Kara Zech Thelen is an Assistant Professor at Cooley Law School where she teaches Research & Writing and Advanced Writing. She is also the faculty advisor to the Thomas M. Cooley Journal of Practical and Clinical Law. Zech Thelen will go back to run the Boston Marathon in 2014. This posting is the second of three offered by members of the Cooley Community who witnessed the horrible events of April 15, 2013.
I wanted to run the Boston Marathon on a normal day. A Patriots’ Day where the temperature on the bank’s digital marquee along the course didn’t read 92 degrees. After running the brutally hilly course in last year’s sweltering heat (perhaps the hottest since 1905 when temps hit 100 degrees), I was looking forward to trying the course again in better conditions.
It was a perfect Spring day at the starting line in Hopkinton. The sky was blue and the temperature remained a refreshingly predictable 50 degrees with a gentle 9 mph east wind. The Athletes’ Village was abuzz with nervous energy. Like the other runners, I had gathered with some friends to set up camp on a mylar blanket, inventorying the critical supplies for our 26.2 mile trek: a tub of vaseline, water bottles, bananas and peanut butter, extra clothes for the finish, and extra energy packaged every way possible–from gels, to beans, to blocks, to bars. We were lubed and ready.
In a few short hours, and after more trips to the porta johns than I care to remember, we’d be herded into our assigned start corrals and the race would begin. Significantly, this year’s race would start with a horn blast rather than the historic gunshot in honor of the victims of Newtown, Connecticut. Then I’d watch a sea of 25,000 bobbing heads around me as far as I could see, until the herd thinned around mile 10.
From town to town–Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley (the 13.1-mile, half mark)–into Boston, the miles ticked by. I had settled into a steady pace–the running so much easier without the heat. Even the crowds were more energized. Kids lined up for high fives and offered oranges. I tried to give as many slaps and suck as many wedges as I could manage. While I passed on the kisses offered by the infamous college girls from Wellesley, I couldn’t help but smile seeing men (and some women) cash in on the affectionate show of support. And I gulped the gatorade or water offered by spectators and volunteers alike.
Kara Zech Thelen is in good spirits as she crosses the half-way point — 13.1 miles — of the 2013 Boston Marathon.
But nothing could prepare me for what the crowd was offering in Newton, 17 miles in. There was a marked crescendo. Rows of spectators five-deep were cheering so loudly that it took my breath away. How long have they been cheering like this? I wondered. How could they keep this up? “Go Michigan!” they yelled to a runner just ahead of me wearing a University of Michigan hat. “Go girl with the green shirt and brown ponytail!” they’d shout to me. Then as I passed, “Go Kara!” once they spotted my name that I wrote with a black sharpie on the back of my bright yellow Mizunos, along with my husband’s and kids’ names around the soles–and my mantra-prayer for this special race: Fast. Strong. Grateful. Blessed.
What an emotional wallop! The cheers were so enthusiastic and emphatic, they took my breath away. And the tears soon followed. I prayed for all the people standing there along the course. And I offered up thanks. I was overcome with gratitude for them and their jubilant support. This positive-energy exchange we had struck up was so intimate, for those few moments we were no longer strangers. I can still picture many of their faces. Spectators are a special breed–these spectators were even more special that day.
Buoyed by their energy, I neared the finish earlier than I’d expected. As I turned left onto Boylston Street and began my sprint to the finish line, I basked in the cheers from the last throng of people gathered along the final quarter mile. I crossed the bright blue and yellow finish line and felt that rush of euphoria that I suspect every Boston finisher feels. I won the gold in my personal olympics. I qualified for next year’s race by less than a minute.
I made my way through the finishers’ chute, stopping to check on a friend who was being wheeled into the medical tent. Then I bumped into two other friends who had just finished, and together we made our way to the buses two-and-a-half blocks up the street to pick up the things we left at the starting line.
Suddenly I heard a loud boom, looked back down the street, and saw brown smoke billowing from the sidewalk on the right. At first I thought that the bleachers near the finish line had collapsed. But then I heard another boom. And I saw more smoke. My two friends and I grabbed onto each other.
“Oh my God. . . there were people there,” I said in horror.
It was eerily silent for several minutes as we tried to gather ourselves and make sense of it all. Then the sirens sounded and the police cars rushed in.
I quickly reached into my bag to get my cell phone to call my husband who had been following me along the course. He had heard the explosions, but was safe a block away. We met up, along with my friends, at a hotel across the street. When we tried to return to our hotel on Newbury street, a block north of the explosions, we were turned away by police bomb squads that were sweeping the area and cordoning it off with crime-scene caution tape. We were safe but homeless and sickened.
As I walked around in a daze later that evening, the events of the day played like a movie in my head. The glorious weather, the thrill of the race, the effusive spectators, the sweet finish, my friends’ flushed faces, the explosions, the smoke, the silence, the sirens, my racing heart, my husband’s familiar voice, the simple kindnesses so many people offered in the aftermath.
With a heavy heart, I realized that I’ll never run Boston on a normal day. None of us will.
Still, I find myself repeating my race-day mantra-prayer — Fast, Strong, Grateful, Blessed — this time asking for something much larger than the race. To all those affected: May your healing be fast. May you be strong. May you know how grateful we are. And may you be blessed.