Culture

My Boston Experience: A Ten-Second Difference

An unplanned bathroom break might have been the reason Allison Pattillo walked away unharmed from the 2013 Boston Marathon.


Passing the “One Mile To Go” was a relief, but making the left onto Boylston and finally seeing the finish line was like an adrenaline shot to my heart. Chills of exhaustion and cramping muscles were forgotten, and I started to reel in other spent runners one and two at a time. For the casual observer mine was no finish line sprint. I was more than four hours into the hardest race I had ever run, but this was the Boston Marathon and finishing strong, or as strong as I had left, was the only way to go.

To me, Boston truly represents the ideal of a citizen’s Olympics, and it was a goal I would only let myself dream about on occasion, about as often as I considered what life would be like if I won the Powerball. I’ve been a runner for as long as I can remember, and I love to race, but I usually participate in them for the personal satisfaction and camaraderie found in the middle and back of the pack, not for turning in performances worthy of a spot on the starting line in Hopkinton.

Because I write for Competitor and Women’s Running, adidas, one of the race sponsors, offered me a bib for the 117th running of the Boston Marathon. After saying yes, I had my doubts because I hadn’t ‘earned’ it. In the end, I realized this could be my only chance to run Boston and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity.

My coach just sighed when I said we needed to add an early season marathon to my race schedule. “As long as you aren’t trying to do something crazy, like go run Boston and set a PR, you’ll be good.” Actually, that’s exactly what I wanted to do.

Training for a spring marathon when you live in the mountains of Colorado and are treadmill averse presents logistical challenges, but I battled them with long cross-country ski days, endless water running sessions and hours on a spin bike and elliptical trainer. A stubborn case of Achilles tendonitis added to my training complications.

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When taper time came along, I knew I was the most fit I’ve ever been, and had some long miles, killer hill repeats and tempo runs in the bank. More miles would have been good, but my coach and physical therapist had managed to keep me just at the tipping point of making progress without risking further injury.

The pre-race energy buzz in Boston was incredible to the point of leaving me in awe. All the stories and images of races past came to life as thousands of people gathered to celebrate an unadulterated joy of running. Seeing friends, meeting legends, hearing inspirational talks and testing new gear made me love the purity and accessibility of the sport all the more.

Race day Monday was perfect and we lined up at the starting line under partly cloudy skies and chilly temperatures with the promise of sun and mid-50’s as the day progressed. At go time, we made our way to the start coral by coral. The five minutes it took to get to the starting line were filled with shaking out legs and arms, friendly banter and sheer giddiness. My time goal for the day was to make it to Copley Square in less than four hours.

A downhill start, zealously supportive crowds and sheer excitement made the miles fly by, and I clocked a 1:56 for the first half. Right on target! Then I fell apart. Sore quads kicked in by mile 17 and cramping calves at mile 20. I had also taken on too much water and made a quick bathroom break at the top of Heartbreak Hill. I didn’t know how important those ten seconds would prove to be.

When it came down to the final 5K, there was still a slim chance I could make my goal, but my legs were trashed and I could will them to move, but not at the speed I wanted. Finishing Boston humbled, wiser and better for the experience became my new focus.

It was time for one last push to the line.

But then there was a boom. We all paused, announcing stopped and none of us were sure what to do. Volunteers waved us on. I assumed it was a blown transformer or a celebratory cannon. My finish line blinders were on, I kept moving. I was in front of Lord & Taylor, next up was running across Exeter and on to the finish.

But something was wrong. Why were people running towards me? Why did that man look as if he had been injured in an explosion? The crowd noise sounded more like screams of terror than cheers of joy.

Then an unmistakable explosion just ahead and to my left made me lurch to the right. There was smoke, debris, spectators jumping over barricades, runners hitting the ground. I stood in the middle of the street unsure of what to do. The finish line I’d been so intent upon reaching had become unsafe and unreachable. But staying put hardly seemed like the best idea. I stopped my watch at 4:04:13 and mentally marked my spot, just in case this was all some horrible mistake and we could somehow return to normalcy by hitting the start button. Then I noticed the silence.

A 360-degree sweep of my location made me decide the best option was to make it inside the nearby mall so I could work my way back to the hotel to get my phone, locate friends and see what was next. Three black cars flew by me with their sirens blaring, and the sudden rush of sound spurred me to move.

My finish line push became an adrenaline-fueled sprint through empty halls echoing with blaring fire sirens. The second floor entry to the Marriott Copley Place was still open, and as I retrieved my gear bag, I realized no one in the hospitality room knew anything had happened. Not wanting to shatter their joy, I shied away and avoided their questioning looks as to why I had no finisher’s medal or blanket.

As the horrors of the day unfolded, I contacted family, connected with friends and co-workers and tried to mentally extricate myself from the immediacy of the situation. On Tuesday morning, I decided I would go alone to cross the finish line for a sense of closure. ATF and FBI agents didn’t think it was such a good idea. Thankfully, many others have since been able to cross the line and countless others will want to forever forward, in honor of those who can’t, to be part of something bigger than themselves and because of the solidarity found in running.

The day after the blast, when I had managed to convince myself I wasn’t really that close, I picked myself out of a picture. And I was close. But, as one friend put it, “You ran Boston and you lived.” That is my Boston experience. More tempo runs would have put me ahead of the blasts. Not taking a bathroom break could have put me in the middle of them. Drifting to the left would have put me even closer. A slower pace, and I would have been stopped with the thousands of runners held at the checkpoints behind me.

The take-away? I was lucky. There are horrible people in this world who commit unspeakable atrocities. On Monday, I also saw the good — people going to help those they didn’t know, responders and police rushing into a situation they didn’t grasp and the running community coming together in solidarity.

I will continue to run — for the joy of it, for the thrill of racing and for the camaraderie. I have a BQ to earn.

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