Saturday, September 27, 2014

April 15, 2013 - The sound of the bombs from the news went off in my head all night.

Diane Sherer
It’s been more than a year since I ran in the 2013 Boston Marathon, and I am finally writing my story — before it’s too late and I forget.

I have been running marathons since 2001, when I ran the White Rock Marathon in Dallas. I have since run more than a dozen or so – I lose track. I ran then because I loved to run. Boston was far from my mind. I had kids and work and life to deal with. I ran because it kept me sane. I ran because I loved to eat. I ran because it was my time to contemplate and talk to God (or running buddies!).

My first Boston Qualifying time (BQ) was in 2010 and was totally unexpected. My running buddy and co-worker Christy was training for her first Boston Marathon, having qualified the year before. She decided to run the Dallas White Rock Marathon as a training run, and I decided to run it, too. It was a freezing cold day in Dallas, and Christy and I shed our Goodwill throw-away clothes too soon at the start line, having to wait unexpectedly in a staggered start. When I got to the halfway point, I realized I was on track for a BQ and decided to try to keep up the pace. I finished in 3:58:50, ahead of my qualifying time of 4:00, if only by a few seconds per mile!

I entered the Boston marathon for 2012, eagerly awaiting my e-mail announcing I was officially entered. Instead, the competition for Boston was so fierce that even though I had qualified, I missed getting in by a mere four seconds. An e-mail from the Boston Athletic Association cruelly told me of this fact. I did not think I would qualify again.

I entered the Dallas White Rock Marathon again in 2011, but soon after realized I could not run it because my son had a very important soccer tournament that same weekend, with major college coaches in the stands recruiting potential players. Knowing my time with him at home was soon coming to an end, I chose to go to the tournament to watch him play, and support him as only a parent can do. My marathon training slacked as I relaxed and enjoyed the season — soccer games and out-of-town tournaments. Unfortunately, my talented soccer-playing son was injured just a week before the big soccer game that would determine his college soccer career. Since Caleb would be unable to play with a rib injury, we canceled the trip to the major soccer tournament.

At that point, with less than one week before the marathon, I was left with a decision — to run or not? Because Christy had not been training at all, she did not want to enter the race, but she insisted she would meet me at mile 18 and run with me to the end. The morning of the marathon, I awoke to a downpour of rain in Dallas. I had promised another running friend I would give him a ride to the marathon, so although my heart wasn’t in it, I headed to downtown Dallas with my friend in tow. I told Christy under no circumstances should she meet me in the pouring rain at mile 18 just to run with me on a miserable day with nothing to gain. She did not commit one way or the other.

I was hoping she had made the right decision and stayed in her warm bed. However, although I didn’t expect her to show up in the terrible weather at mile 18, I was desperately hoping she would be there. Just past mile 18, she popped out of the crowd, tearing off her warmup pajamas, encouraged me to keep going, and ran with me almost to the finish line. Totally unexpectedly, I finished with a BQ time of 3:57. Boston would not deny me this time, and I was accepted. The nonrefundable plane tickets were purchased, and hotel reservations were made at the Westin, located at the finish line.

Unfortunately, I did several foolish things between that day and the Boston Marathon: water skiing (pulled a hamstring), playing sand volleyball (further pulling the hamstring) and running in the Air Force Marathon where I suffered a severe foot/arch injury. (I wouldn’t have missed that one for the world, as my Mom and sister were there to watch me.) Needless to say, my training suffered.

Then my mom called a week and a half before Boston to say she had to have surgery (she had been fighting cancer for several years). At that moment, all my priorities changed. I immediately called Travelocity to cancel my Boston trip. Running the Boston Marathon had just dropped to the bottom of my priority list. Travelocity would not refund the trip, but I was not going if Mom needed me. I drove to my hometown of Lubbock, Texas, and stayed with her in the hospital after surgery.

