Monthly Archives: April 2013

The long version

Preface: I didn’t plan on writing about this again. Many of you are probably ready to move on; I am too. And as the days pass, I feel a dwindling sense of ownership of this story, as I get back to my normal life while others remain in hospitals or worse.

But I guess I needed to write it. I am taking a fiction workshop right now and each day, as I sat down to prepare my pages for this week’s meeting, I found that I just…couldn’t. I needed to get this story out first before I could return my attention to the trials of my created characters. So this is what I wrote and presented instead.

I’m not sure what to do with it: I’m certainly not going to put it in my in-progress folder to come back to later, but it feels bigger than a journal entry, and too important to be tucked away in a private place and forgotten about. So I’m posting it here, in all of its long, rambly, navel-gazey, photo-and-MSPaint-lacking glory:

My feet had failed me.

And holy shit do they hurt, I thought as I eased my butt down onto the low curb. The cement was cold. I pulled the space blanket tighter across my chest and it crinkled as it curled around me like a giant piece of aluminum foil. My fingers were shaky, but I worked laces loose and pulled my feet out of the shoes that I’d spent the last four hours and seven minutes cursing. I pressed my feet into the cool pavement and wiggled my toes. It felt amazing.

But after a couple of minutes, I put the dreaded shoes back on. Impatience took over and I hauled myself up and continued my shuffle down Newbury Street, then cut back over to Boylston, toward my friend’s apartment. I’d actually just been there; I passed it during the last tenth of a mile of the race, grinning as I veered over to the edge of the crowd to slap Drew’s outstretched hand before making a final push across the finish line.

I was annoyed at how slowly I was walking. All I could think about was sinking my rear into the couch and crossing my ankles on the coffee table. Someone would bring me a beer. And then another beer. I’d be showered with hugs and congratulations – I’d just run the Boston Marathon! – and would do nothing for the rest of the day but sit on my ass. I couldn’t wait. And this walk was taking ages.

Four more blocks.

Three more.

Two more.

The bleachers at the finish line were just ahead of me and I paused for a moment to consider how I was going to navigate around them.

And then, the bleachers were gone, replaced with a plume of white smoke.

Next came the sound, which was deafening, sidewalk-shaking. For a couple of seconds, I saw an ambiguous series of images in my head that involved a piece of elecrical equipment spontaneously combusting. Then the smell came. And although I’ve never (to my knowledge) smelled a bomb before, I knew that’s exactly what this was.

I had barely peeled my feet from the pavement when the second one went off.

Which of course pointed to the very real possibility that there would be a third.

Volunteers from the medical tent, who wore white jackets, were rushing toward the finish; a volunteer in a yellow jacket, just like the ones I’d taken water and Gatorade from on the race course, was running in the opposite direction and telling everyone to follow.

I followed for a block and then ducked in to the doorway of a restaurant where a cluster of young women had gathered. I dont think they were runners; they looked like they’d just been having brunch.

“Can I use your phone to call my husband?” I croaked. Without hesitation, she obliged. My fingers were trembling so hard that I had to have her punch in Drew’s number. Of course, I couldn’t get through. I asked her to send a brief text (“its shelby, im ok”) and then decided to move along, back around to Newbury Street, where hopefully I could walk down past the finish and then cut over to get back to the apartment. Because my husband and friends were all inside that apartment, safe and probably scared but SAFE. They had to be.

I didn’t know at the time that the second bomb has actually gone off on their doorstep. Thank God I didn’t know that at the time.

For the second time that afternoon, I walked down Newbury Street. It was so different the second time. Clusters of people whispering and crying. Cell phones pressed anxiously to ears. Police cars and fire engines screaming through the neighborhood.

Finally, I thought I’d walked far enough to clear the finish area, and I tried to cut back over to Boylston. A policeman told me no way.

“But my friends live right there,” I pleaded.

“Your friends are probably far away by now,” he said.

I shook my head, not understanding. “No, they live right there.”

