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Strong may they run: Manitobans reflect on that fateful day in Boston

Posted: 06/15/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 06/15/2013 1:43 PM | Updates

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Running is what runners do.

But time runs too, and so the final minutes are hurrying to cross the line that divides "before" and "after," each second quietly pacing towards bliss, and disaster. It is April 15, and the sky over Boston is clear and eggshell blue. It is a placid canvas stretching over the body of the city. It stretches over the 88-foot swell of Heartbreak Hill -- where so many runners fight to rise, or just not to fall -- and it stretches too above Boston Common, the green that rolls at the heart of it all.

Then the sky slips into the calm Atlantic Ocean that laps against the land, and quietly tucks itself into the horizon from which the Puritan colonists who built this city came. A crisp morning has given way to a dry spring afternoon, about 12 C with the sun creeping past the zenith of that calm sky, but on this day -- marathon day -- the city below is not calm. It is rioting with life.

There are bodies, people, tens of thousands, each one spinning through their own square of breathing space. They are drenched in sweat or craning necks along the finish line, cheering as the biggest bulge of runners scamper across the line that divides exhaustion and ecstasy. Once past, the runners grab a drink of water and head down Boylston Street, to the school buses piled deep with gear that 23,336 people left at a start line 26.2 miles away.

And here -- oh, here is Tim McCarthy, he flew from Winnipeg to run his race. He is 51 years old, and he ran his first marathon 26 years ago. That was before he settled into his career as a rheumatologist, before he was father to 13-year-old twins. Since then he's run marathons in Manitoba, in Minneapolis, in Chicago and in Phoenix, but Boston was always the dream. Until, finally, it became reality: in 2012, McCarthy pressed across the Manitoba Marathon finish line in three hours and 23 minutes, enough to qualify for the world's oldest marathon.

So now here he is at the end, fourteen minutes after he crossed the line, and he turns to look at it one more time. He lifts his camera, searching for another chance to immortalize this, and his lens finds runners clutching space blankets around trembling shoulders. He presses down a button, hears a click.

It is 2:47 p.m.

Nearby, Melanie Sifton is only four minutes past her final step. She is 56, and she started running only a few years back, after her two children hit their 20s, spread their wings, and flew the nest. The Winnipeg woman took to the pace of it right away, the pace and the people, and on her very first marathon -- the 2011 New York race -- she qualified for the 2013 Boston run. She found a running group through the Running Room where she works, and each week through the winter she plunged into the snow and early-morning blackness to be ready for today.

Now, she's just pushed past the finish line, body surging with emotion and legs a little numb. A volunteer hands her a medal to consecrate the moment, and Sifton turns to a nearby photographer. "Please take my picture," she says and her face is beaming, these final seconds between "before" and "after" shimmer like a dream.

It is 2:49 p.m.

There is a bang, and a flash. Ten thousand heads spin around and hands reflexively snap back, and over by the school buses Tim McCarthy has just tucked his camera away. He sees a wraith of sickly white smoke curl up from the finish line three blocks down Boylston Street, and in unison with oh, how many thousands of others he thinks -- "What is that?"

Another bang, another flash. And now he knows.

-- -- --

Running is what runners do, and the running can take so much out of you, but it fills you up with something else: In the late 1970s, Bob Conarroe lived two blocks from Terry Fox, and watched the young man pounding his feet up and down the streets of Port Coquitlam, B.C. Maybe the sight left sneaker-shaped footprints on his mind, maybe that's what led him to enter the 1984 Victoria marathon, but either way he fell in love.

Now, the Oakbank man has "kind of lost count" how many marathons he's run. He is 64 now, and has set a goal of running until he's 80. This isn't easy, it takes training. Every Saturday, Conarroe rises early and schleps out to Birds Hill Park, where he and a group of friends go to run. They call themselves the Birds Hill Bulldogs -- "It's not that we're so tenacious, it's more a statement of how we look," Conarroe chuckles -- but still they're out there even in the cold, even in the dark. Really, that's the best part. "The marathons are a celebration," Conarroe says. "But the joy is the training."

