20 minute wait for a beer. Especially on a PR day! I decided to walk several blocks down Boylston Street and find a pub, and soon was clinking pints with fellow runners and sharing our stories. Then we heard it … a sound that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

BOOM. A few seconds later, another one. BOOM. What was that? A celebration? A gas leak? Within seconds we had our answer, as all we could see through the pub front window was thousands of people running with panic in their eyes. A crying woman stepped into the pub, saying something about an explosion at the finish line, bodies and limbs … We all stood there in shock. A few minutes later, the TVs were turned to the live coverage and we got the unfiltered clarity of the horror. It was surreal to see it on TV while hearing the crowds outside, and seeing and smelling the smoke. My senses said to run, but I didn’t think it made sense to go anywhere for the time being. But a few minutes later, the pub owner said they were closing. All of the blocks near the explosion were being evacuated.

On the curb, the scene was intense. Nobody could find their loved ones, and feared the worst. Names were being screamed out in helplessness. Local Bostonians couldn’t believe what was happening in their community, and tears streamed down their faces. Sirens echoed down the city streets, and bomb units moved in. I hustled across the Boston Commons park and stepped into another pub with lots of big TV screens, texting my wife and parents that I was OK before the phone lines jammed up. The efficiency of the Boston Police Department, medical teams and volunteers was stunning, and the medical tents at the finish line quickly turned into MASH units. The videos showed as many runners going to the scene as running away from it, and it was clear there were 100 people helping on scene within five seconds. Then the counts started to come in … three dead (including an eight-year-old boy), 125-plus injured, 10-plus amputations already.

Tragic. Senseless. I felt nothing. I couldn’t even conjure up anger or denial. It was similar to when I narrowly missed the 9/11 tragedy 12 years ago and couldn’t feel anything for days. I needed to do something. I needed to help.

I called Mass General Hospital to see if they needed help or blood, but they had plenty of both. I went online to offer my hotel room to any displaced runner, only to find a list of thousands of Bostonians opening up their houses. Boston was telling me, “We got this, bro … we got this. ” Of course they do. This is Boston, one of the greatest communities in the world. Nobody takes care of their own like Bostonians

I looked at my cell phone—53 texts, 25 Facebook messages, 30 tweets and 18 phone calls. It was family, friends…it was you guys. Yes, I was OK. Yes, I had been at the finish 30 minutes before [the explosions], but my need for beer may have saved my life. In fact, let’s have a few more beers. I opened up a tab and invited everyone to raise a glass to the families of the dead and injured, and to celebrate being alive. But in classic Boston form, the staff of the Beantown Pub just kept bringing free drinks.

As I got back to my hotel, another runner told me what it was like to be 500 yards away from the finish and told to stop (around 6700 runners were unable to finish). It was his first Boston, and like many who were coming in around the 4:09 mark when the bomb hit, he was running for a charity. I offered him my finisher medal, and he just smiled and said, “You’re the fifth person to do that in the last hour … no worries, mate, the BAA will take of us. ” His smile made me smile, and we hugged. Then he saw my watch and said “2:44? That’s outstanding! Tell me about your race.”

And just like that, the healing began.

My senses came back quickly. I felt denial, and asked myself, “Why?” a few hundred times. I got angry, and blasted off a “#GFY terrorists” tweet (that’s the Go F*** Yourself hashtag). I felt helplessness, realizing what an easy target the Boston Marathon is and it was likely just a matter of time before some of that small sliver of crazy in all humankind would see this easy target. Munich Olympics, Atlanta Games …the pinnacle of sport will forever be in the crosshairs of attention-seeking zealots with a few loose screws. I FaceTime’d with my wife and kids and turned into a sobbing mess as soon as it ended. This was good. This was healing. Somewhere in the whirlwind of emotion I fell asleep, and woke up still fully dressed with a new appreciation for life. That day is done. This day is ours. We all move on, stronger than before and gracious to be alive. Heroes abound. We will remember this day forever.

I am sad for the victims of this terrible tragedy. I am proud of Boston for their incredible response and support, and to the B.A.A., B.P.D and local hospitals for being so prepared they undoubtedly saved lives. But most of all, I am happy for today. Happy to the point of tears that I get live and be healthy, surrounded by caring friends and family. The world feels brighter today, the sounds and colors more vibrant. I will not take it for granted. This day is a gift.

Give your kids an extra hug, raise your glasses, tell everyone close to you that you love them. It might be a PR day, it might be your last, but it’s your day. Cherish the gift.

MIKE BURNSTEIN, 23, of Brookline, Massachusetts, is the founder of Janji Running Apparel, and a longtime runner who recently discovered trail running.