Mom insisted I go run the Boston Marathon because it had been a runner’s dream for me. She said Dad could take care of her. She bragged to all her nurses that I was going to run the Boston Marathon. So I stayed until the last minute with her, drove back to Dallas and got on a plane for Boston.

Boston 2013

My husband Rusty decided to go with me to Boston. He had never seen me run a marathon, not that I could have blamed him. It’s not really a spectator sport because you have to fight crowds to get to a viewing point to see your runner and then HOPE your runner passes by while you are standing there (about one minute of viewing time, if you’re lucky).

When we made it to Boston, he was a good sport, and we had a great time going to the Expo on Friday and walking the Freedom Trail on Saturday. We had a wonderful room at the Westin with a view of the area near the finish line. I spotted a massive white tent from hotel our window and, realizing it was the medical tent, jokingly told Rusty to check there if he couldn’t find me at my expected finish time on marathon day. How glad I am he did not have to look there!

Sunday night was the official Boston Marathon pasta dinner, and we queued up in the massive line wrapped around the building. Directly in front of us in line were a spunky petite Vietnamese woman and a trim gentleman. They immediately began talking to us, and before we even made it to the pasta station, we were laughing as if we had known each other for years. Melinda Morales and David Wingard had met at another marathon years before and were members of the infamous Marathon Maniacs, who run an insane number of marathons a year.

They were just about the nicest people I have ever met, and we decided to meet the next morning to ride the buses from the Boston Common to the Athletes’ Village, where we’d wait for our wave to be called. We had all been assigned the same wave (based on qualifying time), but different corrals. Melinda wanted to leave her bags in our hotel because it was near the finish line and she needed to catch her flight back home to California as soon as she finished the marathon. The nice people at the Westin agreed to keep her bags in the lobby.

April 15, 2013, was a beautiful day. Melinda and David met us in the lobby so we could all make the mile walk to the Boston Commons to wait for the buses. When we got there, various lines snaked around the park at different bus stops. We waited and waited, wearing our Goodwill throwaway clothes and chatting with the other runners. David wore his hat, wrapped in a shirt or something, to keep his head warm. Melinda wore her Boston jacket, and I wore an old Texas A&M Aggie sweatshirt Rusty decided he could part with (yes, he’s an Aggie).

Before I got on the bus, Rusty and I agreed on a meeting spot during the race—he would be waiting about mile 17 with a change of shoes for me. My foot was still injured from the Air Force Marathon, and he was going to bring my lighter running shoes so I could wear heavier, protective shoes at first, and change into them to finish out the race. After that, he planned to go watch me finish.

When we finally got on a bus, headed to Athletes’ Village and the infamous start line, the mood of the crowd was initially joking but grew steadily quieter as we drove and drove and drove. Realizing we would be running that same distance in reverse was daunting, even though we’d all run the distance before. When the bus finally made it to the Village, we had another good walk to get inside. I remember the weather was great, the sun was shining and it was cool, but not cold. Everyone sat on plastic sheets or trash bags they had brought and broke out the snacks and water. There were several trips to the porta-potties involving line waits, but there were always interesting, fun people from all over the world to meet.

I am usually very nervous before a race, but Melinda and David calmed my nerves and made me laugh at the same time. When they finally called our wave to head to the start line, we stuffed everything in our respective little yellow bags and headed for a parked bus with our bib number range to hand our bags over. The bags would be transported to the finish line so we could retrieve them at the end of the race. I decided to leave my cell phone in my bag because I carry as little as possible when I run.

It was a decision I would regret.

We all headed to our corrals to await the start of our wave. I don’t remember much about the start except I was excited and nervous. I know I turned on my ipod and started my watch, both important. On my ipod, I carry the songs of my friends as well as my favorite Christian songs. When I am about two weeks away from a marathon, I ask my closest friends and relatives to tell me the name of their favorite or most inspiring song. I download the songs onto my ipod and make a mental note of who belongs to what song. When the song comes on during the marathon, I think of that person. It helps to take my mind off my own pain and think of those who mean the most to me. I also listen to songs that bring together body, mind and spirit.