The cop swallowed, his eyes softening a bit, and said he was sorry.
I forced myself to consider, for the first time, that Drew and our friends might not be curled up safely in that apartment waiting for me to return.

* * *

I had started to walk back the way I’d come when a young girl, barefoot in yoga pants and clutching a coffee mug, stepped down from the stoop of a nearby brownstone and asked me if I knew what had happened.

“I’m pretty sure it was a bomb,” I heard myself say. I choked on an inappropriate laugh. It sounded absurd.

She asked if I wanted to come in, if I needed a bathroom, water, or food.

A stupidly obvious idea hurled itself at me. “Do you have internet?” I asked.

Of course she did, and minutes later, I made my safe status Facebook official.

But I still didn’t know where my husband and friends were. A wad of nausea bounced around my gut.

We stood by her front window and she tried to reassure me: “I’m sure they’re fine.” I tried to agree: “I mean, they were two blocks away from it. They’re fine.”

Below, an officer paced the sidewalk, trying to get people to leave the area. “If I were you,” he bellowed in his Boston accent, “I’d be far away from here.”

My hostess cast me a nervous glance and I knew she wanted to leave. I didn’t blame her. So I excused myself and, fighting back the urge to vomit, headed back outside.

I hadn’t been out there for a minute when a group of a dozen or so runners passed by, led by a guy in jeans and a sweater who introduced himself as Luke. He seemed to be rounding up runners who needed a place to go. I didn’t know what else to do, so I followed.

I could tell right away that he was a glass-half-full kind of guy. “My money’s on a transformer,” he nodded with authority as he herded us down Commonwealth Avenue, its stately green median crowded with ambulances and pop-up tents and what looked like armored tanks. Where did all of this stuff come from? How had it gotten here so quickly? Nothing about this made sense.

Our little group didn’t converse much while we walked, leaving the rustling of space blankets to fill the silence between whispered curses at non-functioning cell phones. My finisher’s medal thumped uselessly on my chest with each footfall. The pukey feeling continued to gnaw at my insides. My mind, however, had taken on the wrenching task of analyzing every minute between slapping Drew’s hand in front of the apartment just before the finish line and the disappearance of the bleachers into a cloud of acrid smoke. Would he have walked that direction, maybe trying to come find me at the finish? If so, where would he have been? Was he okay? He had to be okay.

I could tell I wasn’t the only one whose brain was weaving through this maze of potential nightmares. We exchanged anxious looks and gently laid our hands on each others’ backs. Everyone would be okay. They had to be okay.

* * *

At Luke’s apartment, I learned two things in quick succession:

(1) From the TV, I saw that the second explosion was not in the same place as the first one, at the finish line bleachers, as I’d assumed. Instead, it was right in front of my friend’s front door, which was right where Drew had been standing when we exhcanged our victory hand slap.

(2) From logging in to my email, I found out that everyone was safe and evacuated, but that Drew was not with them.

As a writer, I try to avoid trite metaphors. Things like my blood ran cold. Or my heart dropped into the pit of my stomach. Or I felt like all of the breath had been knocked out of me. But I can tell you that all of those things happened to me when I read that email, adressed to both Drew and me, asking if “we” were okay. I sat down on the floor, my hands steepled over my nose and mouth, breathing with effort as someone grabbed my hand and someone else squeezed my shoulder, repeating our mantra from the walk over: everything will be okay.

I don’t know how long I sat there in this weird catatonic state paralyzed by these shock-and-grief metaphors which were surprisingly real, but I’m sure it was several minutes, at least. Finally I pulled the computer back on to my lap and began to sort through my email inbox and Facebook notifications for any other scraps of information, and to start the process of trying to figure out where exactly Drew was, if he wasn’t with me and he wasn’t with them.

* * *

In the end, everything was okay. At least for me, my husband, our friends. We were lucky.

They had all been in the apartment when the first bomb exploded. The party had hit its stride; platters of hamburger patties and shrimp skewers were prepped and headed toward the grill, friends who were running had finished the race, others had taken the afternoon off of work and were trickling in from offices to catch the last bit of the action.

