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Photos by Beth Schrader/Special to The Journal Gazette
A memorial was set up near the finish line on Boylston Street for those who died at last year's Boston Marathon.

Journey worth every step

Boston event stirs emotions for local runner

Beth Schrader got this medal for running in the Boston Marathon.
Photos by Beth Schrader | Special to The Journal G
A memorial was set up near the finish line on Boylston Street for those who died at last year’s Boston Marathon.

After loading the suitcase into the car last Saturday morning, I ran back into the house to grab my iPhone. Completely apropos, Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” was blaring through the speakers, the perfect send-off to a long awaited trip.

I was seated in between a fellow runner and her husband (“No, it’s OK, don’t move, we’ve been together forever …”) on the flight from Indy to Charlotte en route to Boston. She had run Boston before and was giving me the lowdown on how to approach the course.

Really hold back the first four miles. It’s all downhill, it’s early, the adrenaline will be on overload and you’ll want to fly, but don’t because you’ll pay for it on the back half.

This sound advice echoed what my running buddies had already told me, so I shook my head as if I knew. I had no idea.

When we landed in Charlotte, we bid each other farewell and good luck and continued on our respective treks to Boston, a city that has eluded me for the last four years. I had zero intention of ever visiting “just because.” I was only going to make the trip through one means: qualifying.

After arriving and settling into The Westin, one block from Boylston Street and the finish line, I met my good friend and cohort Angela for dinner. If you knew her, this would be even more exceptional of a story because, by her own admission, she’s “not thoughtful” nor does she “ever do things like this.” She’s also a good liar, because I find her incredibly thoughtful for making this trip with me, kind of last minute to boot.

Her selflessness not only will always be remembered but was in very good company in Boston. The vibe everywhere was one of constant emotion: resilience, catharsis, healing, closure, companionship and camaraderie. Everyone was incredibly welcoming, from the stereotypical Bostonian Super Shuttle guy in all his thick-accented glory (“Welcome to Bah-stun”), to the folks lining the jam-packed streets. People would smile and take the time to thank individuals for coming back to their city, or showing up at all on the heels of last year’s tragedy.

On the ride into the city from the airport, I was sitting next to a woman who ran in 2013 and had just finished when the two bombs went off. She told me she had contemplated whether to return, as it was scary and not something she was quite over yet.

“Thank you for coming back to Bah-stun,” the driver with bat-like hearing yelled gruffly from the front seat. “This is our city, and people like you being here are helping us take it back.”

Reverence at finish line

After a late dinner on a dicey back-alley road Saturday night (our favorite kind of place), I walked back to my hotel. I purposely took Boylston, where the finish line was brightly illuminated. It was the first time I had seen it in person. As I slowly approached, I could sense the respect of everyone in the vicinity. While there were lots and lots of people there, it was eerily quiet. People were taking photographs, but mostly, we all just stood in disbelief, and in deference.

There was a memorial erected for the people who lost their lives last year. And as you stood there looking at it, the only thing you could do is begin shake your head as tears streamed down your face. By all intents and purposes, it was a “normal” street. Same pavement we have in Fort Wayne, same sidewalks, same kinds of stores and restaurants. The whole scene was simply surreal. To think that one minute you could be standing, sitting, or running right there … right there … and then, your world changes in an instant. It was a lot to take in and even harder to try and process.

On Sunday, we went to the Convention Center. The logistics that must go into providing 36,000 runners with everything they need before the race is incredible. And man, they nail it in Boston. As we arrived, I walked immediately to the appropriate section of bib numbers to receive my packet. Another proud and smiling Bostonian greeted us, thanked us for being there, and wished me luck on the course. The sense of communal pride continued to be evident.

Angela and I checked out the expo, which was wall-to-wall people, bought a few things and hit the streets of downtown. The history is rich; the buildings architecturally interesting. We walked to Boston Common so we would know where I needed to go in the morning to load the bus for the drive to Hopkinton.

