Finally, Wednesday morning, Jan cried. Before then, she was caught somewhere between five minutes from the finish line at the Boston Marathon and the tragedy that occurred a mile or so up the road.
She and her sister, both UNC graduates from Winston-Salem, were running Boston for the first time, the oldest footrace in America and the centerpiece of perhaps the most unique day in this country. Patriots Day is a holiday only to Boston and Massachusetts, no school, commemorating the start of the Revolutionary War. Various first battle reenactments are staged in small towns all over the state. The Red Sox always play a home game that begins at 11 so the crowd can filter from Fenway Park down to Copley Square to watch the last few hours of the Boston Marathon, this year the 117th running.
Jan and (sister) Teresa had decided to run by joining charity teams that make up the great majority of the 26,000-person field. Teresa raised money for the Doug Flutie Autism team because she is a Doctor of Psychology with expertise in the field, having authored two books on Asperger’s Syndrome.
Jan Bolick, as many of you know, is a master of psychology helping so many of her business colleagues and friends with their daily challenges. Their mother, Frances “Flash” Flynt Bolick, had died 20 years ago from cancer first found in her liver. So Jan joined the American Liver Foundation team, which has raised more than $16 million over the last 25 years. At a moving breakfast Sunday morning, we found out that Jan’s part-time fund-raising gig that basically reached out to her own personal network finished in the top 20 among this year’s volunteers.
The sisters had trained together – mostly virtually because Teresa lives up there and Jan lives here. So they broke down the regimen of 450 total miles by sticking to their schedules and trying to run from 3 to 20 miles on the same day at the same time. Jan went to Boston in February for a practice “fun run” with her team that was dressing out as super heroes. Jan’s costume also honored her mother, “Flash Flynt” who got her nickname as a sports reporter for her high school newspaper.
Finally, the last week of training warm-down arrived and we headed to New England for the weekend. Constantly checking the weather, we saw a beautiful, crisp forecast, one that Bostonians pray for in the early weeks of the baseball season and Patriots Day. Temperatures were supposed to be in the low 50s with intermittent sun. In New England, that’s akin to an April Acapulco.
We made a weekend of it, as we usually do, spending this particular Saturday driving out to the starting line in the town of Hopkinton and talking to everyone from policemen who would be there to the two friends who run the Snappy Dogs stand on the town commons. We walked over to touch the Hoyt statute that honors three generations of Hoyts who have “run” in the wheelchair division of the Boston Marathon. Then the sisters toed the starting line and ran the first three miles of the race before we picked them up and drove the remaining 23 or so right into downtown Boston.
On the way, we passed through Wellesley, where the brainy college coeds turn silly every Patriots Day, cheering the runners with signs about wanting to be kissed. The boys at Boston College on Comm. Ave. in Chestnut Hill are a little rowdier, some offering open beers to runners as they pass by. Over the race course through eight towns and into the city, it’s a day of celebration, jubilation and just plain fun. It’s not about the Elite Runners, who start at 9 and blow through in a near sprint in two and half hours.
On race day, after the sisters met their teams at 6:30 am for the bus ride to Hopkinton, I paid special attention to UNC All-American Shalane Flanagan, the NCAA champion distance runner who grew up in Marblehead on the North Shore and always dreamed of running and winning “Boston.” She trained long and hard with fellow American and BFF Kara Goucher, but in the end two bigger, stronger and leggier Kenyans held them off. Shalane finished fourth, Goucher seventh. Honestly, I cannot tell you who won among the Elite men.
My brother-in-law and I worked our way into Boston and planned to be on the Boylston Street finish line around 2 pm. Receiving hourly text updates, we knew Jan and Teresa would run the race in about 4 1/2 hours from their 10:40 starting time. So around 3:10 or so, they would come down Boylston on adrenalin, with the crowd of 20,000 or so cheering on total strangers as they ran the last half mile in waves ten abreast the four lanes. All ages, all sizes, all styles, they were taking it home, just as they had either envisioned or remembered as having done it before.
Steven (Teresa’s husband) and I gently pushed our way through the crowd of eight deep to get on the restraining barrier by 2:30. Having grown up in Boston and followed the Marathon as a casual fan, this was my first time seeing the unmitigated joy and happiness thousands of random runners bring to hundreds of thousands screaming spectators. Some found the runners they knew, but most were just cheering everyone. Then, within a flash of 15 seconds, the Boston Marathon changed forever.
I’ve since told friends that in all my years of sports watching, I never had a better or worse 50-yard line seat. To our right about one football field away, a gigantic explosion ripped through the opposite sidewalk near the finish line. A large cloud of burning smoke was just subsiding when, to our left, a similar explosion went off across the street. Two such blasts had to be intentional, and that’s when the stunned crowd knocked down the barricades and headed for the middle of the race course, fearing another bomb would go off on our side of the street.
First-responders were already tending to people who had been literally blown into the street and others who were staggering across. Within minutes, hundreds of Boston police were there, trying to evacuate the block, ordering everyone to walk up side streets across from where the bombs had gone off. It was two hours before we found our wives, since cell service in the immediate area had been shut down due to concern that the detonations were being set off remotely by mobile phones.
Thankfully, we found Teresa and Jan, who had been separated when the police stopped the race less than two miles from the finish line. One sister had made her way toward the home of friends where we had planned to meet and celebrate. Jan was shivering at a first-aid tent and then warmed by the hospitality of a synagogue that opened its doors to distressed runners. It was one of the many kind gestures offered by citizens and business owners and the various police and medical personnel who rushed to the scene. When Jan was eventually bussed to a staging area at the Boston Commons, a stranger walked up and gave her a sweatshirt, her size and everything.
Finally reunited, we watched the endless TV replays from the hundreds of media cameras set up at the finish line. If these sickos or terrorists wanted publicity, they picked the right place to blow up their homemade bombs. The death total rose to three and the injured to more than 170 before we left Boston and headed back to Teresa’s home. Tuesday, the Bolick girls recovered the bags they had left in Hopkinton. The Boston Athletic Association, which runs the Marathon, had set up another staging area for runners who wanted to and needed to find some closure. Upon their arrival, Jan and Teresa had the medals they were to receive at the finish line placed around their necks.
Boston is a tough, proud city with a storied history in so many ways. There WILL be a 118th Marathon, with tighter security in what is an impossible event to totally lock down. But besides the tragic loss of life and some limbs and more of the innocence we once enjoyed in America, Boston also lost some of its soul since so many people who had counted on another great Patriots Day were driven away in shock and tears.
Jan had trained envisioning how she would stride across the finish line, arms raised, big smile on her face. That carried her through four months and was to carry her through the final meters. But she never got there, along with thousands of others who planned to end the race in their own special way.
Concerned with those who lost more than a chance to complete their vision, Jan kept saying it was okay. It was okay. It was okay. But, finally, Wednesday morning, she cried.