The Boston Bombings Through the Eyes of the Runners

Rich Benyo, editor of Marathon & Beyond, was waiting with his brother Drew near the baggage collection area for his wife, Rhonda, to finish. Benyo had been tracking her as she passed over the timing mats. Noting that she had passed 40-K just over four hours, Benyo estimated that she soon should finish, inevitably to appear among the masses of finished marathoners wrapped in Mylar blankets moving from medals to fluids to food to bags.

"Then it happened," as Benyo would report in the column he wrote in the July/August 2013 issue of his own publication.

Benyo realized almost immediately that the sound he heard was a bomb.

"The stream of silver-covered spent marathoners continued to move past us," he wrote. "Only a few seemed to have heard the explosion; only a few turned their heads to see what was going on back at the finish line. A few seconds later, there was a second explosion." He saw smoke rising blocks away, presumably from the area in front of the finish line.

Benyo described a nearby police car, its rooftop red lights beginning to spin. But few of the finished marathoners reacted. "Marathoners continued to move past us, some limping, most exhausted, all wrapped in silver, the occasional one stopping to look back at the now dispersing twin clouds of smoke."

One of the marathoners asked, "What's going on?"

"Bombs," said Benyo.

The marathoner shook his head as though he did not believe it and moved on. Benyo soon would learn that his wife was among the almost-finished runners stopped by police before they could enter Boylston Street. Eventually they reunited.

Karla Reppert, 38, a registered nurse from Reading, Pennsylvania, finished in 3:37:58 and had reached the buses where runners were picking up their bags when she heard the first explosion. Reppert wondered: What was that: A cannon? Almost immediately, she began receiving calls and text messages from friends and family checking on her safety. Puzzled, she googled: "explosion at marathon." The news already was going out to the world.

The Internet: That is how I first learned about the bombs at Boylston. Still working at home, I decided to go online to see who had won the Boston Marathon. As usual, Africans dominated the front of the field. Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia had won in 2:10:22. Micah Kogo of Kenya and Gebregsiabher Gebremariam of Ethiopia trailed a few seconds behind. First American in fourth was Jason Hartmann of Boulder, Colorado, in 2:12:12. Among the women, Rita Jeptoo of Kenya won in 2:26:25, a half minute ahead of Meseret Hailu of Ethiopia and Sharon Cherop. Shalane Flanagan was the first American in 2:27:08; her teammate Kara Goucher, two places behind in 2:28:11.

But which-fast-runner-won-Boston would not be the lead story in newspapers the next day. A pop-up box revealed the news that would make the 2013 Boston Marathon more than a mere sporting event.

I quickly posted what little information I had to Facebook. Then I clicked on the name of a Facebook friend "Kate Leahy." Kate was the youngest of four daughters of good friends of ours originally from Long Beach, Indiana, now living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I had coached Kate's two oldest sisters, Megan and Erin, in cross-country. My wife, Rose, had taught Moira, the third Leahy, in grade school. Kate was number four, the baby of the family, and I knew from Facebook postings that she and her boyfriend, David Bryant, were at Boston.

Her Facebook page appeared on my computer screen almost instantly. I breathed a sigh of relief. Kate already had posted five succinct words:

"David and I are okay!"

Some days later, I went searching for her time. Kate Leahy, 29, an engineer from Kansas City, had run 3:28:13. She and David had been walking between the Family Meeting Area and the Westin Hotel, when they heard the explosions. Still cheerful from their runs, they failed to react.

"Is that thunder?" wondered Kate.

"Can't be," said David. "It's too nice out."

Only while checking into CNN several minutes later, did they learn what happened.

My experience was typical of many runners in America. Ours is a tight community. We see each other at 5K races. We belong to running clubs and training groups. We brush shoulders in running stores. We display copies of Runner's World proudly on our coffee tables. We have among our midst those superhuman individuals, the sub-elites, good enough to have qualified for and run Boston. We recognize them because they wear the gear: the T-shirts, the jackets, emblazoned with the B.A.A.'s unicorn logo. Almost all of us knew somebody who was running the 2013 Boston Marathon, or who might have been running the 2013 Boston Marathon, or had a friend who knew somebody who was running the 2013 Boston Marathon. And we worried about them, unnecessarily so, as it turned out, because the carnage was among those outside the barricades on Boylston Street: the spectators, those who cheered us, those who supported us, those who loved us, our friends and family, but also strangers who happened to show up on Boylston Street on Patriots' Day for no particular reason other than to offer someone they did not know an encouraging cheer. Several days after the bombings, I posted a short comment on Facebook saying as much. Within 24 hours, it received 120,000 views from runners who agreed with me.

Elizabeth Bunce was about to hang a medal over the head of a just-finished marathoner when she heard the explosions and saw, far in the distance, the smoke rising above Boylston Street. The medal-hanger working with Bunce, Barbie Latti, recognized immediately what had happened. "We need to get out of here," said Latti.

Bunce started to leave, then looked back and saw others on their team putting medals back in boxes, clearing the tables of boxes and moving the tables away from the center of the street to provide easier access for ambulances and squad cars. She went back to help, knowing there would be no more hugs or pecks-on-the-cheek for finishers that day.

