August 27, 2014

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Boston Marathon: Runners given rare chance when extra invitations extended year after bombing

University of Massachusetts nursing professor Adrienne Wald, center, helps carry a banner that features a photo of Krystle Campbell, a UMass nursing student who died in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, during a tribute walk on a track at the school in Boston.  (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

University of Massachusetts nursing professor Adrienne Wald, center, helps carry a banner that features a photo of Krystle Campbell, a UMass nursing student who died in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, during a tribute walk on a track at the school in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

BOSTON — “I need to run.”

The messages started arriving just hours after the bombings, pleading for an entry into the 2014 Boston Marathon. For months the calls and emails continued, runners begging for an opportunity to cross the finish line on Boylston Street and convinced it would ease at least some of their grief.

“They’d say, ‘I’m not a qualified runner; I don’t think I ever will be. I train. I run. I could do it. But because of what happened last year, I need to run,’” Boston Athletic Association executive director Tom Grilk said last week. “It might have been because they were present at the finish, or they knew somebody who was working or was affected. They might have been somebody who lives in Haverhill, Mass., and they were watching the race and it hit ’em hard. That was true for a lot of people.

“And we received some of these communications and we thought, ‘What do we do?’”

The B.A.A. had already expanded this year’s field to include more than 5,000 runners who were stranded on the course when the two explosions killed three and wounded 264 others. A few extra invitations were sprinkled among the first-responders and the victims, or their families; others went to charities and the towns along the route; some who said they were personally touched by the tragedy were already given bibs.

But organizers felt they might still be missing people, people who perhaps didn’t think their trauma was worthy amid all the lost limbs and physical scars. So, in November, they announced that about 500 bibs would be available for those “personally and profoundly impacted by the events of April 15, 2013.”

In 250-word essays submitted over the website, 1,199 would-be runners made their case. Almost 600 had the connection the B.A.A. was looking for.

“The anger, guilt and heartbreak I still feel today will never go away,” wrote Kate Plourd, who was in the medical tent, dehydrated and vowing never to run Boston again, when she heard the announcements: “Explosions at the finish line. Casualties. Dismemberments. Prepare yourself to treat the victims.”

“Running the 2014 Boston Marathon will help me heal my mind,” she said in the essay that landed her bib No. 28115. “I’ll push myself … to finish the 2014 Boston Marathon in honor of those who won’t ever give up, who I won’t ever forget.”

‘You can’t stop us’
The last year in Boston has been punctuated with memorial services and other tributes, as well as fundraisers that have raised more than $60 million for the victims.

But for those who feel a connection to the Boston Marathon, that connection is most often felt through running.

And, when they decided they had to do something, they decided they had to run.

Dr. Alok Gupta, a trauma surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, about 2 miles from the finish line, thought about treating so many leg injuries caused by the ground-level bombs and concluded that running the race would be “just really poetic.”

“I decided that’s what would be meaningful for me,” said Gupta, who was a medical student in New York during the Sept. 11 attacks and has since studied disaster preparedness. “Running the Boston Marathon this year — not next year, not New York, not Chicago: Boston. I just thought it would be meaningful for me.”

A competitive swimmer in high school, the now 37-year-old Gupta had no experience in distance running until he began to train for today’s race. “We’re on the second floor,” he said in a recent interview at his office. “I took the elevator.”

Googling “How long does it take to train for a marathon,” Gupta got an answer of 18 weeks.

Patriots’ Day was 18½ weeks away.

He applied and received bib No. 35542.

Alan Hagyard ran Boston for the first time in 2012 and was back in the field last year, coming down Boylston when the first bomb went off about 30 feet away.

“The memories often bring tears to my eyes,” he wrote in his application.

The explosion left him deaf in his left ear.

But he never considered sitting this one out.

“The next day, that night, I was ready to go again,” said Hagyard, 67, of Hamden, Conn. “Partly to say, ‘You can’t stop us.’”

Having missed the qualifying time by 13 seconds, Hagyard wrote the B.A.A. to ask for a waiver. When organizers created the special invitation, he asked for a chance to rewrite the ending to last year’s race.

“I want my current memory of Boston to be the perfect marathon,” said Hagyard, bib No. 24812. “To run it again is to say, ‘We’re going to make it perfect this year, better than ever.’”