The marathon is a race that wears you down to your core, and there is no hiding behind a fa├žade (you have no energy for it) and no hiding behind a physical image (you look absolutely terrible near the end). You are your own worst enemy and own your best friend at the same time. The first part of the Boston Marathon was downhill, and I felt decent, probably running too fast. My foot was hurting, but it was bearable and I focused on TRYING not to run too fast because I knew I would pay for it later.

The spectators on the sidelines were awesome — cheering and waving the entire time. I kept my music loud enough to listen but low enough to hear the crowd. I passed Wellesley College where the students (mostly female), hold up signs to the runners with invitations for a kiss or maybe a marriage proposal. One young man in that crowd of females waved me over and gave me a kiss (on the cheek) and said “run fast.” That gave me a bit of a second wind but it soon faded. By the time I neared mile 17, I was feeling the infamous “wall” coming up.

I had removed my headphones because I was looking around desperately for Rusty. My eyes swept the crowd continuously until I was convinced I had missed him or he hadn’t made it. I put my headphones back on and at that instant, I saw him standing on the side screaming my name. I ran (actually limped) over to him, never so happy to see a person in my life since I had seen Christy that day in Dallas. He had my light running shoes in his hand and helped me get the heavier ones off. I stopped there for at least five minutes and he assured me he’d meet me at the finish line and that I was holding a great pace. I told him I was slowing drastically, fading fast, and would probably take a while to finish. I hugged him and continued on my way, boosted a tiny bit once again.

Then I hit the hill. Heartbreak Hill. It wasn’t such a bad little hill, but my foot was refusing to bend correctly. I next remember passing the “one mile to go” sign, and didn’t even care that at this point I was running exceptionally slowly. All I could think about was I was VERY close to finishing the Boston Marathon, something I had dreamed about for years. (I have to admit I was also thinking about what I was going to eat at a fancy restaurant as soon as I got a shower.) So close. One step in front of the other. . .

Nearing the end of the race, one of my favorite songs came up on the ipod – “Glorious Day” by Casting Crowns. At that point, I felt happy. It was a glorious day. I was healthy, had a wonderful family and friends, and was about to finish the Boston Marathon. I was one-half mile away from the finish line. My body was exhausted, and my mind was cloudy, but I was almost there. I was elated, my foot pain forgotten as my music blared on my ipod.

Then the spectators had become curiously quiet, and a confusing image confronted me. A young man was running right down the middle of the runners in street clothes yelling at us to stop running. Everyone in front of me was slowing down to a halt, and I could not imagine why we were stopping. Was it a joke? Was it too hot? No, it was only about 50 degrees. I could not imagine why we would be told to stop running so close to the end. I rolled to a stop, questioning the runners around me. Everyone was calm but seemed to be in shock, as I was. Someone with a cell phone received a text that there had been an explosion. All I could imagine was some nut had set off a firecracker, and they were dragging him off to jail so we could continue.

As the minutes dragged on, we heard a little more news about explosions at the finish line, but nobody knew the extent and we all assumed we’d be restarted momentarily. I started to talk to a woman beside me from Wisconsin — I think her name was Stacy. The young people who lived in the apartments on the course started bringing out pitchers of water and kitchen trash bags to wrap around our shivering shoulders. I think Mr. Galloway and his groupies were around me (I thought I recognized him), but at that point everyone was equal—scared, shocked, exhausted. As time dragged on and we stood in sweaty running clothes in the cool air, we became chilled and most of us were shivering and cramping.

We heard more rumors of bombs going off at the finish line. There were serious injuries. My mind began to imagine the worst. We then heard sirens, lots of sirens, and helicopters began to fly overhead. A police car came blasting through the crowd of corralled runners and the Boston policeman screamed through the open window for us to clear a path. And then it hit my muddled mind. Rusty was waiting for me at the finish line. What were the odds he was one of the injured? How bad was it really? Another young man came through the crowd with a cell phone and said he could not get a call out but would send a text to a number if we wanted.