Race day

The day had finally come … BOSTON. The alarm never needs to wake me on race morning. I awakened at 5:30 a.m. and looked out my window at Boylston Street. It was beginning to come alive, with people walking to and fro as final preparations were being made. Patriots’ Day in Boston is a historic day, but today was even more profound, even more sentimental.

As we stood on the back side of Boston Common staring at a continual line of school buses waiting to transport runners more than 26 miles into Hopkinton, I saw him. Well, actually I saw the CBS News anchor holding a microphone in front of his happy face – a man wearing the bright orange 2014 Boston Marathon jacket, a ravishing smile, and one shoe. He was clearly a survivor, and he was clearly getting ready to run this race with his prosthetic leg.

That moment, along with the seemingly endless bus ride to Hopkinton, turned me into contemplative and emotional mush. How could this have happened here last year? The bus was noisy. Runners were chatting each other up, asking one another how many Bostons they had run before, what their goals were for the day, and mostly, if they were here last year. Some runners were traveling and running together in packs; most, however, were total strangers like the woman sitting next to me from Laguna Beach, Calif.

And yet, we were united in a way that is almost inexplicable. The level of true camaraderie was not only felt, it was seen – from the bibs adorning our torsos, to the bagels and protein bars being scarfed down, to the matching “Boston 2014” bracelets we had all been given – the ones made from last year’s banners that we wore as proud badges of honor.

We arrived to Athlete’s Village, which was a scene straight out of Lollapalooza. There were Jumbotrons, announcers, blankets, food, and rows and rows of portable johns with lines as far as the eye could see. Oh, and runners. Lots and lots of runners.

When it was finally time for Wave 3 to leave and walk to the starting corrals, I made my way alongside others who were equally as overwhelmed with the whole production – the whole day – the whole sense of what was about to go down. The flyover had just occurred, and we now bowed our collective heads in a moment of silence.

And then? A starting gun signaled it was time to start The Boston Marathon. It was surreal, it was fun, it was hot, and it was a beast. That course is the toughest one I’ve ever run.

People much better and faster than I had warned me to be conservative the first four miles, which are all downhill. I listened as well as I ever do, and by mile 9, I started doing the math: 26 minus 9 equals how much farther? This can’t be good.

My quads were a wreck, but my feelings were not. For once in my life, I was actually enjoying the journey and not the destination. Now, mind you, the destination of Boston was going to happen no matter what. I just knew it wasn’t going to happen nearly as fast as I had hoped. And I was OK with that.

I was still hanging in as I approached mile 11. I began to climb yet another ascent and noticed a woman walking off to the side. It wasn’t all that uncommon, in and of itself, but she was crying a cry of emotional pain rather than physical. I did the “Hey, let’s run together!” thing as I went by, but then I heard what she uttered through tears and heavy breathing and I stopped.

“I’m scared to finish by myself.”

There were thousands of people in front of us, beside us, and behind us, so I had no idea what she meant. Until she told me she was a survivor from last year who had been stopped by the bombs at mile 25.5.

Even though I’m quite sure my brain wasn’t functioning fully, it didn’t take long for me to tell her we’d finish together, … if she wanted. Luckily, she did. We ran together from mile 11 to mile 23 until the last stretch narrowed and we lost each other at a water stop.

We talked about family, friends, stupid hills and an obscene craving for bananas. We shared the pain, we shared those hills, and we shared a pretty big moment in both of our lives – lives that until now had been completely unknown to one another.

And much like Boston itself, she and I will be forever connected through tears pain and tears of joy. To Michelle from Texas, thank you, my friend.

As I turned left onto Boylston Street, I could see the waves of arms in the air. I could hear the loud screams of cheer, elation, and pride for a city that was being healed. And I remembered to throw my own limp and sunburned arms up in the air and smile as I finally crossed that finish line.

It was everything I had hoped it would be.

More Than A Feeling, indeed.

Beth Schrader is a Fort Wayne resident and leukemia survivor who qualified and ran in her first Boston Marathon on Monday. She finished in 4:14.22. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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