Monday, April 15, 2013

2013 - 'There was one more person I met that day who helped get me through it.'

Ed Harms
My first and only marathon happened on April 15th, 2013. Boston had been a goal of mine since graduating from the University of Delaware in 2008. I had lived in Somerville, Massachusetts, ever since then, and seeing 25,000 people running the streets of Boston with hundreds of thousands cheering them on was an experience I knew I needed to have some day.

Unfortunately, though, I was not nearly fast enough to qualify. For my age group, 3:05 is the standard, and though I have a “runner’s body,” I never started running consistently until college. I didn’t run my first 5k until my junior year, and ran my first half-marathon in 2011 with roughly a month of ‘training” (hard to even call it that now, looking back). The standards seemed so high I knew it would literally be years from the time I began training for 3:05 to the time I would be able to run Boston, so I never started. It seemed very intimidating.

Then, at work one day at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, I got one of their weekly update emails on some of the events and happenings around the hospital. One of the items was about Team Stork, BWH’s charity team for the Boston Marathon. In order to run, I needed to raise $5,000, also a tall order, but comparatively easy next to the 3:05 BQ time. I was still a bit hesitant, so I called the person running the training program – Susan Hurley. I’m so, so happy I did, because after 15 minutes talking to her, I felt like I could probably raise $10,000 AND qualify. She has that effect on people.

In the months that followed, the CharityTeams group and I labored, sweated, set weekly PRs, had setbacks, exceeded our goals, and rode the physical and emotional rollercoaster that is training for your first marathon (many of us were first-timers), all the way up to the starting line. That was supposed to be the end of the ride, but little did we know it was just beginning. Even before 2:49 p.m. that day, I had a second family. After 2:50 p.m. and in the months that followed, right up until today, we’re that much closer. Most of us are now running 2014, whether we have a waiver, a BQ time, or have to raise the new BAA-set minimum of $7,500. I couldn’t be prouder to run with such a fantastic organization filled with some of the most generous and genuine people I’ve been privileged to get to know in my time in Boston.

In addition, though, there was one more person I met that day who helped get me through it. We didn’t know it at the time, but she gave me the best directions I’ve ever gotten in my life. Below is an entry from the blog I started to help raise awareness for my charity and my effort, which I continue to write today as I prepare for April 21st, 2014. This year since I’ve changed jobs, I’m running for the Shawn Thornton Foundation. You can find more information about my fundraising effort and the Shawn Thornton Foundation on my blog here:

It’s so hard to believe that just over three weeks ago today, I stood at the starting line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, eagerly awaiting what became simultaneously one of the best and worst days of my life.

Lost in the events of the afternoon are so many good things – great races, awesome fans, wonderful runners, amazing stories of courage, perseverance & resilience, the 18 different charities I ran with and the $1.4 million dollars they raised for great causes – and that’s even before 2:49 p.m.

For me, I was SO excited to see what was around every corner, SO eager to get to the Newton Hills, pass the colleges, high five fans, see friends and family in the crowd, see my running friends achieve their goals alongside me, and have thousands of fans cheering us on. I was SO proud to run in just over 3 hour 26 minutes, and as soon as I crossed the finish line, somewhere around 2:15 p.m., all I could think about was how great it would be to run next year. I have to admit, I cried a little. All I could think about was all the hard work, all the amazing people who helped me along the way. Everyone who went for runs with me, pushed me the 20th mile, or up that last hill during training. Everyone who donated to my cause, from $5 to $1,000 dollars, or who even just encouraged me along the way. All the work, all the sweat, the four pairs of shoes, the 20 pairs of socks, the shorts, the under armor, the countless hours, the Tuesday nights in Newton, the Saturday mornings at Copley, the blisters that consumed my toes, the pain in my knees, my feet, my ankles, my back – it was all worth it. Not even close. I would – and will – gladly do it all over to experience that kind of day again, right up until 2:49.

For how indescribably exhilarating and incredible the day was up until that point though, it was that horrible and surreal afterwards.

By now you know the story. I certainly have my own perspective about what happened, having only made it about a block from the finish line by 2:50, but I don’t want to focus too much on the bombings themselves. What was far more important to me was the response. It was almost instantaneous. At 2:45 I was scrolling through dozens of texts and messages wishing me good luck, or following along on their phones and computers, or congratulating me after the finish. By 3:00, I was already getting the first of literally hundreds of calls, texts, Facebook messages, emails, everything short of smoke signals from well-wishers hoping I was OK. It’s strange: I had thought the marathon was a gigantic moment in my life even before the first bomb went off, and had received dozens of messages from good friends and family wanting to support me. That number was dwarfed by the number of people contacting me just to see if I made it away in time. Some people I hadn’t seen in years, some I hadn’t talked to for longer than that, some I hadn’t even met.

I have to say, though, after being there firsthand for something like that, and seeing both the immediate horror and immediate response, my faith in my fellow man is stronger than ever. It’s terrifying to think there are lunatics out there willing and able to do something like this. It’s even more unnerving to think they lived just over a mile from my house in Somerville. Often my training runs would take me right by Norfolk Street. Hundreds of them. But in the aftermath of that day, in the hours and days and now weeks, the people I knew who ran, who were there, or who were affected in any way by the tragedy, are stronger now for it. All the countless people in my life who called, texted, visited, or emailed have made me a little tougher today. It sounds a little cheesy, but it really does blow me away to know so many people care. Though the days that followed April 15th 2013 seemed a little longer and more tense than normal, I had so much unbelievable support through all of it, and I want to thank everyone who was there for me.

