Local Dispatch: Shaken marathoners in Boston found one another for support at finish

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Boston is always the toughest race. Running downhill in the first half turns your front quads into stone and then you need to make an unforgiving ascent to the finish.

But despite the pain, this year could not have been more glorious. The cool weather, the blue skies and the crowds were bigger and louder than ever. We ran shoulder-to-shoulder, clicking off the familiar towns -- Framingham, Natick, Wellesley -- and when we crested Heartbreak Hill and started down the slope toward the city, we were met with an ocean wind.

It was salty and cooling, and it felt as though Boston was calling us like the whalers of old. The student crowd at Boston College was deafening, announcing our entry into the city. And though the pain was intense, I said my Hail Marys and forged on.

My 15-year-old son was there with my brother and sister-in-law to cheer me as I rounded the turn at Commonwealth and Hereford, and then I started down that spectacular stretch of Boylston. I savored it, taking in the faces of the crowd, and when I finished, I felt a remarkable peace and calm.

I accepted a congratulations and bottle of water from a marathon worker and a space blanket from another. I kept walking in a kind of dream state, and then it thundered -- a loud percussive boom that shook the street.

It sounded like a cannon. But why a cannon? I turned around and saw, 200 yards back, a climbing cloud of smoke. Then there was an even louder explosion, and I knew in my bones they were bombs. Terrorist bombs. Why else would there be an explosion at the finish line of the Boston Marathon?

"Just keep moving," the workers said with calm.

And people did stay calm, though a ripple of questions and cries spread through the crowd. And then that turned suddenly.

Behind us, a stampede of runners were pushing us forward. Was there another bomb? Were they clearing space for the first responders? Tough to say, but now everyone was in flight -- the way lower Manhattan workers ran from the towers 12 years ago.

Some people began crying aloud about their families back near the finish, and my thoughts were with my son, brother and sister-in-law. I had told them to meet me at the hotel, but I feared they had been headed my way and into danger. I walked through the city as ambulances screamed past -- every passing minute becoming more heightened in anxiety.

Initially, I couldn't find them in the crowded lobby, but then there they were. Our tears flowed, but our relief was tempered by the knowledge that people must surely be dead.

I had run the race in honor of my father, George Sheehan, the late running doctor. My family had come because we are re-publishing his best-seller, "Running and Being," and we chose Boston to relaunch it for hundreds of reasons.

Boston was his favorite race. He ran his first in 1965 and then ran it 26 consecutive times. The route, the city, Patriots Day, the race itself -- this was the true cradle of freedom. Taking my son to the airport, my thoughts turned to my dad, and I thought of what a knife to the heart this would have been. This place of all places. How could terror reign here?

When he went to the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, he had a vision of sorts. He had dipped his toe into anti-war politics at the time, but there in the Olympic village and in the Estadio Olympico, he glimpsed a different path. He saw athletes of all nations competing to the limits of their capability and then collapsing in each other's arms.

The spirit was like nothing else he had experienced and he thought: Couldn't this arena of sport be a force to bring us together? Couldn't the Olympic spirit help to make us one world? It seemed a crazy notion, but he would spend the rest of his life writing about that, trying to will it to be true.

I put my son on the plane back home and went back to Boston to cover the story for KDKA. Checking back into the hotel, I began interviewing runners -- runners from all over the world. They were pained for Boston, the wonderful marathon spoiled, and especially the victims and the families of the dead and wounded.

We all grieved together. There, together, we were all one family reunited, and together, we dared hope that some good would come of our shared sorrow.


Andy Sheehan of Squirrel Hill, a KDKA-TV news reporter, can be reached at asheehan@kdka.com.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Local Dispatch" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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