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My First Running of the Boston Marathon: A Psychologist’s Reflection

By Kimberly McGuire

Prerace, 2013 Boston Marathon

The morning of April 15, 2013 starts off quietly as I prepare my runner’s drop bag, gels, etc. I find my way to Boston Commons and wait on line 45 minutes to take a one-hour bus ride to Hopkinton, where the internationally renowned marathon starts. I hang out, rest, prepare, take photos, and eventually make my way to Corral 9 of Wave 2 with a 10:20 a.m. start. I begin the race well and feel strong throughout the first 16 miles. I hit a hill at mile 17 and feel a slight cramp in my left calf. I eat a gel, trying to replenish simple sugars, but somewhere between miles 17 and 18 I cramp more severely. By the time I hit mile 20, which afterward I realize is the “real” Heartbreak Hill, I am cramping more severely and am in serious pain. I realize how undertrained I am as a result of a running-related injury and a mere eight-week pre-Boston training schedule. I consider walking and hear an internal voice, “You cannot walk. Whatever you do, do not walk.” I pray to my Mom and Dad, both deceased, my father just recently, and ask them to come from above and carry my cramped, tired, and sore legs to the finish. I can feel them pushing me with love from behind. Then at mile 23, both legs instantly cramp from ankle to thigh, and I slow to a snail’s pace. I well up with tears, and a voice says again, “No matter what, you cannot walk.” I pray again and ask for my parents’ help.

I get a second wind. My energy increases, and I continue. During the last few miles, I experience elation and celebration. I finish strong for me at an 8:15 pace for the last quarter mile. I cross the finish line with a big smile, then limp and stagger to the aluminum foil blankets, medals, food, and baggage claim. I am cold, wet, and chilled through. I gather my bag, which is a chaotic process, then stumble toward a curb and clumsily put on a dry shirt and sweatshirt.

I am all set to walk toward the finish line again, where I saw signs for the Family Reunion Center, to meet my friends Paul, Glen, and Amanda, but I begin experiencing a significant amount of pain and discomfort. I turn to a police officer and ask if there is a better way to get to the reunion area. He points me one block in the opposite direction of the finish line. THANK GOODNESS!

As I limp and hobble to the corner of Clarendon Street, where the police officer directed me, I receive a call from another friend, Sebastien. While I am talking with him, I realize I am in a fog from a combination of joy, deliriousness, and being chilled to the bone. I observe my right hand going numb and my fingers swelling. Suddenly, I hear a loud bang. It sounds like a car backfiring. The loud noise triggers me to end the call with Sebastien immediately. I remember telling him, in a slightly panicked voice, “I have to go. I have to find my friends.” That was 2:50 p.m. EST.

I make a call to Paul (my friend and ride home), but it doesn’t go through. I try Glen’s number, then Amanda’s. I can’t get through to anyone. It’s strange because just five minutes earlier, Paul answered right away. Now there’s no signal. As I walk toward the Family Reunion Center, I notice I’m walking against a crowd of people. They are moving away from the reunion area. The atmosphere is calm, so I am not yet alarmed. Eventually I find myself at the corner of Clarendon and St. James, two blocks from the blast. I begin to cross the street and in my peripheral vision notice no one is around. I hear lots of sirens. I wobble as I walk across the street and see a police motorcycle speeding toward me. I can’t move any faster, but I make it safely to the other side.

I wobble into the ShipJack restaurant, minimally aware of my surroundings from a cognitive perspective. I sweep the restaurant three times in search of my friends. They are not there. I sit down to rest, exhausted and still discombobulated. I keep trying to get a phone signal. Finally I get through to Paul. As we are talking, I see him round the corner in the restaurant. I am still unaware of what is happening, yet I have a sense that something is not right. I instinctively ask, as runners do, if Paul PR’d as he hoped to do, and he distractedly responds, “Yes I did.” I then ask the same of Glen, and he tells me his time, and I congratulate them both. Then they tell me what happened. Paul says, “Two bombs just went off at the finish line.” Just like that. I can’t quite process what he said. It is surreal.

The restaurant begins filling with people who are carrying confused energy. I see others watching TV screens, but I am focused on getting into dry pants to warm up. In my confused and exhausted state, I somehow manage to get a pair of sweatpants out of my bag and find the bathroom. I attempt to change, which proves to be a monumental physical and emotional challenge. Then I notice my phone is receiving text, after text, after text. I have three voicemails and more folks calling in. Now I begin to process, “Maybe this is quite serious.” My body and mind are still recovering from 3 hours 47 minutes of hard running, and neither is cooperating fully.

I gradually attempt to engage in problem solving about getting to my hotel to gather my luggage. We are advised that the subway system is on lockdown, though our car is parked at a T stop well south of the city. I sit down and try to eat a piece of bread and drink some water. There is ongoing discussion of what to do, as I notice my friends walking in and out of the restaurant. I get up to walk outside to try for cell phone reception, but get nothing. I text home to advise of the situation. I return texts, and they keep pouring in. I sit down once more. My friends come back in and say, “Did you feel that, hear that? There was another bomb.” (Later we find out this was something the police detonated as a precaution.) My friends’ anxiety elevates, and I feel myself getting more nervous as I watch them. Soon, the restaurant manager comes through the crowd and says, “Folks, we are being asked to evacuate the restaurant right away. The police will be here, and we need to evacuate now.”