I especially want to thank one person in particular. It’s funny, the idea of the bombings was to invoke chaos and sorrow, but as this type of situation often does, it brought out the best in people instead. The cowboy who saved Jeff Bauman’s life. The doctors who ran the marathon, only to run through the finish line to get to work on the victims. The people who spent nearly 24 hours straight on the streets of Watertown combing every inch of every yard, porch, and garage. Everyone seems to have a story of someone they heard about, someone they saw, or someone they know saving lives that day. I’m no different. In my case though, it may have been my life that was saved.

It started innocuously enough. I had just crossed the finish line and was slowly making my way through hundreds of people, gathering a medal, power bars, water, and Gatorade along the way. As I made it closer to the buses that carried my bag, clothes, phone, wallet, etc., my legs felt increasingly like they were turning into pewter statues. My calves, hip flexors, quads, knees and feet slowly stiffened until I was basically dragging my left knee and leg at about a quarter-of-a-mile-per-hour pace through the crowd. I was still on Boylston, but the exits were either to my left or right, on Berkeley street, just past the buses.

Now, I know myself reasonably well. I needed to get to the FitCorp gym because I had heard I could shower there after the race, and at that moment I would have taken a five minute shower over a million dollars. All that was on my mind was getting to the gym and that sweet, sweet shower. I remember which bus contained my bag, and I know it was on towards the side of Boylston where bad things happened. Had I been left to my own devices, I would have grabbed my things, headed for the nearest exit, and dragged myself towards the gym as quickly as I could. The problem was the gym was on Boylston. That would have been bad news.

The good news? I wasn’t left to my own devices. I stopped the first volunteer I saw and blurted something about a gym and a shower, most likely in a completely incoherent fashion. But instead of saying “Sorry, can’t help you,” or “I don’t have my phone,” or “I’m busy,” or just “screw off,” she didn’t. She stopped what she was doing, looked it up on her phone, even walked over to get my bag with me and carried it to the exit for me. Even when she almost sent me the wrong way on Boylston, she stopped, checked the directions again, realized I was heading to the wrong side of the road, and literally ran me down to take me to the other side of the street instead. Oh yea, and she carried my bags there, too. All in all, it was about five minutes out of her day. Not huge, especially when she was volunteering at the marathon just for things like that. But still, she didn’t have to get her phone out, she didn’t have to look up the gym, and certainly didn’t have to double check the side of the street just to be safe. I’m sure if you asked her, she would probably just tell you that’s what she was there to do. Just to help. That was her job.

Except to me, in the minutes and days that would follow, it was so much more than that. I’m not huge on “fate” or anything like that, but it’s just hard to tell where I would have been or how far I would have gone if I hadn’t stopped. It’s impossible to know, so I try not to think about that side of the coin, but what I do know is this: because of that girl, I was out of harm’s way. That was something. And it was something I couldn’t stop thinking about for a long time.

Luckily, in the five minutes we had met, I found out she worked and lived pretty close to me. I didn’t know much about her except where she worked, the fact that she had a nose ring (she had sunglasses on so I couldn’t see her face), and that her name was Quinn. Yesterday, out of a curiosity I haven’t been able to satisfy since that day, I walked in to where she works and found her again to say thank you in person. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I just needed to adequately express what the whole day meant to me, and how that five minutes changed my life.

Like I said, the great part about the adversity the city faced on that day was the response that followed shortly thereafter. Sometimes it takes an event like that to realize how much good there is in the world. But there are also people like Quinn. She wasn’t volunteering because something horrible had happened; she was there in the first place. I don’t mean to say this condescendingly, as I think everyone who has donated time, money, or both since the bombings has been amazing. I just think there’s also a lot to say about someone who was there all along too. Just because she wanted to be there. She likes the event and helping people. Or maybe I’m assuming too much. Maybe there doesn’t have to be a reason.

Not that it really matters to me what her reasoning was. I don’t know. Honestly, this has been the longest post I’ve written by far, for obvious reasons, and up until now I’ve had no shortage of things to say. I’m not often lost for words. Right now though, I can’t seem to find words as poignant or eloquent enough to convey my thoughts and feelings. I guess I’m just really, really, REALLY glad she was there. Sorry to make it sound so simple, everything is far more complex in my head, but I think that’s pretty much what it boils down to. Things just could have gone very differently for me that day, but they didn’t. I’m glad I got to actually tell Quinn thank you for that.

To everyone else who helped me during the months of training, or in the weeks since the marathon, hopefully I’ve thanked you, too. If not, I will. I promise. There’s far too many important people in this world to me not to stop and think of them every once in a while, just to say hello, or to say anything really. Again, sometimes it takes tragic events to put things in perspective, but I hope from now on I can not only understand that, but practice that philosophy as well. I kind of want to be more like Quinn. There doesn’t have to be a reason. But next time you’re given the chance to help someone, even if it’s going to inconvenience you, slow you down, distract you, take time, whatever... take that chance. You have no idea what it could mean to someone else. Maybe literally the difference between life and death. That’s a chance worth taking.

Ed Harms
Somerville, Massachusetts

For more personal accounts of the 2013 Boston marathon, click here.

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