For the life of me, I could not recall Rusty’s cell phone number because I have it programmed into my phone and not memorized. I remembered the cell number of a friend from work, so I had the young man send a simple text to his number saying “Diane is ok.” After about an hour, a young Boston man told us the race was over, we were not going to finish and we should try to make our way back to our hotel if we could.

At that point, all I could think of was I had to make it to the bag bus to get my cell phone and find out if Rusty was ok. My new friend Stacy from Wisconsin and I got directions from the young man with the cell phone on how to get back to our hotels, maneuvering around all the blocked streets. Panic setting in, Stacy and I began to alternate running with walking, and then stopping from the cramping. I saw as we left the pack of runners that they had finally began to move again, slowly walking the route, but I had no time for slow walking. I tried to stay calm but my overly-tired mind could only imagine the worst—I had brought Rusty to watch me run a race, and he was hurt or worse.

Various people on the street would point us in the direction of our hotels, and the finish line, when we became disoriented. We turned one corner and what we saw almost brought me to my knees—an entire block filled with waiting ambulances. At that point, I knew whatever awaited me at the finish line was bad, very bad. Stacy and I alternated – she would panic and I would comfort. Then I would panic and she would comfort. We cramped, we cried, we ran. A group of people streamed out of a bar and said they saw news coverage of the finish line—blood was everywhere, and people had died. Helicopters flew overhead continuously and people staggered down the streets like it was a war zone. My marathon wasn’t over yet, the hardest part was yet to come. I had to run as fast as possible to get to the finish line and find Rusty.

When we finally got close to the Westin Hotel, a young businesswoman gave Stacy, who was shivering uncontrollably, her jacket. She let us use her cell phone, which was finally able to get calls through. The first call I made was to the only number left in my brain at this point: my home phone, my childhood home, my mom.

Mom answered, not recognizing the caller ID of the Boston phone number, and seemed confused as to who was calling her. When she heard my voice, she began to cry, and I told her I was not hurt but needed to know if Rusty had been injured. Finally she told me the news – Rusty was ok and had not been harmed in the bombing. He had been talking to my mom on his cell phone as he was making his way to the finish line to see my big finish and, being distracted, had made a wrong turn. He decided he would be too late to see me finish and made his way to the bag buses to try to find me there instead. While waiting at my bus, he had heard a loud explosion after which all hell broke loose.

Upon hearing this news, at that very second, my Boston Marathon was over. I had finished my race and had crossed a virtual finish line that was more important to me than the one marked on the street. I had run well more than 26.2 miles with no medal around my neck, and I did not care. Relief washed over me as Stacy and I made our way quickly to the baggage buses. As soon as we arrived at that street lined with buses, I lost my Boston buddy Stacy as she sprinted away to her bus, and I to mine. Just as I spotted my bus with my bib number range on the side, the Boston police began screaming at us to clear the area because there were additional bomb threats and the street where the bag buses were parked was not safe. I sprinted to my bus and pleaded with the volunteer on it to throw me my bag before she evacuated. She quickly ran to get my bag and threw it out of the open window, after which we both ran to another side-street. Thank you, Boston bag-bus volunteer!

I instantly found and powered on my cell phone and called Rusty (his number in my address book). We were on edge with both our cell phone batteries running low and hurriedly talked about where we would meet, unfamiliar with the streets of Boston. When I finally saw him standing on a corner in Boston amid police, exhausted runners, panicked spectators and confused businessmen, I was overcome with relief and could only see one face. I was overwhelmed with emotions — relief he was not injured, devastated that people were injured, exhausted beyond belief, totally and completely in shock.

At that point, I looked at my phone and noticed a flood of text messages. My family and friends were frantic to see if we were safe. Little did I know what had transpired in my little world back home during that time after the bombs went off in Boston.

