Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Perspective

Column: I ran the wrong pace — and lived

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I should have known better. Even though it was the ninth consecutive time I had run the Boston Marathon, I went out too fast — a lucky miscalculation, it would turn out.

My goal was around four hours, but I reached the halfway point in under two and had to slow down the final 13 miles. As I crossed onto Boylston Street and Mile 26, my watch showed 4 hours and 8 minutes. Two tenths of a mile to go.

On marathon day, Boylston is for runners only, giving them a wide boulevard to complete the race with an iconic view of the colorful finish line directly ahead. Seconds after I crossed the 26-mile marker, the first bomb went off — a loud cannon sound and a towering plume of smoke some 200 yards ahead of me.

I was shocked and uncertain. Seconds later came the second blast. All of us started running back the way we'd come. Looking down at manhole covers, I wondered if a third blast would come roaring up from under the street. In seconds the well-organized 117th Boston Marathon became a melee.

I had approached this marathon with the usual mix of excitement and trepidation. I hoped I was ready after months of training supervised by coach Joe Burgasser, Tampa Bay's well-known running guru. Still, runners always wonder about lots of things that now seem far less important: the weather, wind conditions, cramping up.

While "qualifying for Boston" is every runner's dream, the event, held on Patriots' Day, is also an extraordinary experience for the entire Boston community. This statewide civic holiday, which commemorates the opening battles of the American Revolution, was established in 1894. The Boston Marathon, inspired by the 1896 Summer Olympics held in Greece, began just three years later in 1897. Together, the two events symbolically link the Athenian and American struggles for liberty.

Today, the Boston Marathon attracts 500,000 spectators, becoming New England's most widely viewed sporting event. To boot, the Red Sox always play an early day game at Fenway on this day, just steps from the final miles of the race course.

April 15 was a picture-perfect day. Clear skies. Temperatures in the mid 50s with a slight headwind from the east for a nice cooling breeze.

The race is a straight shot west to east, from Hopkinton to Boston. Around 9 a.m., 26,839 of us gathered under a big tent called Athletes Village waiting to assemble into our corrals.

As I rested, thinking about my race strategy and meeting up with my partner Coleen at the finish line, I never imagined what would happen a few hours later, that I wouldn't be running for pleasure but running scared instead.

After the bombs went off, I darted into the first open building, a furniture store filled with other runners and spectators. A few had cellphones, but no one could get through due to cell traffic overload. Even a land line at the store only went to voice mail as I tried to call Coleen, worried about her safety as I knew she was to watch me come through at the finish line.

I was lucky. Lucky not to run my usual pace which could have put me closer to the bombs instead of 200 yards away from them. Lucky that Coach Joe, who had been tracking my times, told Coleen shortly after 4 p.m. that I had probably finished the race and to watch the rest from our hotel room overlooking the finish line instead of down on the crowded street. Luckily, she did so, and heard the initial blast from the elevator of the Lennox, 100 yards away — but in safety. Only I didn't know that at the time. It would be two hours before I could reach her.

After a few minutes, those of us inside the furniture store ventured outside amidst a cacophony of sirens and screaming police officers who directed everyone to leave as quickly as possible. At this point shortly after the first bomb at 2:50 p.m., about 17,000 runners had finished the race leaving nearing 5,000 on the course. Most of them were still before the turn onto Boylston Street and unable to see what was happening. Basically you had several thousand dehydrated, exhausted runners who were told to stop dead in their tracks and not knowing why. It was very chaotic.

After leaving the furniture store, I, like other runners, was becoming cold and unsure what I would do next. I was fortunate to come upon a Courtyard Marriott hotel, just off Boylston, where a most attentive staff provided me and other runners who drifted in with some water and sandwiches.

Meanwhile, Coleen had been evacuated from our hotel, due to its location on the finish line. They emptied the multistory edifice in minutes with guests grabbing a few valuables and leaving all else behind. When Coleen and I did make cell phone contact we discovered we were only two blocks apart, but had to wait inside another hour as the police were keeping the streets free of pedestrians. Finally with the help of some Boston friends, we left the area by car, arranged for a hotel at the airport, and flew back to Tampa early the next morning.

So my ninth Boston, the one with my "best time" and the only one I didn't finish, was also the most tragic Boston Marathon in history. Tragic mostly for so many innocent bystanders who were the principal victims. As it turns out, we, the runners, were the fortunate ones in this race. All my colleagues from Tampa who ran it made it back safely. Many of us will be back to Boston next year. I know I will.

Dr. Bruce D. Shephard practices obstetrics and gynecology in Tampa.

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