One year ago I prepared to welcome another spring in a way that has become a family tradition: running the Boston Marathon.
After months of training in frigid darkness, standing at the starting line of the world’s most famous marathon with the sun on my shoulders and the wind at my back felt like a rebirth. I was in the best shape of my life. The excitement at the starting line seemed more electric than ever. We were thankful for perfect weather. Even more, we were thankful to participate in such a remarkable event.
What makes the Boston Marathon so special is the journey. For some, qualifying for Boston is a lifelong dream. For others, it’s a reality after just one marathon. For everyone, it’s a privilege. The symbiotic relationship between runners and spectators is uniquely Boston. We celebrate together this wonderful gift of life. What better way to usher in spring than by living life to its fullest for 26.2 miles in one giant moving party?
I ran with my heart and my feet in 2013, believing this to be my last Boston for a while. I relished that left-hand turn off Hereford onto Boylston Street. Never have I wanted the last quarter-mile of a marathon to last longer than I did this one.
I saw my husband standing at the mile 26 marker. I couldn't contain my joy and let the tears flow as I ran past. I couldn’t have scripted a more perfect finish.
I always get emotional when a volunteer puts that precious medal around my neck, and this day was no different. I tried to thank the woman as she looped that ribbon of blue and gold over my head, but I was too choked up. Seeing my tears, she then looped her own arms around my neck, hugging me hard.
I didn’t want the day to end, but it was cold and I was sweaty and my hamstring was angry, so, after pictures, we made our way back to our hotel at the end of Boylston Street.
What followed has been difficult for me to process.
A short time after we got to our hotel room, we heard a loud boom. Christian, my husband, immediately knew something was wrong. Then another boom. Moments later the sirens started. I was trying to rationalize the sirens when I got a text from my friend Jessica.
“Are you okay?”
Then she called. “Turn on your television.”
I did and my world changed forever. Even watching the chaos, I didn’t process what I saw. The live feeds were relaying images too horrific to describe.
The next few hours were chaos as we tried to locate friends and reassure family. We were told not to leave our hotel rooms, but the isolation was worse than the fear, so we made our way to the hotel lobby. It was packed with stranded, lost runners. Armed guards surrounded our hotel. Emergency vehicles were lined up bumper to bumper outside the hotel since it was right at the corner of Hereford and Boylston.
When President Barack Obama addressed the nation, the lobby fell silent. I don’t remember what was said, but I remember cheers, tears and hugs as he closed his remarks. Never have I felt such sadness and love at the same time.
We walked outside in search of some food when a woman passed us wearing a man’s coat and her Boston bib number. She saw my medal, which I’d forgotten I had on, and said, choking back sobs, “At least you got a medal.” For some reason this felt like a punch in the gut. It’s a moment I revisit often. I wish I’d taken her to my room to get a shower. I wish I’d offered her my medal. I wish I’d done something. I feel a lot of guilt about not doing more. It’s been the biggest obstacle in the healing process. I was in a state of shock, but that doesn’t erase the, “I wish I would have” theme that runs through my mind.
This year has been a struggle. While others sought solace in racing, I sought solace in solitary running. Anger came, but in unexpected ways. When I see pictures of the bombers, I feel nothing. But when I see someone being less than kind to another, or when someone complains about something as mundane as too much pepper in their fettucine alfredo, my patience wears thin.
I’ve changed, for better or worse. I know first-hand that bad things happen and they can happen to me and my loved ones. I’m a little less trusting, a little more on edge. The sound of sirens sends my heart racing. The orchestral sounds announcing “breaking news” on TV makes my palms sweat. I avoid pictures and video of the finish line, but when I do see them, I can’t take my eyes off them, even though I usually end up looking at them through a watery lens.
On the other hand, my appreciation for my blessings is greater than ever. Not every moment is a joy, but I recognize those joyous moments more than I did before. My passion for racing has waned, but my passion for running has grown as it has been my greatest therapy. Perhaps the biggest change has been in my priorities.
Throughout our return trip home I wore my Boston Marathon jacket. Strangers would hug me. Out of one horrific act came millions of heroic, selfless acts of love and kindness. But the best moment happened at the airport as we made our way down the escalator to the baggage claim. From the top step I could see my two daughters, my mom and my dad. Every emotion I’d felt came gushing out as I ran down the steps and hugged them all. Squeezing my sweet girls, I imagined this is what heaven must feel like.
As I return to Boston this spring to rewrite the end of my story, I look forward to many more hugs with my Boston Family. I feel as though I’ve been hanging in limbo this past year. I’m not fearful, but I am anxious about how I will react when I see that finish line again. I’m not returning to show the bombers they can’t keep me down. I’m returning because I need to close this chapter. I need to start fresh.
This Boston Marathon will truly be a rebirth.
Kim Cowart is a wife, mother, 24-Hour Fitness instructor and marathoner who will be running marathons from Boston to Berlin in 2014 with gratitude and joy.
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