Conarroe is a good runner, this much is clear: he won his age-group in Fargo and in Manitoba last year. So he always qualifies for Boston, but doesn't always go. Still, when one of the Bulldogs, 47-year-old Andrew Bommersbach, finally qualified for Boston after years of trying, Conarroe agreed to come along.

The last time he'd run the race was 2007, where the tail end of hurricane winds sent cups flying away from water stops. So he knew what it was like to run through the city's veins, beaten forward by cheers and outstretched hands and whatever weather throws across the course. "Everybody in the city's into it," he says. "People stop you on the streets, they ask you if you're running. They ask you where you're from, they welcome you like family. Hundreds of thousands show up to watch if it's a good day... and this year, it was a great day."

Boston is the Super Bowl of marathons, runners say. Or is it the marathon Mount Everest, the Mecca of marathons, the metaphors they use never settle in a single place. The point is, Boston is special, it is the goal that always lies ahead: 41 Manitobans will reach that goal and register to run in 2013, some of them for the very first time.

Eight years ago, Doug DeJong ran his first race. As his sneakers squeaked past the Manitoba Marathon finish line, he set another dream: to make it to Boston. But qualifying for Boston isn't easy, and DeJong, a construction worker, kept falling short of the mark. He was two minutes, 30 seconds short one year, ten minutes short another, and in-between he battled leg injuries just to try and make the race.

In 2012, he finally made it: he was in, he was in. "If you were to see my picture crossed the finish line at Manitoba last year, it's an absolute look of elation," DeJong said. "It's kind of like years of getting to the Stanley Cup Final and watching other people hoist the Stanley Cup, and now you get to hold it yourself."

In the months after he qualified for Boston, DeJong learned everything he could about the course, committing its topography to memory. To train for the elevation drops and rises, he left his Transcona house in the bitter pre-dawn chill to jog up and down the Nairn overpass. He had a running singlet made that echoed the uniform the Canadian hockey heroes wore in the 1972 Summit Series: Paul Henderson had his goal and, though an entire country may not be watching, DeJong was about to have his.

Ten months later, he will be standing at the start line in the postcard-pretty town of Hopkinton, Massachusetts. He will pull on his Canadian running singlet, and stretch, and he will take out his phone to tap out a quick text. "I'm living the dream today."

Here's the thing about dreams: it just takes one misfiring of some neural wire to slip into a nightmare.

-- -- --

"What is that?"

The blasts are deafening, the sound of them pierces ears and aching muscles and burrows into bones, the shaky videos that will later be posted on YouTube do not capture the weight of this so well. But although there are tens of thousands of people flocking in the blocks around the finish line, few of them understand what they have heard. They murmur softly beneath grim symphonies of sirens, they turn their eyes towards the chop-chop-chop of helicopters, but there is no panic.

About 500 metres from the blasts, Raymond Jones and his wife are walking towards the vast green space of Boston Common. This is the sixth time that Jones, who works in the physical plant at the University of Manitoba, has run in Boston, and usually he sticks around the finish line to soak in the spirit of the thing. But for whatever reason, he and his wife decided to leave, and so they are walking away when the city booms. A couple near them wonders aloud: is it a cannon? A celebration? Jones, he shakes his head, he knows how things go -- not like that. But he doesn't know what it is for sure.

In a nearby basement, Peter Pazerniuk -- one of the Birds Hill Bulldogs -- is resting in a recovery room, where a volunteer's hands are kneading his aching muscles. A man comes in and says: the building is being evacuated, there's been a couple of explosions. Pazerniuk plods upstairs, and emerges onto a street that was just a few short minutes ago thronged with human voices, dancing human eyes. Now it is empty. "Hey, this is pretty serious," Pazerniuk thinks, and he trails after the flood of people who are walking away, forgetting the fatigue that gnaws at legs still shaking from the race.

