June 21 2016
When planning her honeymoon, Elizabeth Heidal was able to get one step further to her goal of racing in every state.
As a writer, I pride myself on capturing my experiences to share with readers – especially when it comes to running races. Today started out no different than any other race day (other than the fact that I was running THE BOSTON MARATHON!), as I looked forward to the iconic 26.2 mile stretch awaiting me. With each mile, I knew my mind would swirl with thoughts for future articles and inspiring tidbits I might share with our Women’s Running readers. And to be completely honest, Boston’s course left me with no shortage of ideas that I was eager to share. Until mile 24.
As I ran through the 24th mile marker, I scooted to the right side of the course to take water from a volunteer. I slowed my pace to walk and take a quick break to drink some liquid. As I finished the drink, a man ran up beside me and told me the finish line was closed because a bomb had been set off nearby. Confused, I asked the man for more details, but he only knew that information and couldn’t share any further. He did know the explosion happened 10 minutes prior to talking with me and immediately my mind panicked.
Knowing my husband was about a mile ahead of me, I calculated and recalculated his anticipated finish time to estimate his finish against the approximate time of the tragedy. Though I wasn’t sure how close the timing was, I knew there was a good chance he would be at the finish line around the same time.
I continued running, dazed and a little disoriented as I was armed with uncertainties. Scanning the spectators lining the streets, there was still no sign of panic or tragedy as the news was not yet widespread. I soldiered on hoping there might have been a mistake and the information I’d heard was somehow a misinterpretation.
As I greeted the 25th mile marker, there was still no sign of any wrongdoing and runners were beginning to buzz with the anticipation of the impending finish line. Things rapidly changed and at mile 25.5 everyone was immediately stopped. Though no one knew exactly what was happening, word quickly spread through the crowd that something had gone really wrong at the finish and all runners were being rerouted.
Confused, cold and achy, runners stared ahead not quite knowing what to do. There were people crying, people screaming for their loved ones and some searching for a stranger armed with a cell phone to call for help. Still not knowing where my husband was, I steeled myself to remain calm, having faith that his level-headed strength would lead to his safety. I found myself surrounded by strangers in a city I had no idea how to navigate, with no immediate way to connect with my family.
Within minutes, residents from the brownstones surrounding the area emerged with water, food, trash bags and clothing. Runners who were beginning to shiver in the cool wind flocked, thankful for the insulation. An Asian women standing next to me started to cry frantically, as another runner and I tried to forge language barriers to explain what was happening. It’s hard to imagine how scared she must have been, but everyone surrounding pitched in to calm her down and make her feel safe. I eventually found comfort being surrounded by a group of people taking care of each other. In that moment, people were helping people and nothing else mattered.
After about an hour of waiting at the 25.5 mile spot, everyone’s post-marathon legs were beginning to ache as the crowd finally began to move and funnel back onto the street. Though we knew the finish line would not be a sight for our eyes, we found solace in the hope that we were moving towards safety. Race officials and volunteers lined the road directing runners towards the Boston Commons area, where we could pick up our checked bags and find loved ones.
That mile walk brought more connections and even more pride in the sport I love so much. I met a woman from Argentina (who was spectating the race previously) guiding a distraught woman in her 70s down the street. She didn’t know the area, let alone the woman she was escorting, but felt compelled to make sure her new-found friend made it back to her family safely. I saw a man shivering in a tank top and shorts, who gratefully took the trash bag I’d acquired earlier. I saw more Boston residents handing out cheese, water and bags of clothes for cold and hungry runners. I took a stranger’s offer to use her cell phone to call my Mom to let her know I was safe. I saw the beauty of the human spirit, up close and personal.
I finally arrived at the Boston Commons area and found the bus to retrieve my checked bag (with my phone!). A volunteer told me there was a family meeting area just beyond the buses and I started to head in that direction, when something told me to turn around one more time to scan the crowd for my husband. I saw his shoes and that’s all I needed to sprint towards him. After a tight hug and a couple of words, we exchanged stories before heading out another mile to reunite with my father-in-law. As soon as we found him, we loaded into the car and set out to return home, just north of Boston. On the car ride home, I checked in with Jessie (our Women’s Running editor-in-chief) to learn that she and Allison Patillo (another WR contributing editor) were both safe. We made it home incident free and were greeted with big hugs from anxious family awaiting our arrival.
As I sit typing this post, watching the news and trying to capture the details of today’s experience, I am grateful for the outpouring of love and support I received on Twitter, Facebook and through my phone. Words cannot possibly express the sadness I feel for all who were affected by the tragedy that occurred, though it should be noted that I am in awe of how well the incident was handled. The immediate response of the Boston Marathon race management team (DMSE), the B.A.A., the city of Boston, the residents and volunteers, made a very scary situation manageable as communication was held at the utmost importance.