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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

April 18, 2014 at 11:06 AM

Boston Marathon: Recalling the horror and why I had to run again

M. Nicole Nazzaro and her husband at the 20-mile mark of the 2012 Boston Marathon.  Photo courtesy of M. Nicole Nazzaro

M. Nicole Nazzaro and her husband at the 20-mile mark of the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Photo courtesy of M. Nicole Nazzaro

BY M. NICOLE NAZZARO

WATERTOWN, Mass. – The first sign that something wasn’t right was the hundreds of runners, without finisher’s medals, walking in the opposite direction from the finish line. What were they doing in the middle of the road?

Then my phone started ringing in my fanny pack. Every one of my friends knew I was running the Boston Marathon. Why would they call before I had crossed the finish line? I had just a mile to go.

And when I opened my fanny pack to look at that phone, I had thirty-five text messages waiting for me. Texts that had not been there an hour earlier.

By now, I knew something terrible had happened. The phone rang again – my mother, calling from Philadelphia. I’ve lived in the Seattle area since 2006, so we don’t see each other as often as we’d like.  But I didn’t even say hello when I took the call. “I’m OK,” I said quickly as I fumbled with the cell phone keys. “Thank God!” she exhaled.

I don’t remember what else we said to each other. Now I had to find my husband.

Every single person who was in Boston on April 15, 2013 has a story to tell. Mine was, overall, one of happy relief. My husband hadn’t yet made it to the finish line on Boylston Street when police stopped the race. His train stopped at Fenway Park, a few stops from where he was supposed to get off to meet me at the finish line. He was biding his time at a nearby gas station when we reached each other by phone. It took a while for me to walk there – stiff, tired marathon legs seize up the second you stop running -  but we found each other. Together, we walked across the Massachusetts Avenue bridge to Cambridge, where a friend picked us up.

Others were not so lucky. Three people lost their lives that day when they came out to cheer us on – and they were cheering for us, the “back of the pack” runners, finishing far from the glamour of the elite races. A fourth person, MIT police officer Sean Collier, was gunned down three days later, allegedly by the bombers, as the manhunt began.

Seattle is now my hometown, but I’ve had a relationship with the Boston Marathon since 1990, my freshman year of college. That year I talked my grandfather, a Boston native, into driving me to Hopkinton from my college dorm in Cambridge. I wanted to jump into the race and try to run as far as I could. (You could do that sort of thing back in the day. Somebody was even selling “1990 – Back of the Pack” race numbers for a dollar each at the race’s starting line.)

I ran 14 miles that day and fell in love with the sport. Three years later, I ran the whole thing, again as a “bandit” – an unregistered runner. It remains one of the most memorable days of my life.

After college I left Boston but came back often to visit friends – and the marathon. I finally moved back to Cambridge for three more years before relocating to California for graduate school, China for a work stint, and eventually Seattle.  But before I left, Boston provided another amazing entrée – into the world of sports journalism. Runner’s World magazine gave me my first job covering Boston, and I’ve been here for many of the last 15 years as a credentialed journalist.

M. Nicole Narraro Photo courtesy of M. Nicole Nazzaro

M. Nicole Narraro
Photo courtesy of M. Nicole Nazzaro

But I had always wanted to run the race officially. One of the journalists I met at the 2000 Boston Marathon, my first as a professional sports journalist, said as much to me. “Save the press room for when you’re old,” he told me. In other words, run the race now. You can write about it later.

A dear friend from nearby Belmont, Mass., gave me the reason to do it. He coached a running group I hooked up, and to his friends, he was a running legend. He ran 40 consecutive Boston Marathons – the last in 2009 after starting cancer treatments at Mass General Hospital. At the 2009 marathon, I ran the last 10 miles of the course with him and many of his friends and family members. When he passed away in late 2010, I resolved to run in his honor. Ever since then, I’ve run Boston officially as a charity runner for Mass General’s pediatric oncology group. And I’m still training to qualify for Boston via its time standards. I’ve come very close.

So I’m back after a year away, ready to run the 118th Boston Marathon. It will be my fourth consecutive Boston. And yes, I’m counting last year’s race as a finish, even though I never got to Boylston Street that day.

I did not see or hear the bombs last year, but I have friends and colleagues who were either on Boylston Street or in the nearby press center at the Copley Plaza Hotel who did.

