Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Unfinished business for local Boston Marathoners

Seven Manitobans were still on the course when the bombs blew a year ago. On Monday, they'll run again... in pursuit of closure

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Emergency workers scramble to the aid of bombing victims near the finish line in 2013.

CHARLES KRUPA / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Emergency workers scramble to the aid of bombing victims near the finish line in 2013.

It could be on a cold, wintry morning or a hot summer night, but the goal is already in sight.

In the weeks ahead, if training goes well, you see yourself crossing a finish line. Exhausted but exalted. Tired arms raised and tears of joy.

It should feel great. It will feel great.

But screams? Blood? Bombs? When did a runner's dream become a nightmare?

When were hours, minutes and seconds replaced by deaths, injuries and terror suspects?

Crossing the finish line doesn't matter anymore. Not on this day. Surviving is the only thing. Then finding loved ones.

In the days and weeks that follow, you look back trying to make sense of it all.

But you can't help looking ahead. After all, there is still a finish line to cross.

On April 15, 2013, the world tuned in to watch the 117th running of the Boston Marathon. Instead of triumph, they witnessed terror.

Two bombs, in backpacks left near the finish line, exploded at about 1:50 p.m., several hours after the 26.2-mile race had started, killing three and injuring more than 260.

The race was immediately halted as emergency responders and police went into action -- helping victims and hunting perpetrators.

There were 5,700 runners still on the course, including seven Manitobans. Their memories of the Boston Marathon, a race that sits atop just about every runner's bucket list, were now of lost lives, lost limbs and lost dreams.

The Boston Athletic Association, responding to a groundswell of public support, invited those runners back without having to qualify.

So on Monday, Winnipeggers Vivian Rachlis, Bob Steinberg, Sean Drain, Cathey Gornik, Julie Whelen, Fiona Fleming and Robyn DiCesare will gather at the start line in Hopkinton, Mass., to run the Boston Marathon again.

Their emotions leading up to the race range from anger and helplessness to defiance and anticipation.

The finish line -- 26.2 miles later on Boylston Street in front of the Boston Public Library -- is still firmly in sight.

Steinberg, a psychiatrist, could see the finish when the explosions took place.

"I was horrified when I found out that they were bombs. I felt awful that I was so single-minded and wanting to finish the race.

"But when I saw the bodies, I was stuck to the news, just watching the devastation, thinking, 'who would ever do this?' This is a marathon. It has nothing to do with terrorism and it has to be reclaimed. We have to make this back into a race. We have to make this back into a marathon."

Running is perhaps the most personal of sports and this is a personal journey. The Free Press caught up with the runners -- Manitoba's seven Boston Strong -- to get their recollections of that day and what it means to run the race again.

 

Vivian Rachlis, 57

Vivian Rachlis

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Vivian Rachlis (DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

This is a strange week, it's a busy week. At some moments I'm thinking about nothing but the Boston Marathon, and at some moments I'm thinking of everything I need to do to leave town, the way anyone does when they're going on vacation or a business trip.

I was stopped a half mile before the finish line. If I wanted to run away I could have, but the volunteers and law enforcement in the area corralled us as best as they could because they didn't want to disperse our group. We were too close to the bomb site.

They had a crime scene and the last thing they needed was more people in the area. So they held us in the area. Runners tend to be type-A obedient (follow the rules kind of people) so we just stood there. Interesting group. Who are the last 5,000 people at the end of the course? Middle-aged and older women and charity runners. You have to qualify for this race, so all my group of friends, runners from Winnipeg, the ones that completed the race are the faster, younger males.

That was an interesting time to say the least. I've spoken to a lot of other women who have kids at home. We were trying to reach some people on cellphones, and we were trying to reach loved ones at home so they wouldn't worry about us. We knew immediately that there were bombs and that it would be known nationally right away. My daughter found out about it within minutes, my mother knew within minutes. We were trying to reassure people.

I'm not so much defiant, it's business as usual. There's a nuance there. I'm approaching this as a nothing race, another Boston, finishing something that I started.

I think my daughter (Sarah) and my mother are nervous about me going. There's been some joking, 'nothing more to distract me from my studying this year!'"

I don't think I was traumatized by it, maybe I'm blocking it out.

It's important not to overly dramatize whatever happened to me, because there are people that were traumatized. How could I compare myself to what those people went through, the injuries and lost loved ones?