‘The cannons … were actually bombs’
So many of those contacted for this story had the same request: Please don’t make it about me.

The B.A.A. declined to make available those who read the applications, saying they wanted the attention to be on the runners. After sharing her story by telephone, finish line volunteer Adrienne Wald called back the next morning to express regret; after all, the victims had it much worse.

“It’s weird to talk about being affected by the marathon,” Plourd said. “No one I know was injured. A lot of us had really horrible experiences, but everyone walked away unscathed.”

But the victims are “so inspiring,” she said. “If people who have gone through this tragic experience can pull it together and be so strong, I figured I could, too.”

Orthopedic surgeon Sue Griffith is raising money for Shriners Hospitals for Children in Philadelphia to supply prosthetics for children. She wrote that she was celebrating her finish last year “until I found out that the cannons I heard at the finish line were actually bombs.”

Returning to work in Doylestown, Penn., she found her friend and running companion Amy O’Neill on her patient list with shrapnel deeply embedded in her calf.

They are returning to Boston together, Nos. 21321 and 21648.

“It’s going to be a great event, and we’re going to celebrate with the people of Boston,” Griffith said in a telephone interview. “And that’s what we’re going to do.”

These are the people the B.A.A. was hoping to find, Grilk said, when it opened up the usually rigorous entry process for those who might qualify on an emotional level as well. Organizers heard from doctors and nurses and soldiers and victims and first-responders — the usual kind like police and firefighters, but also the ordinary individuals who rushed in to help.

Sarah Gasse, a nursing student who volunteered last year, said receiving her bib this way was itself an honor. Now 21, she wrote in her essay that her mother also ran the race when she was 21 and following her footsteps from Hopkinton to Copley Square had long been a goal.

“Because of my experience, it now holds an entirely new meaning for me,” wrote Gasse, No. 28230. “Running the 2014 Boston Marathon would allow me to pay homage to those lost and injured that day, one more runner proving just how strong Boston truly is.”

‘Honored to help’
The submissions were raw with emotion, heavily introspective, often desperate, and yet unexpectedly hopeful.

“There are faces and images that I will never forget, and even writing about my experience now is proving more difficult than I had imagined,” Gasse wrote. “Yet, despite the emotional trauma that ensued that day, I have a fire of passion in me that I have never known before. I am more confident than ever in my calling to work in health care.”

One of about 20 UMass-Boston nursing students who volunteered last year to serve on a sweep team, Gasse was at the finish line with a wheelchair to scoop up exhausted runners.

“There’s nothing like being at the finish line of the Boston Marathon,” Wald, a nursing professor who had run the race five times, told her students. “You’re going to be so inspired.”

“I made them read articles about hypothermia, blisters, cramps. And instead they were carrying people with tourniquets around their legs and horrific injuries,” Wald said on Tuesday, the anniversary of the attacks. “I was so worried that I had traumatized them all.

“I was worried they were going to change their majors. Instead they came into my office: ‘I’m going to be an E.R. nurse now.’ ‘I’m going to work in trauma.’ They saw role models that day coming out of the medical tent acting like the top pros that they are.”

None of Wald’s students was injured. But another UMass-Boston student, Krystle Campbell, was killed by one of the bombs.

Wald received bib No. 24741 and was hoping to run in Campbell’s memory, but the injury that kept her from running last year could put her back on the sweep team with her students.

“Running would probably be the dumbest thing I ever do. But it’s going to be really hard not to,” she said. “It’s an honor either way, to be part of this, to be able to contribute. If I can’t run it, I am beyond happy, honored to help other people reach their goals.”

‘Running gives me freedom’
The marathon can be a brutal sport, even more so when one considers that the 26.2 miles run on the day of the event are the culmination of a years-long process that, in Boston’s case, begins with training for a qualifying race.

Runners looking for a reason to stop can always find one: the heat, the hills, the blisters, the cramps.

And now the threat of a terrorist attack, the memories of severed limbs, the ears ringing from the concussion of a bomb blast.

Yet for 118 years, runners have found a reason to make the trip to Boston. Today, more than 35,000 will leave Hopkinton to reclaim the euphoria of the finish line that was taken from them.

This year, three-time Boston champion Uta Pippig said, no one needs to ask them why.

“Running gives me freedom, and for a moment our freedom was restrained,” she said this week. “That’s what I believe is the reason we run together.”

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