I observe the anxiety and fear elevate as Paul, Amanda, and I gather our belongings and try to find Glen. Paul yells Glen’s full name loudly in the restaurant, but gets no response. We find him just outside the restaurant. I’m still thinking about how to get back to my hotel near the bomb site, but Glen looks at me firmly and directly and says, “Kim, we are not going to the hotel to get your luggage. That stuff is replaceable. They can ship it to you. We have to get away from here. This is a terrorist situation.”

We head north, away from the finish-line area. In a temporary state of panic, I see my friends walking quickly up St. James Street. They have recovered for almost two hours at this point, and their legs are more agile than mine. I try to keep up with them, but can’t. I don’t even have the energy to yell, “Wait for me!” Eventually, they notice I’m lagging behind. Paul offers to carry my bag. When he takes some of my burden away, the combination of excitement at having completed my first Boston Marathon, having just missed the bombs by 15 minutes or so, the pain, cramping, discomfort, and now the knowledge that the group is not going back to get my personal belongings, credit cards, etc., all comes crashing in. I have a sudden decrease in my sense of safety and security. I am shaken in the moment and stop walking as tears well up, and I say, “I’m a bit overwhelmed at the moment.” I do not know if we are safe. My friends seem to be freaking out, and people are walking fast. Amanda takes my cold right hand in an effort to warm it up, and we all hurry away from the finish line and toward the North End.

With a calm, frenetic quality, we keep problem-solving and eventually land at the Hyatt Regency near Chinatown, asking the bellman to call a taxi. We are abruptly advised, “These folks have been waiting over an hour. There are no taxis available out of the city.” I am freezing cold at this point and decide to sit inside the hotel to warm up. I try to text my friend Mona from my hometown—she was running the race too—but my hands are not working well. Then I look up, and Mona is standing in front of me! This is the hotel where she is staying. So weird to see someone I know well magically appear before me right when I want to hear she is okay. She says, “I was .1 mile from the finish and saw the explosions.”

We hug, talk, support each other, and she goes off to her hotel room to reunite with her husband and children. Then it dawns on me: I’m already sitting here, so why don’t I just wait in this long taxi line? And that is what I do. Eventually my friends come inside the hotel, and I let them know that I’m waiting on line even if it takes hours. I truly don’t know how long it eventually takes to get a taxi, because everything is surreal, and I have no concept of time passing, but ultimately it isn’t too bad. A cab arrives, and the driver gets us safely out of the city. Amanda, Paul, Glen, and I breathe a sigh of relief.

On the drive back to New Jersey

The drive home is interesting. Paul keeps us updated with the latest news as he incessantly checks his iPhone, stating, “I know I shouldn’t keep looking, but I can’t seem to stop.” We continue texting, calling, e-mailing our runner friends to assess safety. Thank goodness everyone is okay!

I am typically very calm in crisis situations, and this day is no exception, despite the occasional tears. Internally I feel calm. What is truly unexpected, though, is that I begin to experience shock the following day. Textbook. I wake up at 4 a.m. with images I saw of the bombing, images of the restaurant evacuation, images of looking for a cab out of the city. I tell myself, “This is normal,” and try to engage in self-soothing dialogue. I decide to let my weary body rest, even though I can’t fall back asleep. I finally get out of bed at 6 a.m. I am in a dazed, foggy state and go on autopilot as I prepare my daughter’s breakfast, get her ready for school, and then drive to work.

Home safe

As a psychologist, I somehow have an unspoken internal notion that I am immune from experiencing a traumatic reaction personally. After all, I know what to tell other people who experience such crises. Plus, here I did not see the explosion, I did not see the bodies … why would I be in such a state of shock? Then I think about the human brain and sensory perception and the knowledge that I personally tend to experience most life circumstances viscerally. This experience, like the race itself, is in my tissues, my bones, my very fabric, because I absorbed the energies of the scene and atmosphere at the finish line in Boston.

Around 1 p.m. the day after the bombs exploded, I recognize I am minimizing the potential trauma impact of the circumstance on my overall well-being. I focus on myself and do some breathing relaxation. I take in the support of colleagues and listen to them emphasize the extent of the tragedy and how happy they are that my friends and I are safe. We discuss the tragic death of a young boy, the amputated limbs, and the sadness. I seek professional assistance the next day and relive the experience, discussing how I am going to cope with the shock symptoms in the days to come. I realize I am grateful for all the amazing people in my life. Thank goodness I am alive, healthy and well. It is a strange combination of elation at the personal victory of completing my first Boston Marathon under less than optimal training and physical circumstances amid the chaos of a bombing attack and national tragedy.

Afterthoughts

I have witnessed terrorist attacks by watching the news or listening to first-person accounts. Now I am a first-person account, a human interest story. It is challenging to cogently express the surreal experience of being in the middle of a crisis/terrorist situation and not know exactly what is going on. A week after the bombings at the Boston Marathon, a few colleagues notice I am more engaged in dialogue with them relative to the days following the bombings. They reflect to me the flat affect, facial paleness, monotone voice, and distant stare they observed in the days immediately after my return and express how happy they are to see me “be myself again.” I discuss with some of these colleagues the strangeness of my experiences before, during, and after the bombings. I share my internal/cognitive observations of my reactions in the moments of confusion in Boston as well as my self-observations of my own delayed shock reaction. I recognize once again how fortunate I am to have an amazing support system of friends, family, and colleagues to carry me through my experience.

At 2:50 p.m. EST on April 22, 2013, I sit in my office and observe the planned moment of silence for all the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. This moment is for them and, to a much lesser extent, for me.

Peace,

Kimberly

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