This April marks the 10th anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. The author has chosen not to name the bombers in this article and not to give them publicity.
I ran the Boston Marathon in April 2011 after a deployment to Iraq. As the miles passed, the crowd grew. With 500,000 spectators, mostly in the final six miles, and international exposure via ESPN, my military training told me it was a terrorist attack waiting to happen. Terrorism is the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims. The more exposure, the better. This was the perfect target. I shook it off. I’d recently left a combat zone. I was overthinking. It’d been run for 115 years with no attack, so who was I to question?
The Boston Marathon’s held on Patriots Day, a state holiday commemorating the start of the Revolutionary War. Boston shuts down, and the Red Sox play a morning game. The baseball crowd amasses near the finish line early in the afternoon. Twenty-five thousand people run it, and 500,000 spectate. To put that in perspective, the Dallas Cowboy’s stadium holds 80,000 spectators, and each spectator must scan a ticket and walk through a metal detector to enter. The Boston Marathon has six-fold the number of viewers with no metal detectors or ticket scans.
I ran Boston again in 2013 as a student at Tufts University, knowing what to expect. I waived at the ESPN cameras at the start line. Mile Two was TJ’s Food and Spirits, where bikers wave at runners with open beers at 9 AM – you can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning. Miles two through four were filled with bare-assed women peeing in the foliage. Thousands of full moons. I fought the urge to become a werewolf as I passed.
It was me and the road until Wellesley College at mile 12.5, where students of the all-girl school held signs saying, “Kiss me if you love math” or “Kiss me if you’re chaffing.” This is a Boston Marathon Tradition. Runners slowed and kissed the girls. I ignored the siren call.
I hit Heartbreak Hill at mile 20.5 and saw Boston College. The crowd swelled. Frat boys offered beer to runners in lieu of water. I stopped and chugged one out of a red SOLO cup. The sidewalks were filled with kids handing out popsicles and treats. I grabbed as many as I could. The kids loved it, and I needed the calories.
I crossed the finish line around 2:30 PM, grabbed my goodie bag (full of food and sponsor coupons), and hobbled forward. Running a marathon sucks. I flagged down my buddy ahead of me. Exhausted, we wandered aimlessly until we found my wife. I was a beaten man. Everything hurt. Standing hurt. Walking hurt. Hell, breathing hurt.
My wife started walking toward the Orange Line (subway) to get home. My buddy said his family was there, and he planned dinner with them. We heard the first explosion.
Buddy: I think that was a bomb?
Me: It sounded like a transformer. Robots in disguise!
We heard the second explosion soon after. My wife and I, both military veterans, looked at each other. Who were we to ignore 115 years of Boston Marathon tranquility? My buddy looked at us. I answered the question in his eyes.
Me: If it were a bomb, the crowd would be running toward us with cell phones stuck to their ears.
Within 30 seconds, the crowd ran toward us with cell phones attached to their ears. It was bombs.
Me: Fuck, dude. Those are bombs. We’ve got to go.
Buddy: I told my parents I’d meet them for dinner.
Me: They’re going to shut everything down. It’s called a cordon and search. No one’s getting in or out until they clear the area. They’re going to kill the T (subway).
Buddy: I’ll be fine.
My wife and I sprinted to the nearest Orange Line station. We passed a sports bar with TV’ssaying “Boston Marathon Bombing” on the ticker. Against the wishes of my body, I dashed to the subway station.
We stood on the platform until the outbound train arrived. There was one seat open when we got on. My wife told me to sit as she stood in front of me, holding a metal pole with one hand and my goodie bag with the other.
I reached for the bag in her hand. She pulled it back. I yanked it out of her hand, dumped the contents on the floor, and threw up the beer and miscellaneous treats I’d eaten while running. It wasn’t pretty, but it opened the seat next to me. My wife sat for the remainder of the ride. We got a cab back to our apartment, I took a shower, and we watched the news.
The arteries in and out of Boston were closed. My buddy was stranded in freezing weather without money, a cell phone, and wearing tiny shorts with a tank top for hours as the police did a cordon and search. The citizens of Boston rallied around the stranded runners, welcoming them into their homes and shops and giving them food. This is where Boston Strong started.
The governor ordered the Boston metro area to “remain in place” as law enforcement searched for suspects. The bustling city of Boston and all its suburbs, home to Harvard, MIT, Boston College, Boston University, and Tufts, were closed for the foreseeable future. Employees who left work on the Friday prior were told not to come to work. This was before work-from-home. Companies were at a standstill until the ordeal unfolded.
On April 17th, 2013, the nation knew who perpetrated the attack by face but not name. Late in the afternoon of the 18th, the power went out in many Boston suburbs. Social media erupted with theories. This was the work of the bombers. Hysteria raged for 20 minutes until power was restored. People jump to conclusions under stress, and Boston was in freak-out mode.
On April 18th, the bombers murdered an MIT police officer. On the morning of April 19th, one’s dead, and the other’s hiding. Boston has been closed for three and a half days. The living bomber was found and taken into custody at 8:45 AM. The world rejoiced. The media attention subsided. The people grappling with the bombing were those directly affected by it.
The Boston community was shaken. The bombing shook their life paradigm – the bastion of US higher education pierced by terrorism. The Tufts Marathon Team showed symptoms of PTSD. The attack was personal. People who hadn’t seen or heard the explosion felt the terrorists were “targeting me.” I’d seen enough to know terrorists targeted media attention and fear. They succeeded in both.
One runner at the finish line, extremely close to the explosions, called for help on the Tufts community site. It said: “I can’t sleep since the bombing. I feel alone. No one understands. Why would anyone want to kill me? What did I do to them to make them hate me? I need help.”
I contacted him and forced him to meet for a coffee. My time in the Army getting witness statements about the combat death of a soldier taught me to listen. I asked how he was doing and listened for 30 minutes. It was cathartic for both of us.
I’m unsure if I helped or was working through my demons. I realized victims of terrorism react the same regardless if they are military or civilian. It’s personal to victims who carry the physical and mental scars of the attack.
The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing was a tragedy. We saw the worst and best of humanity within a tiny window. We learned we’re both vulnerable and strong. I’m privileged to have witnessed this human and inhumane event.