By Julie Benson
The following was previously published on BostonLog.com in 2013
I woke up the morning of April 15 th, 2013, ready to conquer a marathon. Literally. I had trained for the past four months with every fiber of strength, passion, tears, and determination to run through eight cities totaling 26.2 miles.
The winter of 2013 was an unforgiving one. My long runs were constantly tested through blizzards, ice, and sub zero temperatures. Yet I persevered because I believed I could do it. That I was strong, that nothing could stop me. “Bring it on!” was my mantra. One particular weekend I had a 15-mile run scheduled, but Mother Nature dumped two feet of snow in my town. “No excuses,” I told myself. I went into my dank basement, growled at my treadmill, and ran for over two hours.
The Boston Marathon was to be my second marathon, and after the challenges of long-distance training, it would be my last. I was excited to end on the “high” of running one of the most famous marathons in the world. Being a full-time working mother of two young boys (ages 3 and 6), the demands of marathon training took away from precious time with my family.
My husband, a New Hampshire police and SWAT officer, worked the crazy schedule most law enforcement and first responders do, making my training and his work schedule a juggling act. But my family was extremely supportive and whether it was the three of them meeting me out at the 18-mile marker waiting to hand me water, or my husband offering generous calf massages for my fatigued muscles at night, they were behind me all the way. My husband woke up early to watch the boys on the weekends before he went to work because the majority of my other training runs occurred at 4:30 am. We made it happen and I felt unstoppable in achieving this goal.
I was blessed with the opportunity to run the Boston Marathon by the invitation through my running club, The Winner’s Circle Running Club. I ran a 3:59 marathon the previous fall, 20 minutes from a Boston qualifying time (which is considered a lot in “running times”). This invitation came on the heels of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, so I decided to make it even more meaningful by fundraising for the Sandy Hook PTA. Like most of the world, I was devastated by the tragedy that occurred on December 14th, 2012, resulting in the violent death of 26 children and adults at their elementary school. Being a mother of two young children and an elementary school guidance counselor, I couldn’t sleep for weeks following that disaster, and held my children tighter than ever before. Running Boston was going to be my opportunity to feel empowered in helping when I felt so helpless for the grieving families and their community.
For four months, I fundraised for the Sandy Hook PTA. On marathon day I proudly wore the Sandy Hook colors (green and white), as well as a custom shirt displaying “26 miles for 26 lives” on the back, and “Sandy Hook” on the front. I needed no further inspiration to run the ambitious course than to carry the memories of the courageous children and teachers with me. Little did I know at the start of the marathon that a new tragedy and more violence awaited at the finish line.
I had been running for a little over four hours. Not my best time, but I was savoring every moment of the cheering crowds, seeing friends and family, and the proud steps I was imprinting behind thousands of others on those famous roads. My sister was waiting for me at the top of Heartbreak Hill and embraced me in a huge hug. “You’re almost there, sis!” she cried. “It’s all downhill from here! I’ll see you at the finish line!” She gave me the physical boost I needed, and I continued on. As I pushed through my fatigue and physical limits, I smiled up at the Citgo sign, the familiar landmark about which all veteran Boston Marathon runners tell the newbies, “Once you pass the sign, you’re in the clear!” I then ran past the mile-26 marker and knew I truly was almost there!
And then everything stopped. A dead halt, really. Runners practically slamming into each other, sardined into the corrals that separated us from the spectators. I glanced at my Garmin that read mile 25.8, and kept jogging in place to keep my fatigued, cramped legs from buckling under me. I immediately heard sirens, and my first thought was someone had a heart attack and they would let the runners continue in just a few minutes. My best friend and her family, who found me where we were stopped, gave me a quick hug and mumbled an explosion had occurred at the finish line and that they needed to go. I was so confused. “Huh? No…this is Boston Marathon. Everything will be okay.”
I was so physically and emotionally depleted from the demands of running for that long that confusion mixed with more confusion. As minutes passed, the sirens, helicopters, emergency vehicles, chaos, confusion, and panic intensified. I realized I was alone having no cell phone, no identification, no money, no food or water. For a few seconds I felt as though I had dissociated from myself as the sound of the chaos around me faded. I took a deep breath and thought, “What would my husband do? What would he tell ME to do?” I immediately felt relief that he and my children were safe at home, despite the back and forth discussions of whether they should come to cheer me on. Then instant concern and panic set in about my sister waiting at the finish line. I began shivering and my body started to cramp up. I decided to leave my spot and took a seat on the sidewalk where I met another runner named Joe. I asked him if I could borrow his cell phone to tell my husband I was OK (even though I still didn’t understand the magnitude of what was happening). After many attempts, I got through to my husband, Eric. I told him I was OK, he told me he would try and locate my sister.