Naturally, if naively, they all ran to the front window. They got there just in time to watch the second one fill the space right in front of them.

Drew had been down on the sidewalk in front of the building, cheering on me and the other racers. He had returned to the party less than five minutes before it happened. Within five more, he was gone again, looking for me.

They evacuated the building shortly thereafter. Firefighters escorted them out their front door and across Boylston Street, instructing them to keep their eyes forward and not look down or around. It’s horrible to think about what they would’ve seen if they hadn’t.

The group headed to another friend’s house a few blocks away; meanwhile, Drew, having received that first frantic text I sent from the stranger’s phone in the foyer of the restaurant, combed the neighborhood for me. In hindsight, we probably were never more than a block or two apart, but we never crossed paths. Eventually, via a complicated series of third-party emails and Facebook comments, we connected; his phone battery dead, he’d been hunkered down in the home of another generous stranger just a few blocks away. Two hours after the first explosion, I gave my husband the tightest hug I’ve ever given.

I’m not much of an emotional person, but I’ve felt many things in the aftermath of this.

Guilt: over being one of the lucky ones. Over running away from the cloud of smoke rather than toward it. Over living in a place in the world and a time in history where something like this is the big huge deal that it is.

Confusion: over why. Even though in the most basic sense, the rational part of me understands why (it was a big group of people at a huge sporting event with zero real-time security). But still: why?

Gratitude: to the brave officers, race volunteers, EMTs, doctors, and everyone else that risked their own safety to deal with this mess – both the immediate aftermath and the violent manhunt that followed. To yoga pants girl and Luke and the other strangers who opened their homes and offered cell phones and computers and comfort to those who needed it.

Sadness: above all, that four people lost their lives and hundreds suffered injuries, many of them life-altering.

Relief: that I didn’t. It really could have been me. (And then we cycle back to guilt again…)

I saw so many people cry that day and the next. But for some reason, I couldn’t. In fact, a week and a half later, I still haven’t. The ball of nausea in my stomach, however, and the inability to sleep, and the constant exploration of what-ifs…this isn’t over yet, I know. Everyone deals with this stuff differently.

* * *

I think often of the moment that the bomb went off. Although I know that it all happened at once, it’s always sight that dominates the memory: sight, then sound, then smell, these three in a tidy row. Perhaps oddly, it makes me think of working track meets in high school, our fingers hovering over stopwatch start buttons, squinting across the field at the tip of the starter’s gun and waiting to see the little puff of white smoke a split second before we heard the bang. It didn’t seem like much of a difference, but if you started your watch on sound instead of sight, you’d throw off the results of the race.

Sometimes, timing is everything.

* * *

After a marathon, runners tend to overanalyze every moment of the race and think about whether there’s something they could have done differently to improve the outcome. You know, things like: did I really need that extra walk break? Could I have done without that stop to adjust my shoelace tension? What if I’d stuck with that chatty chick in the zebra skirt – what was her time? If I hadn’t blown off my last long training run would I have finished a few minutes faster?

I can’t count how many times I’ve gone down this path and ended up in a labyrinth of dark hypotheticals. Four hours and seven minutes may be one of my slowest marathon performances ever, but it was the perfect time for me to run last Monday.

If I’d had known that as I crossed the finish line, collected my space blanket and medal, and began that first walk down Newbury, I wouldn’t have cursed my aching feet at all. My feet didn’t fail me. Somehow, they did exactly what they needed to do.

No words

There really aren’t any. I don’t know why I am even trying.

I was a block away when the first bomb went off, walking toward it down Boylston. I was right by that Copley Square T station and that CVS. I had finished about 15 minutes prior. Having checked no bag (and therefore having no phone), I was bee-lining it back to my friends’ place, which was on Boylston, about three blocks short of the finish line.

Moments later, the second bomb went off. I found out later that this was actually right in front of our friends’ apartment, and (as I also learned later) about five feet from where my husband had been standing ten minutes earlier.