I really didn’t think anyone besides Christy and my other running friends much kept up with my marathons, even the famous Boston Marathon. My sister had even asked me the week before when this “Boston Marathon thing” was taking place. She said she had heard very little about it on the news from her home in Ohio. I guess only runners really think it’s a big deal. But unbeknownst to me, while I was standing on the Boston Marathon course after the bombs went off, my family and friends were in motion.

My co-workers, who were tracking me, heard the breaking news of the Boston bombing on the TV at work. My running buddy Christy immediately dropped what she was doing to call Rusty’s cell phone while another friend/co-worker ran to the computer where they had been tracking my slow-but-sure progress. He saw my blinking “running dot” had stopped, its little legs churning but going nowhere. They were worried.

My mom and dad were watching the marathon live in Lubbock and saw the bombing news immediately. Mom called my oldest son Trevor, an ICU nurse who works nights, awakening him from sleep. My dad was convinced he had seen a woman covered in blood that must have been me. After all, she was short like me and had blondish hair (who else could it be?). Although the woman was obviously not a runner, Dad could not be convinced the severely injured woman was not his younger daughter. I later learned Rusty’s mom saw the same image and had the same fear.

Trevor, in the meantime, had swung into action. The medical side of him kicked in as he frantically called every hospital in Boston, asking if they had a short, female runner named Diane from Texas. They asked him if I had any distinguishing marks, such as a tattoo. He could not think of anything unique to identify me, because I am basically ordinary, and possess no tattoos or major birthmarks. (Afterward, he told me I MUST get a tattoo so he can locate me, if there ever IS another time he would need to locate his mother after a marathon bombing.) The hospitals reported none of the injured thus far were runners.

My sister had just left her classroom in Ohio when she turned on her cell phone and realized the horror that had unfolded, with her younger sister unaccounted for. She was frantic. My youngest son, Caleb, was in a college class at the time of the bombing and was texted by his girlfriend to inform him what had happened. He called his brother to see if his parents were safe. My childhood friend Jean Ann Cantore also had been tracking me in Lubbock and began calling everyone she knew to see if we were safe. Meanwhile back in Boston . . . .

Still in my running clothes with only my plastic bag, standing on a Boston corner with chaos surrounding me, I was totally devastated. People had been hurt – I had no idea how many or how badly they had been hurt. I felt a pain in my heart which I knew was not physical. How/why would someone do this? What has the world come to? Will we ever feel safe again? We were running/watching a marathon – not protesting, fighting, or hurting anyone. It was basically a celebration of life and the love of the most simple and basic act of human nature – to run. I cannot describe my feelings at that time which had nothing to do with whether I had finished a race or not.

I sat and cried because although I did not know the full extent of injuries, I knew the lives of so many would be forever changed and possibly destroyed. We sat in shock for a while not knowing where to go. The Westin was closed because, being so close to the finish line, the hotel had received bomb threats. We finally found a small restaurant that was open, surprisingly, and went in, because I had not eaten since 6 a.m., twelve hours earlier. We sat down and ordered quickly from the nervous but kind waiter. We had taken about one sip of wine when the waiter informed us the FBI was closing the restaurant immediately because of more bomb threats. We had to leave — now. Once outside, we sat on the steps of some random building between the little restaurant and the Westin, not knowing where to go since we were in a strange city and our hotel and all public buildings were closed down. We had no real clothes, no food, no shelter, and Boston was not safe. I have never felt homeless or hungry until this moment and realized how very fortunate and blessed I have been. I knew others were, at this moment, fighting for their lives.

We were finally able to get back into our hotel that night. I saw the news for the first time in my room and felt the pain again in my chest. I looked out our window at the medical tent, realizing how many lives were probably saved there, thankful we had escaped that fate.

The sound of the bombs from the news went off in my head all night.

When I returned to Garland, Texas, from Boston, I could not run for a couple of weeks. My heart was just not in it (and my legs were shot). The TV news coverage was continuous, and I had to look away as they re-played the explosions. The pain was just too great. Finally, I decided to go for a short run in the neighborhood. I clipped my ipod shuffle, containing my Boston Marathon playlist, onto my running top, and went for a short five mile jog.