When I get to the same portion of the course I will recognize it, and I will be thinking what happened a year ago. And I am hoping, given the shape I would be in at 25 miles in, I'm hoping that it will make me strong and help me finish strong.

 

Dr. Bob Steinberg, 63

Bob Steinberg

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Bob Steinberg (JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

I wondered if the first bomb was bad fireworks or a poor celebration. I wondered for the second one, maybe a (sewer) cover, or something to do with the subway. I crossed over to the right side of the street for the second one, that was coming closer and toward me, and then they closed the street. They closed it off pretty quickly. I didn't see any injuries. All I was thinking was that I wanted to finish the damn race.

They barricaded the rest of the race off. Then the street filled up with all emergency vehicles and then black SUVs with men in full body armour with automatic weapons.

I saw one person (wrapped) up a lot and being put into an ambulance, and it was perplexing. I didn't know anybody got hurt. I didn't find out about all the injured until I saw it on TV about an hour later. My biggest issue also was that my wife was a spectator at mile 21, and it crossed my mind that she could have been on the train underground to meet me at the finish line at the time of the bombs. I couldn't find her. She had both cellphones. I borrowed one, but I couldn't get a message to her. We ran into each other by accident in the mall later.

At the beginning I think I had one night of dreams. Certainly watching the news. I'm now avoiding any of that because I'm going back. I get very, very teary when I see on the news the guys that did it, the politics, the graphic images.

I'm a psychiatrist. I don't think this has affected my life. I haven't avoided running, I haven't avoided marathons. I'm going back to Boston and I know when I get there, there will be strong emotions. When I get to thinking what had happened on that street.

I've run, I've trained, I've done everything I need to do. It's to face Boston. I still expect emotion when it comes to the last four blocks of the finish line on Monday.

 

Dr. Julie Whelen, 46

Julie Whelen

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Julie Whelen (JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

I just got on to Boylston Street and I just remember thinking, 'Don't walk, keep running. You'll get there sooner than later and then I heard a BOOM. I had just passed the convention centre when the second went off. I could see the flash and the bang and that stopped me in my tracks. Then I moved over to crouch behind a garbage container, because I thought, 'If there's going to be another one, it's going to be even closer.' So I was close enough to see the bombs, but not as close as to see the injuries. At the time, no, I wasn't scared because we didn't know what was happening and we couldn't see anything.

I've had a lot of time to think about the marathon. I'm still thinking and dealing with it. I'm going back because I didn't finish. I didn't really want to run the course again because it's a really tough course, but I gotta finish it. My friends say the same thing. I'm going back to prove you can't put us down for long. We'll be back. It's going to be a long day, but we're going to have a good time. It's gonna be tough once I get to Boylston Street. It's going to be tough even going into the convention centre (where the pre-race expo is held). You know, just seeing where I was when I was stopped. There's going to be a lot of tears on the course.

 

Sean Drain, 74

Sean Drain

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Sean Drain (JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

It was one of the slowest, worst, most difficult runs of my life. I had expected to finish it in four hours and 10 minutes, but coincidentally that would have been the same time the bombs went off... I was slower. I was about two miles from the finish.

Someone on the sideline shouted, 'You had better stop, you'd better stop, there's been a bombing.'

A police woman walked out with her arms spread and stopped the runners. She said, 'You cannot proceed any further. The race has been cancelled and you are to wait here.' So I stayed there for a few minutes and I told the fellow beside me, " My daughter (Mairead but her family calls her Meg) is finished by now, my wife is at the finish waiting for me. I have no money. We stayed at the hotel. I have no money, no clothes, I'm not staying here.' So we devised a plan where we circumvented the road block that the police set up. We got onto the street that was parallel to Boylston. I was thinking these ambulances were going to kill someone tearing through the streets like that. We kept going and we got down to the finish, we got our bags and then I walked down to the family meeting area.

I saw my daughter, and she had finished, and she was cold and wrapped up in a blanket. I said to her, 'where's Mummy?' and she said 'She's running around looking for you. She doesn't know where you are.' My wife Barbara had heard the bombs go off because she was close to the finish.... Ten minutes later, she came back and we had a cheerful greeting.

When I found out what had happened, there was a combination of emotions. First of all, shock and then anger, but anyone would feel that.

And sort of resolved, but these people were not going to frighten people away, and we would be going back to Boston next year. I'm going back because, partly, the majority of people that are going back. We want to show that we are not intimidated by people that do these types of things. Secondly, I want to finish the Boston Marathon.