Having no phone, I wandered around with my space blanket asking random people if I could use theirs to call and text my husband. Of course, they obliged, but anything running through the cell towers was crap. I did this for about 45 minutes in a state of escalating panic until I some (very nice) person asked if I wanted to come in to their apartment and use their internet. Facebook to the rescue.

An hour or so later, we were finally able to find one another. I have never been so glad to see anyone in my life. I told my story of being a block away and seeing/smelling it and just knowing that that was what it was. He told his story of being in an apartment directly above it and having windows broken and smoke filling the area and police evacuation.

 

This was way too close of a call. I’m still a little rattled.

As of right now, we are stranded, but safe/comfortable in another friends’ home. The place where we were staying (which is where our luggage, my phone, and my ID are) is currently part of an active crime scene, so I’m not sure when we’ll be able to get back in. Maybe we’ll get back home tomorrow, but who knows.

Thanks so much for all of your comments and support.

The race itself was fine; I ran pretty easy and finished in 4:07. Good weather and great course and all of that. But none of that actually matters.

I just…feel so lucky right now. If I’d walked a little faster post-race, I’d have been in the blast zone. If I’d run a little slower, both me and my husband would have been in danger, as he was watching for me right next to the site of the second bomb. And if that bomb had been a little stronger, it could have blown our friends’ home to bits, along with the 20 or so people inside. We are all very, very lucky.

My heart goes out to all of the victims and their families tonight. This is all so awful.

If you want to follow along

…with my 9-minute miles and every-water-stop walk breaks:

boston bib

Should be a thrilling ride. See you on the other side.

Avoidable mistakes

A couple of weeks ago, I rolled my lawnmower out of my garage for the first time since last November.

lawnmower1

Out of necessity. I recently hired a weed-control service to apply noxious pesticides to my yard because, while I would love for my lawn to be all organic and shit, there are some big nasty weeds that grow here in Georgia.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried. These weeds laughed at my applications of “natural” weed killer. They spat in my face when I attempted to gouge out their grippy roots. I’d slice them with my scythe, and they’d grow back knee-high overnight. At some point, it became clear that they were aiming to swallow whole the lot of expensive sod we laid down last fall. Something had to be done.

So the lawn service came, and they tucked an invoice rolled like scroll behind my front doorknob, along with a nastygram:

“Please mow your lawn before your next scheduled application. Our services will be less effective at the treatment of weeds this large.”

Ugh.

That afternoon, even though the grass was still brown and dormant, I dragged out my mower. The one I’d purchased less than a year ago. It was still fairly shiny and new. I yanked the ignition-string thingy. Several times. Finally, the beast rumbled and awoke…and started spewing stinky bluish smoke.

lawnmower2

I yelped and  jumped back, releasing the safety handle. The mower shuddered and stopped. I watched, horrified, as the smelly plume drifted across the street and dissipated over my neighbors’ yards and houses. For sure, someone was going to pop out of their front door and give me a what-the-hell-are-you-doing-over-there look.

But no one did. Feeling weirdly ashamed, I ducked my head and rolled the mower back in to the garage.

In the days the followed, the weeds continued to grow. I tried to run the mower again, and again I got a face full of blue smoke. And then it stopped starting altogether. So I loaded it into the back of my car and drove it to the local hardware store, which has an in-house repair shop.

The guy there took one look at my shiny-new mower, and then one look at me, and asked:

lawnmower4

But this guy was a master of the skeptically-arched eyebrow, and I knew what he was really asking.

lawnmower3

Because, no. I had not drained my lawnmower before storing it for the winter. In fact, I had not even considered that I was storing it for the winter. I simply stopped using it and assumed it would work again the next time I fired it up.

So, yes. I was probably a damn fool.

$75 later, I have a fully functioning machine with a clear fuel line and carborator.  From what I can gather, they gave my poor mower the equivalent of a colon cleanse. But it works now. It irks me that I could have avoided all of this if I’d been a little more attentive and responsible, but…oh well. At least I was able to mow over my massive weeds today, leaving their juicy roots exposed for the pesticide peoples’ next visit.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, of course, it’s an awkward metaphor for my marathon situation.

