By Joey Lee
April 15, most people think of it as tax day, but I’ll forever remember it as the day I came way too close to losing absolutely everything, when my family was almost taken, leaving me with nothing, alone and broken.
It started like any other race morning, very early, but that’s the only normal thing about the Boston Marathon. I left the hotel and took the subway to the Boston Commons where 27,000 of us boarded buses to Hopkinton, the start town of the Boston Marathon.
We arrived at the Athlete’s Village around 7:00 a.m. You could feel the nervous energy and anticipation in the air as we looked for a spot for our three-hour wait. Veteran Boston runners brought mats and blankets to lie on, while us rookies scrounged for cardboard boxes and plastic bags to protect us from the morning chill and dew.
I tried to soak it all in, from the goofy emcee and his endless jabbering to the low murmur of everyone comparing notes and trying to stay warm. Finally, they called for Wave 1 to make its way to the start. As I mentioned in a previous article, my hard marathon was the one I ran to qualify and I considered running the Boston easy, but that familiar feeling in my stomach told me I wasn’t running anything easy, not today; and thank God I didn’t.
I was in corral seven, of eight. Typically, the first wave is right up front, but not in Boston, unless you were in corral one. Standing on my toes all I could see was a massive ocean of runners and the start line was nowhere in sight.
At 10:00 we started moving, like a tsunami of humans crashing toward the starting line. The clock showed just over five minutes as I hit the line, meaning the elite runners were already past the one mile point and it had taken me more than five minutes to get to the start.
I started pretty fast – about the same pace as my qualifying race. But it felt easy, easier than in the qualifier for sure. The street was packed, but everyone was keeping pace and I didn’t have to dodge anyone going slow. I kept thinking, “I’m either going to have a really good race or really struggle at the end.” I probably should have slowed down, but I wanted to see what I could do.
The race runs through several towns to Boston. I had heard there were some isolated and quiet parts of the course. I had heard wrong. There were some spots with hardly any people, but they were few and far between. For the most part, the entire 26.2 is lined with people offering refreshments; everything from water and ice pops to licorice and gummy bears.
Not only were they handing out stuff, but they cheered for absolutely everyone, held their hands out offering high fives and in one spot, giving kisses. Yes, I’ll admit, I high-fived thousands of tiny hands. Oh, and the kisses? Around mile 13, the women of Wellesley College gather in what’s known as The Scream Tunnel, screaming encouragement to the runners and trying to get kisses from them. They hold signs that read, “Kiss me, I’m a chemistry major,” and “Kiss me, I’m from Oklahoma,” among other things. I didn’t get as many kisses as I did high fives, but I sure tried. And the good news is, I didn’t even slow down as I was smooching.
Mile 20 is the infamous Heartbreak Hill. By the time I reached it, I was really beginning to feel the miles. I made it up the hill and through the next couple of miles, but was definitely slowing down.
When I reached mile 23, my legs disappeared and were replaced by molten lead; burning, aching and getting heavier with each step. We were back in Boston and the crowds lining the streets were growing bigger so I did everything I could to keep pushing.
At some point I had to give in, my breathing was out of hand and my legs were screaming, I had to walk, at least at the water stations. The problem is, water stations are like gateway drugs – once I let myself walk one, it’s easy to justify walking at random spots, and that’s what I did. I ended up walking four or five times in the last few miles and the crowds’ cheers began to sound like taunts, so I’d start running again. But I was still on a good pace and enjoying the experience, only wishing the finish line would appear quickly.
Finally, I saw my family, right at the 26 mile point, Casey was smiling and yelling and Dad was holding Ginger above the crowd and then I was past them and finished. I was ecstatic and exhausted, having just crossed off one of the biggies from my life’s to-do list.
As soon as I stopped running, I got cold, not just normal cold, but bone chilling, “I’m soaked in sweat, exhausted and have no food in me” cold. So I pressed through the sea of finishers to get my medal and tin foil survival blanket. I eventually got my pre-race checked bag with a couple of items of clothing in it, hurriedly put them on and hobbled to the family meeting area.
As I stood in the sun, Casey texted me that they were on their way. I responded, “ppppleease hhhurry, ffffrreezing!” She ran ahead and I threw on every piece of clothing she had brought for me.
Thankfully, I was too tired and too cold to hang around so we caught the subway back to the hotel. I immediately filled the tub with steaming water and dove in. But that bath was short-lived. I heard the news blaring, “There have been explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line.”
I got dressed and watched the events down the street unfold, and my pride and sense of accomplishment were replaced with anger, horror and disbelief. The story was no longer that 27,000 runners had fulfilled their dream of running the Superbowl of marathons, now the story was that some insane person or persons had detonated bombs in the crowd, with preliminary reports saying two people were dead and dozens injured.
We all felt horrible for those who were killed or injured, and their loved ones, guilty only of loving and supporting someone in the race. But then my feelings went from bad to worse.
As we watched the live coverage, we realized that the location of the second explosion was exactly where my wife, one-year-old daughter, Mom and Dad had been waiting. When I run an “easy” marathon, it’s usually around the four hour mark, right around the time when the bombs detonated. If one thing had gone differently that day, if I had decided to run easy, they would have still been standing there waiting for me. I was stunned, shocked and thankful.
As soon as I realized how close we had come to being victims, I grabbed Ginger and Casey and hugged them as tight as I could. Ten years ago I lost my first wife and barely recovered, I don’t think I have it in me to make it through losing Casey; let alone losing Casey, Ginger, Mom and Dad.
Honestly, even as I write this, I tremble and my eyes fill with tears. I was so lucky, if everything hadn’t lined up like it did, I could have lost them all, narrowly missing it by minutes. We figure we were on the subway as the explosions occurred. The text Casey had sent me was just a few minutes before they went off and they had been walking a couple of minutes to find me when she sent it.
As the news broke nationwide, the calls, texts and messages were both overwhelming and greatly appreciated. They were a glaring example of what wonderful friends and family we have. Plus, responding to everyone was a welcome distraction to the coverage and constant reminder of the disastrous fate we so narrowly missed.
The mood in the lobby at breakfast the next morning was like nothing I’d ever seen before. After a race like that, we usually brag, make excuses and joke around. But not this morning, we hardly looked at each other. I don’t know if we were feeling guilty that we were okay or just devastated by what had happened. If we did make eye contact, it was brief, with a nod of understanding and then we looked away, like we were harboring some dirty secret.
One item that most runners covet is the Boston Athletic Association jacket. You can easily identify the runners by it and they sell thousands each year. I wanted mine so badly that I broke a cardinal rule and bought it before the race, I was so scared I had jinxed myself that I left it in the bag and buried it in my suitcase as soon as I got to the hotel. Given the events of this year’s race, I seriously considered not even taking it out of the bag. But I reconsidered and wore it as we continued our vacation around New England. Not as a matter of pride, but as a matter of solidarity and to show that these terrorists can’t defeat us, they only make us stronger and bring us closer together.
It was humbling and a bit embarrassing as we traveled, when people saw the jacket they’d all ask how we were doing and if I got to finish the race. We told them how lucky we were and how grateful we were to be alive and healthy; and these total strangers would express how thankful they were.
People ask if I’m going to run it again. I would love to and really feel obligated now, but qualifying for this race is TOUGH so I don’t know. What I do know is that those guys didn’t accomplish their goal, what they did was strengthen our resolve and bring us all closer together.
I also know that every time I put that jacket on, I’ll think of eight year old Martin Richard, Lu Lingzi, Krystle Campbell and their families, the hundreds injured and traumatized, just how close I came to losing everything that means anything to me, and how lucky I am that the Lord was watching over us that day.