Joe and I made small talk, mostly to distract ourselves from all that surrounded us. As time passed into what perhaps had been an hour of waiting, massaging our aching muscles and trying to keep warm, Joe told me he had a car about two miles away. He invited to drive me home to Chelmsford, where his family was waiting for him. Joe was my “safe person.” I had nowhere else to go. I was still waiting to hear about my sister, so I decided to walk with him and leave the chaos and fear behind.
We made the two-mile walk over the Cambridge bridge (it felt like ten miles), trying to make sense of what was unfolding around us, calming each other after the sound of a third explosion (we thought it was another bomb; later we learned it had been safely detonated by the bomb squad), continuing to distract each other with questions and stories until we arrived at a nearby restaurants. It was there that I realized how serious the events were. Displayed around the bar were TV’s repeatedly broadcasting the bombings. People covered in smoke, first responders running into danger, blood. I couldn’t believe it was just two miles away, that Joe and I were minutes from that scene. I immediately used the restaurant phone and called Eric. Eric told me he got in touch with my sister and she was safe (she got stuck underground on the subway). He told me I needed to get out of the city and to go home with Joe.In the days following the Boston bombing, I cried non-stop. I just couldn’t make sense of what had happened. I felt overwhelming feelings of guilt, sadness, horror, and trauma. Sirens and loud noises startled me. Joe and I talked every day supporting each other through encouraging emails and phone calls.
Then, on Friday, April 19th, in Watertown, Massachusetts, the second suspect was finally located. A perimeter of police, FBI, SWAT, and bomb specialists surrounded him. My husband texted me around 3:00 pm to say his SWAT team was activated and he was heading into Watertown to relieve the other teams. “Please, no…don’t go,” I begged him. I couldn’t handle anymore. I had just gotten out of the city, away from the devastation and my husband was heading directly into it all. Since the marathon, one officer had been killed and another seriously wounded. I couldn’t fathom him being there. While others were told to stay safely in their homes, with the city literally in lock-down, Eric was heading straight toward the target.
But being the brave man he is, Eric went with his team while I prayed this tragedy would finally end, so that we could all begin to heal. I stayed at home, trying to care for my children, but I was emotionally distraught. A close friend came up for a few hours offering the perfect comfort – herself, her children to play with mine, and a bottle of wine. I had no contact with my husband for hours. The evening finally ended and my husband returned home safe, sharing the good news no one else had been hurt and the bad guy was caught. The world could now begin to take small steps to move forward, recover and heal.
Many people ask me, “Would you run the Boston Marathon again?” I answer without hesitation, “Yes, I need to finish what I started and be strong for Boston, for the victims and their families, for myself.”
I believe in my heart that on that day of April 15th, 2013, the Sandy Hook angels were the wind against me rather behind me, slowing me down before crossing the finish line. On the pace I was running, I was about four minutes shy of arriving at the scene of the bombing.
I ran my first race after Boston two weeks later. It was emotional being surrounded by so many people again, all wearing racing numbers. I felt a new sense of anxiety I never had experienced before. But I wasn’t going to stop, and I ran my heart out for Boston that day, feeling a sense of accomplishment, especially as my feet crossed the finish line.
I’ve run a handful of races in the following months and continue to become stronger and faster, improving my race times, gaining more power and strength than I ever had before. I truly feel UNSTOPPABLE. On April 21st, 2014, I will dedicate every step and every mile to the memory of those affected by the tragedy that hit our beloved city during the 117th Boston Marathon.
Julie has run over a dozen marathons having worked towards the goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. She is now a 2x Boston Marathon qualifier with no sign of stopping that streak. Julie earned a dual masters degree in Mental Health Counseling and School Guidance Counseling while attending the schools of Lesley University and Umass Amherst. She works as a full time Elementary School Guidance Counselor. A job she has held for over the past decade. Julie is a mom to two very active boys. Her husband is a police and SWAT team officer. She is very active in her running community and is an active member of the Exeter Run Club, located in NH.