As you know if you read my last post, I’m not exactly well-prepared for Boston.

I could have been well-prepared if I’d done some simple things. Like actually running. Or planning race logistics more than a few days out.

Such as: yesterday, it occurred to me that my shoes were shot. I only get ~300 miles on my PureFlows and although I haven’t been tracking my mileage, my current pair was definitely over that. On a five-miler last Sunday, I felt the concrete on every footfall.

So I bought a new pair today.

pureflows

I will run in them twice, probably, before Monday’s race. Definitely not recommended. Although at least they are the same model I had before, just a different color (which I am kind of digging! ninja shoes! they are like the anti-neon).

So the shoes are an oversight…really, a symptom of a broader apathy. There is no reason I couldn’t have trained for this race. I just didn’t do it. I’m a damn fool. And at this point, no $75 repair is going to change that.

Hopefully I won’t be blowing smoke at mile three on Monday.

Boston expectations

So. This Boston Marathon thing is happening in ten days.

People keep asking me if I’m excited (only for it to be over) and whether I am enjoying my taper (well, you need a peak in order to have a taper, sooo…). This whole so-called “training cycle” has been a taper. I am comically underprepared for this race.

Nonetheless, I will be at the starting line in Hopkinton a week from Monday. Is this a good idea? No, probably not. I haven’t run more than 40 MPW in months. I did do a slow twenty-miler…in February. My heart just hasn’t been in it. If this were any race other than OMG Boston, I’d have bowed out weeks ago.

I’ve done this before (suffered through a marathon with inadequate prep) and I’ll be fine. But I am not endorsing this style of training. Do as I say, not as I do. (Well, probably don’t do as I say either most of the time. Occasionally I pop a kernel of brilliance like taking the Color Run concept and turning it into a Vodka Squirt Gun Extravaganza, but usually my judgement is, at best, clouded by the wine.)

Anyway. Here are the things that I am not expecting from this Boston Marathon experience:

NOT EXPECTING #1: A PR.

Obviously. At this point, I’d consider a sub-4 finish a victory.

This might be attainable.

Case in point: Back in 2009, I ran the NYC marathon on seven weeks of questionable training after spending an entire summer traveling in Asia. During that trip I spent lots of time scarfing noodles and drinking cheap beer and did not run a single step from July to September. Upon my return to the US, I was chubby and flabby and worked my way up to about 40 MPW with one twenty-miler before it was time to “taper” for the race. I finished in 3:58.

There are certain similarities between then and now. Mostly the chubby-and-flabby part; also, the low-mileage part and the single-twenty-miler part. (There are also certain differences, like the three year age difference between then-me and now-me. Three years may not sound like much, but tell that to my ever-slowing metabolism.)

So: sub-4 or bust. Or not. I don’t really care. Normally I’m not one to run races “just for the FUNSIES!” but in this case, it’s my best option. Since I have no chance of being anywhere near PR range, I may as well run easy and try to enjoy it, right?

(There will be no sparkle skirts involved though. Trust.)

NOT EXPECTING #2: Good race pictures. 

Okay, so no one ever expects good race pictures. Raise your hand if you’ve never gasped in horror at the way your mouth looks like a drooly amoeba, or cursed your thigh (which is all muscle! WTF!) for resembling a drumstick made of Jell-O. Generally speaking, running is not a flattering activity.

Race pics make me cringe when I’m in good shape. And right now? I am not in good shape.

I’ll be honest here. I have gained some weight. About 10-15 pounds from my low point last summer. I’m not going to go in to the reasons for this, and I’m not going to complain about it, but I will say that while I am at peace with my clothed self in the mirror, I do not need to see this shit half naked and in motion.