As I ran, I looked at the beautiful colors of the spring day and thought how it is true what people say – the colors are move vibrant and magnificent after you have experienced and lived through a traumatic event. I was amazed at how they looked— the reds were redder, the blues were bluer, the greens were greener. Then I realized I was wearing the polarized sunglasses I had purchased at the Boston Marathon Expo! Even so, the colors were amazing, and I was happy to be alive.

The song that blared in my ears brought me to tears on that first post-Boston run – “Forgiveness.” Could I forgive? I want to think the Boston Marathon 2013 has not changed me, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, there is evil in the world that surfaced on that day of the Boston Marathon. But I believe the good outweighed the evil that day and the days that followed.

The good people of Boston rallied to come to the aid of some crazy marathon runners, giving us water and directions and even the jackets off their backs. Heroes were born that day who risked life and limb to rush in to rescue those who were injured. Medical workers saved countless lives by their quick-thinking actions and skill. Police officers and government teams worked around the clock to solve the case and keep the public safe.

Family and friends showed how much they cared and searched for us, worried about us, found us. Even the media worked tirelessly to keep the nation informed. My heart will forever feel a sudden pain when I hear the words “Boston Marathon” or see the video coverage of the explosion at the finish line. But I will also remember that good ultimately won over evil.

One week after returning from Boston, a friend told me the Oklahoma Memorial Marathon committee was offering free entry to all Boston Marathon 2013 runners who could not finish. It wasn’t the free entry that drew me in; it was the opportunity to run to support those who had suffered as those in Boston—the Oklahoma City bombing victims of 1995. Christy agreed — we had to go. I ran the OKC Memorial Marathon approximately two weeks after the Boston bombing. When I say the “one mile to go” marker I shuddered, and cried, and smiled as I passed it. You can read the story here if you want, written by a very talented ESPN reporter who contacted me after getting my name from the OKC Marathon committee.

The Boston Athletic Association decided to allow all those who had not been able to complete the 2013 Boston Marathon, but who had made it to at least the 13.1 mile mark, to enter the 2014 Boston Marathon without having to qualify again. I was almost hoping they would not come to this decision. I was not sure I wanted to return to Boston again — back to the memories, the site of so much pain and suffering for so many, the place where my passion for running was compromised. I was not in the mood to run and train for a marathon again. But how could I refuse? I had to finish the race, to show that evil would not win, and to remember those who gave so much that day.

Rusty and I returned to Boston, but on my one condition: he would not go to the finish line. I made him promise to wait for me in the Boston Common instead.

The day of the 2014 Boston Marathon was similar to the previous year except the city was swamped with news crews, an expanded field of runners, extra police and military, helicopters and a mass of spectators. The weekend was amazing and wonderful and sad and emotional, all at the same time. This time, I had one ear filled with a headphone and the other clear to hear the crowd. The support was amazing, and I smiled during the entire race.

At exactly the time my foot hit the half marathon mat, my ipod shuffle decided play “Glorious Day” for me – the exact same song playing when I was suddenly stopped on the course one year ago, a half mile from finishing. I felt this must be a message — it won’t happen again. As I neared the end, I knew it wasn’t even near my fastest time, but I didn’t care. When I rounded the corner and saw the finish line, so near yet so far, I cried and smiled at the same time. I instinctively moved to the center of the street when I came to the places where the bombs had exploded. I crossed the finish line tired but extremely happy. I received my medal from a nice volunteer – a man I did not know, much like those strangers in Boston who had helped me almost one year ago.

My marathon was finally complete. But all I could really think about in that moment was that a true marathon had only just begun for the people who were injured in the blast a year ago, and for the families of those killed. I hope that they will keep running the race, push past the pain, and get to the finish line. After all, runners or not, we’re all Boston marathoners!

Diane Sherer
Garland, Texas



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

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