5 years later: S.D. runner recounts Boston Marathon bombing

By: Jacqueline Palfy .

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I stood in the in-between space, my phone cord snaking down to an outlet on the wall, watching the battery light slowly register a charge.

It was the lobby of some kind of office building, a bank on one side, a restaurant on the other. The people standing next to me had the same bewildered look on their faces. We had on our medals from the Boston Marathon. Silver and white mylar blankets wrapped around our waists, the unicorn logo scattered across them.

We had no idea what was going on.

It was April 15, 2013, and someone had just bombed the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon.

I had stepped into the lobby looking for an outlet, desperately hoping I could get enough of signal to reach my family, somewhere out on the course, where they had been watching me run. They were making their way to the finish line, hoping to connect in the family meeting area, and I could see it from where I stood.

About a half hour earlier, I had crossed the finish line in 3:51, my 10th marathon, my first Boston, one of the few marathons you have to qualify for, besides the Olympic Trials. It had been a longtime dream of mine, and I had fought my way to the starting line, qualifying once and then being unable to run because I had fractured my pelvis. Then a second baby and a tightening of the qualifying standards, but grit and luck and some kind of race day magic meant I got a second chance, qualifying with a 3:39 at Twin Cities Marathon in 2012, a time that makes me a squeaker, someone who barely makes it.

But I made it.

That Monday in Copley Square is two days to me.

On the first day, I took a bus to the starting line in Hopkinton, stood with the thousands of others, the best long-distance road runners in the country, and the rest of us, who had taken everything we had and laid it on the line for a chance to run this point-to-point historic course. The net downhill, the rolling hills at the finish, the tight turn onto Boylston Street. The wall of sound at Wellsley College, the high-fives and bare trees, the rock walls and the crowds.

And the feeling, this feeling the entire time: I’m doing it. I made it. I’m here.

It was the year of the ice storm in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and I had driven to the Twin Cities to catch a flight, asked the neighbors, “Call me if I suddenly have a skylight,” as the huge oak trees surrounding my house sagged, heavy with ice.

I cried at packet pick-up. I bought everything I could find with the Boston Marathon logo on it. I looked around and took it all in, never forgetting how hard I had worked to get there.

And Marathon Monday, as they call it, was everything I wanted it to be.

Until it wasn’t.

Until it was something else.

I crossed the finish line, hugged the first volunteer I saw, and made my way to the line of school buses, where my drop bag was. It held my phone, a charger and some cash and warm clothes. As I texted a friend about the race, and let my family know I had finished, I heard a sound.

In my memory, I do a slow-motion turn behind me, to see what it was. It sounded like a train crashing into a building. I couldn’t see anything, and then it happened again.

And then we were told to move, just move, get out of the square. I started to walk with the crowd, and then I can’t remember what happened. The next thing I recall is standing in that entryway.

By then I knew there had been an explosion at the finish line. My brother-in-law had called me, when the phone lines weren’t down, to tell me he saw a line of motorcycle cops scream past him, near mile 23, where he was with my sister. Stay where you are, he said, and I did.

I looked into the restaurant, and people were having lunch. They ate soup and salad, sipped Diet Cokes, clinked their forks and made small talk.  It made my skin crawl to see it. I couldn’t reconcile this daily activity with the emotions that were swirling inside me.

Instead I did what I knew how to do, which was get enough of a charge on my phone, step into the crowd and begin talking to people. I went from being a runner to being a writer, pulled every contact I had in South Dakota who was running that day and sent it back to the Argus Leader newspaper, where I was working at the time, and where a team of reporters was trying to track down locals. I also was writing for Boston.com at the time, and sent video and quotes to them.

That day was the first time I realized the true power of social media when it comes to reporting the news. Because I wasn’t right at the finish line, my memories aren’t as gruesomely colored as those of others. And because I had finished the race, I didn’t have the same kind of disappointment other runners did, those in the back who were stopped, wondering what was going on, as chaos unfolded around them.

And while I was near the center of what was happening, I couldn’t see it. Most of the news I got that day was from social media, from following Twitter and, when it would load, Facebook. I didn’t even have a radio until I got to my sister’s house that night, and when I turned on the television, I finally was able to understand everything that had been happening.

Ever since then, I feel connected to anyone who ran or volunteered or watched that day.

It was about a four-hour drive to my sister’s house in Williamstown, Massachusetts, from Boston, and the next day I flew from Albany, New York, to Philadelphia and then to the Twin Cities. At rest stops along the highway and on the concourse at the airports, I saw people in their Boston Marathon gear. They wore medals and the signature windbreakers (in gold and royal blue that year) and T-shirts.

And every time we saw each other, we talked about it.

It was so different than the conversations I had in athlete’s village before the race – full of where did you qualify, and what was your time, and have you been here before.

People looked hollow, strangers hugged each other and asked each other for real emotion: Every “how are you” was met with true concern.

I remember these conversations vividly. All my memories of that day are of the words people said to me, the feelings bubbling up and the sounds of the sirens. At one point, I was in the car in an underground garage near the finish when the public address system advised people to shelter in place. For a while, we listened, sat in the car with no cell service and no radio, and the mounting dread I felt as I sat there comes back immediately when I think about it again. Eventually we drove up and out, found our way out of town.

The race has had some lasting effects, some I realized right away and others that took longer for me to understand. My sister offered to help me pay to go back to Boston another year, a year that maybe wouldn’t be colored by the events of 2013. But there’s no guarantee in anything in life, I know that, and there’s no promise it wouldn’t happen again.

But more than that, I found myself steering away from crowds. It wasn’t easy for me to qualify for Boston, and I’m older now and less willing to run that hard. I turned to trail running, which brought me a different kind of challenge and a different kind of meditation – in the woods, by myself, with all the pace expectations falling aside as the trails dictated how fast you run.

I think about it, though. I think about what a very weird day it was. I think about if it helped me to go into autopilot as a writer, to fall back on that and tell everyone else’s story, not mine. I wrote a column about my experience once I got to the Twin Cities, and sometimes I think that’s where all my memories come from, from whatever I deemed important enough to record that day.

I remember going up to kiss the kids in their beds when I got to my sister’s that night. Or of her telling me about how she was with them at a park when someone called to tell her what was happening, how she didn’t know if I was OK. Or of my other sister, who was at the finish line with my brother-in-law, their son and his girlfriend. They stood there for a while, waiting for me, and then they randomly decided to leave, and backtrack to mile 23.

That’s where I saw them. A high-five on the side of the course.

And the thought, later, of what would have happened if they hadn’t decided to move. Of what did happen to the people who stood there, waiting for their family member or friend. Of the people in the crowd who ran to help others.

It was two kinds of community experience: The runners and spectators in the race, and then everyone as everything at the end.

I don’t know what it all means. Maybe it means more or less than I think it does. I know on Monday, April 16, you’ll find me with my laptop turned toward the TV, skipping a morning meeting so I can watch the race. I’ll be texting my friends Kristen and Owen, which I’ve done for years on Marathon Monday. I’ll cry when the first woman crosses the finish line.

I’ll remember what it was like out there, feeling like an elite runner. Then later, helping cover a huge national news event.

And after that, feeling like what I am: Just this one person, another mom out on the course, a friendly face in the airport, a hug at a truck stop in Massachusetts.

I was a Boston Marathoner.

In 2013.

And I’m grateful.