I have considered making a diva-esque sign to hang around on my neck: “NO PHOTOS PLEASE.”

no photos please

But really…I am not a celebrity ducking the paparazzi. These MarathonFoto people mean me no harm. I just wish they would stick to pictures of, like…my ankles. Or my nose. Yes, ankles and nose photos only, please, MarathonFoto. If we could just avoid the thighs and the midsection and the double-chin danger zone, that would be great.

NOT EXPECTING #3: To ever return.

Mark my words: I am not doing this again. This as in Boston or this as in marathons generally. I’ve marathoned every year for the last 13 years. I am done.

I’ve always enjoyed running but I have not enjoyed it recently. There is nothing fun about feeling daily guilt over not running enough because you have an upcoming race that you’re dreading.

Lately, it’s been hard for me to read running blogs where people are all like, “OMG! I love running so much!” I wonder why I don’t feel that way. But then I remind myself that I’ve been doing this for almost twenty years. Seriously. The travel break that I mentioned earlier? That was the only significant break I’ve taken from running since I was 13. I’m burned out. And it’s okay to feel burned out.

I cannot wait until after this race when I can just, like, go to yoga or whatever. Yes, I am excited about going to goddamn yoga. The times, they change.

I promise, I’m not all negative about Boston, though. There are a few things that I am happily expecting from this experience.

EXPECTING #1: Friends food beer friends food beer!

Our good friends Chris and Annie live on the finish line of the marathon. Literally. I took this picture last year, while spectating Boston Inferno 2012 from their rooftop.

boston finish line

(That white tent is the finish line.)

Being the best hosts ever, they have offered to house us again this year, and after finishing this damn thing, I will be heading straight back down Boylston Street for a shower, a cold beer, and shenanigans.

EXPECTING #2: Decent weather.

Probably jumping the gun, but unless there’s a dramatic change, it looks like highs in the 50s right now. Fucking rad.

boston weather

(I’m sure I’m jinxing it by writing this. Sorry, everyone.)

EXPECTING #3: To go out on a high note.

Over the last sixteen weeks, as I’ve beat myself up for ditching my training plan, wallowed in self-loathing over my lack of motivation, and bemoaned my body-fat percentage, I’ve also entertained kind of a nice thought: after thirteen years of running marathons, Boston could be my last, and that would be kind of nice. I could just do it for the high-fives. A twenty-six mile victory lap.

I won’t lie and say that Boston was never on my mind during the decade that I marathoned annually and failed to qualify. On my very first try, at age 20, I came within three minutes of the standard. That 3:42:XX was my PR until age 31. During the ten races between, while I was never obsessed with Boston…it was there, in the back of my mind. I guess I assumed that I’d qualify eventually. Fortunately, I was right.

In some ways, my current situation reminds me of track season my senior year of high school. I’d worked all season to qualify for a spot in the 3200M at the state championships. Which I did. But I was seeded tenth in a field of sixteen, and the top three girls were, like, a full minute (or more) ahead of me. I had zero shot at a podium. Did it really matter whether I finished sixth or sixteenth? Was it worth sacrificing the end of my senior year (missing parties and, uh, other important stuff) for this race?

(It didn’t end up mattering, as I got mono and finished second to last. Yay.)

But the point remains: I made it to the big dance. The making it was what mattered. Everything else was icing on the cake.

If Boston is my icing, then I intend to just enjoy it for what it is: that last bite of sugar when the plate is empty. As I said earlier, I really think I’m done with marathons after this. It would be lovely to end the era by floating happily over the finish line with a smile on my face.

I know. Good luck, right? It’s still a marathon. Even at an easy pace, it’s hard. I know this. I’ll get through it, and I’m looking forward to closing this chapter and moving in to other things.

End note to an already long post: I know I should be happy to be running Boston. I know there are lots of people who would gladly take my place. I feel like an ungrateful shithead for being so negative. I do think that qualifying for and running Boston is an achievement, and I wish I were as stoked about it as I should be! But I won’t fake it…and honestly, this is one of many reasons that I haven’t posted much recently. (So if you’re still here reading…well, thank you.)