 

Cathey Gornik

Cathey Gornik

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Cathey Gornik (JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

I was stopped around mile 25.8, so I wasn't quite up at the explosion. We stood there for at least an hour, and we were all starting to hear conflicting stories. That there were pipe bombs, that there weren't pipe bombs, that they were going to clean things up and get the race started again. Then people came out with blankets, because most of us were standing around not dressed properly for the weather. People were even coming out of their homes with blankets and extra clothes, with jugs of water and cups for everyone standing around.

Cellphones weren't working so we had no way of contacting anybody. We have family and friends who are going to be at or near the finish line so of course none of us have any idea exactly where they are. So there was a lot of anxiety, and so we don't know how bad things really are.

Finally when they started to let people go through, I was starting to go through the tunnel to go to the other side. And as I'm walking toward the bridge we were going under, I saw my husband and my sister. They were taking (pictures.) They had been tracking me and realized I wasn't on pace. If I had been on pace, I probably been there right when the explosions went off. They would have been about my time. So a good day for a bad run.

I was just shocked, so shocked to know that something like this could have happened. I was just wondering how someone could target something as wonderful as the Boston Marathon.

In some ways this has affected my life. It has taken a lot of the joy out of running for me right now. Going back to Boston this year is something I just have to do. It's not going to be the joyous occasion like last year was where (making the marathon) was a dream come true. This was the marathon I worked so hard to qualify for, and finally did after years of trying. It was my chance to run the marathon and get my jacket and wear it with pride. I came back home, now I have the jacket but I hardly wear it because a lot of questions come up when I do wear it, and it's a bit hard to talk about it sometimes. This will be closure for me I'm hoping. I'll just have a chance to go and finish the marathon that I started last year and hopefully that sometime in a point I can enjoy running the way I used to. It's something I have to get done at this point.

 

Dr. Fiona Fleming, 54

Fiona Fleming

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Fiona Fleming (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

I was stopped at Mile 25.9. I was running with a friend from Chicago. We heard the blasts and a police officer stepped in front of us at the corner of Hereford Street and said the race was cancelled. We walked down Commonwealth Avenue with sirens screaming, people crying as they came off Boylston and others talking of the mass casualties. We passed a field hospital set up on the street. Subways and bridges were closed, so I had to go to my friend's hotel. Finally able to call home, but frantic to find my sister, who was visiting from England and waiting for me near the finish. We connected eventually through several relays and friends who had Blackberry Messenger. Yes, a very good thing is BBM. My biggest recollection is being very cold, and hating the sound of the sirens. I still cringe when a siren goes by.

Unfinished business. Also a streak running Boston: This will be sixth in a row.

And to run my last race honouring the victims of the bombs. I have put their names on the back of my race bibs for each race I have done since. This will be the last for this, time to reflect, and time to move on.

 

Robyn DiCesare, 49

Robyn DiCesare

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Robyn DiCesare (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

I was coming up to the final corner to turn on to the finishing stretch and I heard a big bang. I've been to Boston before so I thought, 'Wow, they made a cannon at the finish line this year, something new.'

But then I heard another explosion, and I saw smoke in the street and I thought, 'That's not a celebration cannon. That's a bomb.'

People were saying 'go towards the finish' and others were saying 'turn around, go back.' But you didn't know where to go. It was scary. I was crying, I was scared.

When you're finishing the marathon, you're out of it because you need water, food, so I was out of it. It took me an hour and a half to walk around the finishing area to get back to my hotel. I was going with other people who advised me to get away. People on the street were giving us clothes off their back. We were just running in shorts and singlets so we were really cold.

I'm going back to show support for all the victims -- all the people who lost their lives and those who got hurt and their families.

I think it's really important to send a message about terrorism. They can't do that. It's wrong and we have to be strong as a society and say, 'We can't let them win.' We have to show them that we can do what we want and that right will prevail.

Years ago my parents had taken me to Boston to run and cheer me on, and then my mom ended up passing away a week after that marathon. So at the Boston Marathon was the last time I saw her. And I remember her cheering. That was the same spot, close to where I got turned around because of the bombs. It is always an emotional spot in the course, and I'll always think of my mom when I'm going around the final corner. And this year I will be thinking of her and everyone else. There will be some tears for sure. These (terrorists) will not ruin the memory of my mom. I'm going to get my memory of my mom back.

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2014 C1

History

Updated on Saturday, April 19, 2014 at 10:17 AM CDT: adds photos

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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