I did not know any of the amputee victims, but just learned last week that one of my longtime running friends in the Boston area was instrumental in helping two of them rebuild their lives after each of them lost a leg.

I did not experience the “shelter in place” order on April 19, 2013, the day the entire city locked down during the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – but I was staying with friends in Watertown (the same friends I’m with this year) until just a few hours before the FBI released the suspects’ photos and all hell broke loose.

I wasn’t there for the reverse 911 calls from the police telling residents to stay indoors, or the bullets echoing through neighborhoods where residents had lived for decades, or the door-to-door SWAT team sweeps. But I have friends who live within a mile of where all of those things happened, who heard the firefight, who swarmed onto Mount Auburn Street after Tsarnaev was captured to celebrate and high-five every first responder in sight.

But I will be there on Monday morning in Hopkinton.

Here is just a taste of what the Boston Marathon means to this city. It is a twenty-six-mile long street party. It is held on a state holiday, the third Monday of April, commemorating the ride of Paul Revere that preceded the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord.  It is a patriotic celebration, the unofficial first day of the New England spring, and a day many bottles of Sam Adams are cracked open. The Red Sox always play at home. They usually win. Smiles are everywhere.

That’s part of why Boston took last year’s attack so very personally. And why the lockdown, the manhunt, the celebrations afterwards, and all of the commemorations this year make sense, when you understand what this place is made of.

David Ortiz knew his audience last April when he bellowed “This is our f—— city, and nobody is going to dictate our freedom!” at Fenway Park. That’s Boston. Irish-Italian-Catholic Boston, pugilistic, proud Boston, a place where, as one writer last year put it, 90 percent of the population is related to a cop – and that’s not a joke. If you want to know what the Red Sox meant to Boston last year as they rallied around the bombing victims and then brought the city the World Series title, think of what the Seahawks meant to Seattle this year, then multiply it by a factor of a thousand.

What happened last year was tragic and awful – and nobody knows that better than those who were physically harmed. But the city itself needed to heal, and so Monday’s race beckons as the final coda to a yearlong process. Make no mistake: it is not the end of the healing process for the victims. Their lives will never be the same. But the race will go on, and that is a metaphor for the resilience this proud old Revolutionary War town has had ever since that midnight ride in 1775.

This year I’ve logged my training miles on Bellevue’s paved pathways, on the Sammamish River Trail, and on the streets of Seattle and Mercer Island. Training has not gone perfectly, so I’m not expecting to break any records Monday.

M. Nicole Nazzaro before the 2012 Boston Marathon.  Photo courtesy M. Nicole Nazzaro

M. Nicole Nazzaro before the 2012 Boston Marathon.
Photo courtesy M. Nicole Nazzaro

What I’m expecting is to be welcomed as a part of a celebration and a memorial. The weather should be good. I’m expecting the first few miles to feel easy, for the Wellesley women to cheer us just past the 12-mile mark. I’m expecting the hills starting at mile 16, and the right-hand turn to Newton at the firehouse on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue – the prelude to Heartbreak Hill.

I’m expecting Boston College partiers to jog with us and cheer for us. I’m expecting to turn the left corner at Cleveland Circle and see the Prudential Center, the heart of downtown Boston, off in the distance, still a few miles away.

And this year, I’m expecting to make a right-hand turn onto Hereford Street, and then a left-hand turn onto Boylston Street for that last 600 meters to the finish line – the greatest 600 meters in the marathon world.  With 36,000 fellow runners there – including many of my fellow running friends from Seattle. We’re here to bear witness, to help show Boston this incredible race will survive, and to participate in this astounding celebration of humanity.

M. Nicole Nazzaro’s sports journalism has been published in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and Runner’s World. She is the co-author of “Fit by Nature” (The Mountaineers, 2011) and a journalist and consultant on health and wellness issues. She writes the daily Every48 fitness inspiration blog at http://every48.wordpress.com. Her professional website is http://www.wellnessplaybook.net. She lives in Bellevue.

Want to be a reader contributor to The Seattle Times’ Take 2 blog? Email your original, previously unpublished work or proposal to Sports Editor Don Shelton at dshelton@seattletimes.com or sports@seattletimes.com. Not all submissions can be published. The Times reserves the right to edit and publish any submissions online and/or in print.

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