Sandy Avila sat in the grandstands waiting for her husband, Alexis, a charity runner for Massachusetts Mentoring. "A perfect day," Avila recalled. She also was in what she described as the perfect position for taking a photo of Alexis finishing with the time clock above his head. Using her iPhone to check her husband's splits, she discovered that he had just passed 25 miles, thus should finish in the next 10 minutes.

The first bomb exploded across the street from her.

"We all were jolted, but none of us realized that the explosion was, in fact, a bomb," Sandy Avila would recall. Like many that day, the grandstand spectators were in denial--at least for a short time. "We were frightened, but thought maybe a manhole cover blew, or it was from an electrical circuit, or that some inebriated college kids were doing something stupid to disrupt the day." Then there was another explosion.

"The feeling of absolute panic set in as soon as the second bomb went off. I remember the unimaginable sound and how it shook me to the core, the overwhelming fear of not knowing if a third bomb would be aimed at those of us in the bleachers, the horror of wondering if my husband was hurt, or if he even would see me alive again.

"Everyone started screaming and running for the stairs to exit the grandstands, pushing one another out of the way. It was like a stampede. I yelled for people to calm down, so no one would get trampled to death. People were screaming and crying. Little children were paralyzed in fear. It was a nightmare. I started shaking, and that did not stop until the next day, literally.

"Once I got to the street level, I started running toward the Public Library, not knowing what else to do. I have never been so paralyzed with fear in my life, thinking that more bombs were about to explode. I froze for a moment, until a police officer screamed at me to run as fast as I could. I ran toward the Westin only to be yelled at by another officer, who told me not to keep going. I stopped in front of the Back Bay T station and tried to reach my husband by phone, only to go straight to voice mail, so I texted him. I called my sister and somehow got through to her within minutes of the explosions. Somehow, despite our phones not working any longer for calls, the text messages to each other went through. About a half hour later, my phone rang. It was Alexis, using a stranger's phone to say he was okay.

"It was a nightmare come true for all of us, but compared to those in the way of the bombs, we were the lucky ones."

After finishing, Shalane Flanagan, like most of the fast-finishing elite runners, had been steered away from the volunteers' area and escorted into the Boston Public Library. Shalane was not happy, having hoped for better than fourth. Equally bad, her time was slow, it having been a tactical race: the fast women eyeing each other rather than their watches. Then she had to endure an awkward press conference and drug testing that seemed to last forever, as is usually the case after marathons with runners dehydrated and unable to easily produce a urine specimen. Finally, success! Flanagan went to the cafeteria where all the other invited athletes were eating.

"I had just sat down to eat when I heard the first bomb go off," she later told Runner's World. "We all looked around. We looked out the window, but could not see anything. We were across from the finish line, but couldn't see any smoke. My husband said someone had received a text. It was a bombing. I'm not sure how many people believed him. We still thought it might have been a scaffold falling, or somebody dropping something out of a truck. Finally, someone from Hancock arrived and said we all had to move—and the person was clearly upset."

That's when Flanagan finally began to realize: Oh geez. Something really bad did occur.

That message finally had begun to penetrate all those near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The echoes of both explosions had died. The smoke had blown away with the wind. The two yellow balloons long had floated away into the air. Two brothers with packs no longer on their backs had retreated to where they lived in Cambridge, a town across the Charles River. Those who had been part of the horror were still processing what had happened.

Holly Rodriguez, 36, a teacher from Portland, Oregon, shared her memories: "As I made my way back to the hotel, there was a continuous flood of sirens echoing throughout the city. Even unmarked police cars were screaming through the streets with lights flashing in their back windows. There were helicopters flying overhead and a security presence like never before."

Peter Sagal would write: "As I left Copley Square, I came across an amazing and terrifying sight. Beyond the barriers the police set up, keeping everyone away from the finish line area, I saw ambulances. Dozens of them, maybe a hundred, lined up, lights on, engines running, ready to go. It was the same terror you might feel seeing an invading army ready to launch, except instead of promising horror to come, it demonstrated that the horror already had happened."

It would take time for Kara Thelen to process what she had experienced at the 117th running of the Boston Athletic Association Marathon. Several days after arriving home, she joined so many other Boston bloggers:

"As I walked around in a daze later that evening, the events of the day played like a movie in my head. The glorious weather, the thrill of the race, the effusive spectators, the sweet finish, the explosions, the smoke, the silence, the sirens, my racing heart, my husband's familiar voice on my cell phone, the simple kindnesses offered by so many people in the aftermath.

"With a heavy heart, I realized that I'll never run Boston on a normal day again. None of us will."

More: How Will Marathons Change After the Boston Bombings?

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About the Author

Hal Higdon

Hal Higdon has been running and writing for half a century. A runner since high school, Hal achieved his greatest successes as a masters runner, including a world record in the steeplechase and American masters records. Higdon is the author of 36 books and a longtime contributor to Runner's World. One of the founders of the Road Runners Club of America, Hal was inducted into the club's hall of fame. He provides interactive training programs through TrainingPeaks. Learn more at
Hal Higdon has been running and writing for half a century. A runner since high school, Hal achieved his greatest successes as a masters runner, including a world record in the steeplechase and American masters records. Higdon is the author of 36 books and a longtime contributor to Runner's World. One of the founders of the Road Runners Club of America, Hal was inducted into the club's hall of fame. He provides interactive training programs through TrainingPeaks. Learn more at

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