This year’s Boston Marathon was a major weekend for me, and somehow everything had come together. First, the race itself. I grew up watching Boston every year, and it had always been my dream to compete in my hometown in front of my friends and families. Monday’s race did not disappoint. My training was solid coming in, the weather was perfect and the fans were absolutely mind-blowing. Crossing the finish line in 2:28, I had accomplished my goal and then some, running a 20-minute PR.

On top of the race, Janji was hosting a pop-up store two blocks from the finish line on Newbury Street. It had taken months for me to plan and execute. Despite a shoestring budget and limited manpower, the store was a huge success—packed with customers all day who were excited to learn more about Janji and our mission to help end the global food and water crisis.

After the race I hobbled back to the store, drank a beer and soaked in the runner’s high. It was an amazing couple hours. Then we heard the bombs go off. Never before have I experienced such a drastic change in emotion. From top of the world, to confusion, to terror and eventually to grief. We packed the store as quickly as we could and evacuated.

As we limped down Beacon away from the city, the course was still clogged with the 4000 runners who had not had the opportunity to finish. We saw lost family members embracing after reconnecting with their loved ones. We also saw runners without their loved ones, many of which were shivering from the cold, and clearly lost, with no cell phones to guide them to familiar faces. I witnessed one spectator offer her jacket to a cold fan who promised to mail it back.

The walk down Beacon was one I will never forget. To me the Boston Marathon has always meant many things: creating positive memories, pushing running to the forefront in the city dominated by traditional sports, celebration and bringing the city together. Many of these were ruined by Monday’s tragedy but at the very least I have never seen the city closer.

WHITNEY DREIER, 29, of Los Alamos, New Mexico, is a freelance writer and avid trail runner.

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Whitney Dreier and her husband, Matt, pre-race.

I finished Monday’s Boston Marathon about 20 minutes faster than anticipated. I crossed the finish line both elated and exhausted. Most of my training had been on trails in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and 26.2 road miles was a shock to pretty much every muscle in my legs. All I wanted to do was sit. Sit and not get up. And I would have collapsed right then and there had volunteers not authoritatively—but kindly—ushered me to “just keep moving.” Just a little farther to pick up my Mylar blanket. Just a few more steps to claim my medal. Just several yards to bananas (I really wanted a banana). Just to the right and around the block to the family meeting area. OK, OK. I kept hobbling along.

When I did reach the letter “D,” where I had agreed to meet my husband, I found a spot on the curb, gingerly lowered myself to the ground, put my head between my legs and tried to decide if I wanted to eat that banana or puke up whatever mixture of Honey Stingers and water was left in my churning stomach.

At that time, the skies were cloudy, and I remember thinking how dark it seemed on the ground between the skyscrapers on Stuart Street. I willed the sun to come out to warm my salt-streaked face. It didn’t, so I wrapped my silver sheet a little tighter and waited for my husband. My husband finished the race just before 2 p.m., and we began walking back to our hotel.

A few blocks later, we heard a loud boom—similar to the thunder that wakes you up in the middle of the night. It was cloudy but there were no ominous clouds. Soon, the word “explosion” made its way down the street, pedestrian to pedestrian.

Within minutes, sirens blared from every direction. We screeched to a stop in the middle of an intersection as 10 policemen on motorcycles whizzed through. Helicopters appeared overhead.

An explosion. Was it a freak accident? A broken gas line? Was it on purpose? That very thought made me tear up as we shuffled back to the hotel. In the safety of our hotel room, I broke down and sobbed and clung to my husband, so thankful we were safe and so fearful of what we did not know.

In my previous 13 marathons, I’ve showered and slept as soon as possible after the race. This year, I sat on my hotel bed for hours, and watched the local news. I checked my phone, which I’d left in the room during the race. Dozens of texts, calls, emails and Facebook messages lit up the screen. People I hadn’t talked to in years, people on different continents, people who—under different circumstances—wouldn’t even know what the Boston Marathon is, were checking in to see if I was OK. I posted on Facebook that my husband and I were OK, a status that almost immediately garnered more than 100 “likes.”

Later that evening, runners gathered in the lobby. One guy from Oregon was in the medical tent when the blast happened, and he witnessed bloody victims being rushed in in wheelchairs. Another woman from Canada had less than a mile left, when she was ushered off the course by policemen. A third runner exclaimed over and over how grateful he was that he’d told his son, “I love you,” before the race.

Two days later, we still, unfortunately, don’t have many answers. But what is clear is that this senseless tragedy has brought the running community, the city of Boston, people across America, people all around the globe, together in a way that is stronger and more resilient than any act of terror. The kindness, courage and generosity of people at the scene of the bombings, at hospitals, in the community and beyond, is profoundly moving and inspiring. It’s also heartbreaking that it takes such a sick, hateful act for such compassion, love and selflessness to make headlines.

The Boston Marathon will never be the same—perhaps no race will ever be the same—but it will go on, and on April 21, 2014, the crowds will be bigger, louder and more passionate than ever.

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