On the Boston Marathon

Posted April 18, 2013 by Ellen Hunter Gans in Life After Five
This is supposed to be my Awe and Blah. I try to be some combination of mean and funny in my Awes and Blahs. I don’t have much of either in me today.

This week went a bit differently than I’d planned.

I was going to trash the travel and airline companies who, in spite of booking several months in advance, made it so we didn’t have a flight to Boston until a few hours before take-off.

Now that feels like ten years ago.

I ran the Boston Marathon yesterday.


I ran slower than usual, which meant that I was still on the course when I was stopped by a commotion 1/2 mile from the finish.

“What’s this? Why are we stopping?”

We were done. The race was over. Something had happened at the finish.

People were saying things like “bomb.” It didn’t make sense.

As we stood, shivering, pulled up short, rumors swirled. I was fortunate to have run with my cell phone. While calls couldn’t go through (we later learned that the city shut down call service for fear of a remote detonation), we could text. I loaned my phone to others who were worried about loved ones.

Texts were taking forever to go through, so there were an extra tense few moments until I heard back from my husband, who was spectating, and my sister-in-law, who was also running. My husband found me and promptly loaned his jacket and towel to a runner who was much worse off than me.

I overheard many complaints about not being allowed to finish when we were so close. Those complaints diminished substantially as we began to learn more about what was going on. Then, medals seemed gratuitous and almost grotesque in their display of self-importance.


Text messages flew. I shot off quick answers that belied the craziness of the situation:

“Yes, fine.”

“Thanks. Safe.”

“All accounted for.”

Then it was confirmed: two dead; countless injured. It wasn’t real. Not here. Not at the Boston Marathon, which is an inherently, fundamentally pure event: the way you get it done is to run more than you should be able to run. The reason it works is because a whole lot of people help you.

For the last few hours I’d been taking candy from children (that sounds bad — it was offered) and ice from old men and accepting smiles and cheers and praise from people I’d never met and would never see again.

The juxtaposition of this with bombs didn’t work in my brain. It was dissonant, like a fifth grade violin concert but scarier.

Then the angels came out. One man was handing out t-shirts from a box; presumably his own collection.


People came by offering pretzels and string cheese. An official vehicle showed up with the foil wraps that runners are typically given at the finish line to stay warm.

We were directed down side streets toward buses that held our bags.

It was about a 1.5 mile walk, which should have been excruciating after the sudden stop and 25.7 miles of running, but we were all in a daze.

Along the way I got emails from contacts (and contacts of contacts) at MPR and WCCO, both of whom requested interviews. As a media geek myself, I certainly understood the desire for a local angle and obliged, though at that point I still didn’t have the full story and I have no idea what I said or how I was even able to construct a coherent sentence. I hope it helped rather than hindered.


Then my phone was dying. My husband’s was too. But we were together.

No sooner did we arrive at the buses than police came running through, shouting for us to clear the area. They banged on the buses, screaming: Get out! Now! Apparently they suspected that race bags may have been used to harbor explosives.


We got out.

One police officer told us to evacuate the city. “Get out of here. Go home,” he said.

“My home is in Minneapolis,” I replied.

“Well, then, just leave.”

It struck me that, while I couldn’t follow his orders, he had no intention of following them either.

You just can’t plan for something like this, no matter how many “emergency preparedness” drills you do.


The bravery and calm of the organizers, volunteers, and civil servants was nothing short of extraordinary. The kindness of strangers was overwhelming.

We were miles from the hotel, and all the blockades were between us and the hotel. We had no transportation and only knew that we shouldn’t be where we were.

So we started to walk, in a very roundabout way. I didn’t quite make it 26.2 miles on the course, but by the time I arrived back at the hotel my GPS said I’d covered about 30. I’ve decided that counts.

We hunkered down in the hotel with my sister-in-law and her family. She had run faster than me and was in the bag area when the explosions went off. She saw the smoke.


She was happy she hadn’t run just a little bit slower.

I was happy I hadn’t run just a little bit faster.

We both felt that kind of guilty gratitude that sits awkwardly in your gut when you are a few minutes from something awful and that something awful happens to someone else instead.

I should have been faster. I wasn’t, and I’m eternally grateful to the reason I wasn’t, but that’s another story. And, again, I wasn’t.

I don’t want this to turn into a saga of “Oh, God, how terrible, because it was almost me,” because it wasn’t me and it isn’t about me and I was not victimized in any way. It was terrible because of what happened, not because of my role in it or lack thereof. This is simply an observer’s tale, because I’m a writer, and when stuff happens, I write.


We watched the news all night, and it felt like something far away instead of something that was unfolding on our doorstep. The constant squeals of emergency vehicles went all night and are still going as I write from my hotel room in Boston.

We walked around for almost ten miles today. (Self-inflicted sore legs.) The whole city is inundated with FBI, SWAT, military, and police from everywhere. There are “Police Line Do Not Cross” tapes and bomb-sniffing dogs and helicopters and news crews and it all feels sort of like a movie set.


This morning we finally went back to claim my race bag. An organizer handed me my bag, and then placed a finisher medal around my neck. I burst into tears.

Maybe because deep down (or not so deep down) I’m pretty selfish and I knew this was probably going to be my only Boston Marathon since it took me 12 tries to qualify and I’d already tested the Boston Gods by breaking my leg before last year’s race and sneaking in to this year’s on a technicality.

Maybe because I felt guilty about how happy that stupid piece of metal made me.

Maybe because it was something bright and shiny in the midst of a lot of dark and scary stuff.


 I’m sure it hasn’t sunken in yet. I know that I get to go home with my husband tomorrow, both of us safe, both of us able to go about our lives. I know that hundreds of others and their families do not.
I know that this example of the worst in humanity brought out the best in humanity, and it also brought out a lot of misinformation and prejudices in those rushing to place blame. I don’t know why it happened, and while I’d like to know who did it and why, it won’t make much of a difference for me.I know that this will change the Boston Marathon, and other marathons, and probably other public events. I would run Boston again in a heartbeat, because: a) stuff can happen anywhere, and b) shying away only confirms that the bad guys won.

Of course, that’s easy for me to say. All I have are sore legs and some unnerving memories and a very long blog post.

Thanks for listening.

Run on, Boston.

About the Author

Ellen Hunter Gans

Ellen Hunter Gans is a freelance writer and communications strategist. She's also a marathon runner, an Ironman triathlete, a wildly untalented cross-country skier, a newly minted Crossfit junkie, a yoga devotee, a wannabe culinary genius, a voracious reader, a grammar snob, a world traveler, an outdoorswoman, an oenophile, a mediocre gardener, and a secret fan of awful television. Her blog is at www.lifeinreviews.com, and her business website is at www.wordcoutureconsulting.com.