April 15, 2013. I was ecstatic to be running my first Boston Marathon. Qualifying had not come easily to me--I wasn’t sure I’d ever make it. But there I was, toeing the start line along with 23,000 other nervous and excited runners. I finished in just under four hours, feeling proud, feeling tired, feeling emotional, feeling strong. I shuffled through the finishing chute, got my medal, my Mylar blanket, and my baggy of snacks. I headed toward the buses loaded with drop bags and retrieved mine. It was then that I heard the explosions. One and then another. I could see a giant cloud of smoke, and while I had no idea what happened, I knew it was terrible. Just before I lost cell reception, I called my mom to have her check the news. As I rushed back to my friend Jessica’s apartment (one block from the finish line itself) I saw more emergency vehicles and personnel than I had seen in my entire life. Traumatized victims were running from the scene screaming and remarkably, heroes were running toward it to offer assistance. With Jessica's help, I got out of Boston quickly and received an outpouring of concern from my family and friends. While it was one of the scariest times in my life, it was also amazing to see the strength of Boston and its heroes. It also filled me with appreciation for my life and my two legs.
It was very important to me to return to the Boston Marathon. I qualified for 2014, but due to the popularity of the race that year, my time was 3 seconds short of what I needed. So I worked hard, did the long road runs (which aren’t my favorite), and qualified by 7 minutes to gain entry into the 2015 race.
During 2014 I had become involved with Achilles International and volunteered as a guide for a blind athlete. This was something I found extremely rewarding, and after completing many training runs with Tom, I guided him at the New York Marathon. It was an incredible experience, and as Boston 2015 approached, I kept thinking about guiding again. With the emotions I felt about Boston 2013, I really wanted to make Boston 2015 mean more than just me running a race. So I contacted Achilles. I knew they would have their guides and athletes matched up and ready, but I figured I would offer anyway. I also found out that unlike New York, the BAA allows only one guide per runner at a time. For many athletes, this isn’t enough. And just a few days before the race – I was thrilled when Achilles invited me to be a part of Suleiman’s guide team. He was looking to complete a 4-hour marathon, a comfortable pace for me, and I was excited to be a part of the team helping him reach his goal.
Marathon morning I met Suleiman and Barrett, a New York lawyer who would guide Suleiman’s first half, on Boston Common. It was cold and damp in the morning. The bus we got on was almost full, so we were not seated together as we made our way to Hopkinton. I chatted with a runner from Corpus Christi named Gabe who was looking to run a sub 3- hour marathon. I hope he made it!
Barrett grew up near Hopkinton and had run Boston several times, both on his own and as a guide, so he knew exactly where to go, which was a relief. We were able to hang out in the gym of an elementary school that was also the staging area for the handcycles. It was an honor and an inspiration to be among those athletes--some were wounded warriors, some injured in 2013, even Team Hoyt! As they headed out to their start, only a few people were left in the gym, and I got to learn more about Suleiman.
We were grateful to be in the warm gym, out of the cold wind and drizzle that would persist throughout the day. Suleiman is a gentle, soft-spoken 54- year-old social worker who was born in the East African country of Tanzania. He now lives in NYC and works with the homeless, the mentally ill, and the drug addicted. As we talked to him it was easy to forget his blindness—we were just 3 friends chatting about marathons, running, pre-race nerves, and life in general. Suleiman told us about his being diagnosed as a child with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that causes gradual blindness, and about the depression and hopelessness that plagued him for years. He said that moving to the United States at 18 led him to Lighthouse International, an organization for the blind that gave him the tools he needed to take his life back. He was able to gain his independence, an education, and a love for athletics—a love that led all three of us all to that Boston school gym awaiting the start of the Boston Marathon.
Suleiman worried that his lack of training over the winter would make it difficult for him to achieve his goal of 4 hours. His marathon PR is 3:40. He was appreciative to me for being a part of his team, and said he might have bailed if he hadn’t gotten a second guide. His trusting me to be a part of his marathon made me humble, happy, and a bit nervous. Another Achilles guide, Kathy, was to switch off with Barrett at the halfway point.
After one last trip to the bathrooms, we headed to the start line in the third wave, seventh corral. Before I knew it we were running. For the first two miles Barrett was on tether with Suleiman and I ran beside him, moving in front if I needed to clear a path or announce our presence to other runners. I was excited, but a bit nervous, to take the tether once the start line crowds thinned a bit. Suleiman was easy to guide—he’s run many big marathons and is a good runner. Although we realized early on that our pace was off from the original goal, Suleiman remained in good spirits, and our goal shifted to simply finishing.
Both Barrett and Kathy had had a lot of experience guiding him, and we were happy to find out at mile 10 that Barrett would be able to finish the race with the team. Barrett and I switched off on the tether. The weather wasn’t ideal, drizzling to steady rain and a headwind, but guiding a marathon runner takes the focus off my own discomforts. When I am running on my own I have a lot of time to think about being too hot or too cold, any aches and pains, and my stomach. But, as a marathon guide, I have had no personal ailments and had no need for a bathroom break during the entire race.
We met Kathy at mile 13 and she was delightful. She was full of energy and optimism. Despite the new burst of positivity, our pace continued to slow and we had to walk a few times. Suleiman remained in good spirits. We took turns taking the tether or being the one to clear the path and get water and Gatorade. I was able to enjoy the crowds even more at this time since I didn’t have to focus on all my attention on Suleiman. During Heartbreak Hill section, our walk breaks increased. All the while – I was smiling. I cheered for the other runners and especially the Achilles athletes that passed us or we passed. I felt inspired by the other runners; it’s always neat to think that each of the thousands of runners that I encountered that day had devoted countless hours to training and had encountered and overcome various challenges in order to be completing a full marathon that day. All of them would have triumphs and struggles inside their heads and bodies during the 26.2. I saw 2 runners with the over 80 bib on and felt joy and amazement. I invariably feel inspired thinking about these things during a marathon.
During the last mile Suleiman picked up the pace, took off his hat and jacket and we ran as a team to the finish line. I was overcome by emotion at the finish line. I thought of the 264 runners and spectators whose lives had been forever altered in 2013. I thought of 8 year-old Martin Richard and the other innocent spectators who lost their lives or were gravely injured that day. I thought of how lucky I was to have been spared. Every moment of life is a gift. Every step on my legs is a gift.
Team Suleiman headed for the Achilles tent where we had food, exchanged hugs, and took pictures. I was so happy and felt so thrilled that I been a part of the 2015 Boston Marathon and helped someone else reach his own goal of finishing the race. Before the race I thought people that this would be my last road marathon, but I have a feeling that if any guiding opportunities come my way, I will run to take them.