Like the marathon, the aftermath goes one foot in front of the other. The survivors -- for they are, now, in an instant this is what they have become -- are frustrated that their phones don't work, that the subways don't work, they take each challenge task-by-task. Mark Lawall is 200 metres from the finish line when the bombs go off and, with his legs still recovering from 26 miles of running, the Winnipeg man starts walking towards the house where he is staying. He will get there, two hours later.

So the trickle of human beings goes, step by step, they are looking to establish connections. When their phones come back to life, the media descends, flooding voicemails with requests for information. It is through the media that many of the Manitoban runners learn what has happened, about the terrible thing they've just lived through, but there are others that didn't cross that line between "before" and "after."

Krystle Marie Campbell, 29. Lu Lingzi, 23. Martin William Richard, eight. Eight years old.

Blood is running ruby-red on Boylston Street in Boston, but this is not the colour runners knew.

-- -- --

"Go Canada!"

Doug DeJong, the construction worker from Transcona, was maybe six miles deep in the Boston run when he heard that voice, a little girl's probably, it sailed up from somewhere on his left. He is wearing the Canadian running singlet he had made just for this course, but when he turned to find the source of the cheer, he can see only the wall of faces, this technicolour tapestry of signs and smiles.

The race is long, but DeJong was ready. Seven times he has run the Manitoba Marathon, and always looked forward to meeting his family at the finish line. But after studying the Boston course, he asked them -- a big group, eight -- to watch him run past Heartbreak Hill.

He would be grateful for this decision, in time. "I just believe it was a providential thing," he says. "How is it that every marathon that I've ever run I've always had family and friends at the finish line, and here we specifically had it where nobody was supposed to be at the finish line for me?"

So as he paced himself towards Heartbreak Hill, to that famous swell where so many runners hit the wall at the 21 mile mark, he marvelled at the waymarkers that had become mythology in his mind: a lake, a train station, a firehall in Newton, Mass. His head spun as he passed by the so-called "scream tunnel," where the women of Wellesley College turn out to shriek the runners on, bearing signs beseeching kisses from the people who jog past.

He watches another pause there, and look, and decide to break his time for a kiss, just a little peck.

Three hours, 25 minutes and 25 seconds after he started, Dejong crossed the finish line. A volunteer handed him water, Gatorade and a finisher's medal. They handed him a mandarin orange, and he bit into the slices and savoured the sweetness bursting on his tongue. The bombs exploded 20 minutes later, and DeJong heard them booming from where he stood around the corner, but they cannot sour the memory of that orange.

"How I felt at the finish line, was off the charts elation," DeJong said. "Off the charts. There's no more telling people 'yeah I missed qualified by two-and-a-half minutes,' or 'I didn't get it done.' I set a goal, and I accomplished it."

Other Manitobans, though, never get the chance: there were 5,633 people still on the course when the bombs blew, including at least a dozen Manitobans. For them, there will be a second chance: last month, marathon organizers told all those who couldn't finish that they would be invited back, without having to re-qualify. Julie Whelen, a Winnipeg veterinarian, is one of them: she was just over a block from the finish line when explosions rattled Boylston Street, and ducked behind a garbage bin before walking back to her hotel.

"Whatever you (the bombers) thought you were going to accomplish, you accomplished the total opposite," Whelen told the Free Press, after learning she'd get another chance to run. "You just made more people more determined."

-- -- --

On the flight back to Winnipeg, there was silence and there were shaken faces, and tears. Then the survivors landed and dispersed, they slipped back into a normal life now punctuated by wide eyes and worried messages: at Tim McCarthy's office at the Manitoba Clinic, dozens of patients had called, hoping their rheumatologist was OK.

Some who lived through it found solace in information. At home, Melanie Sifton turned on CNN, and couldn't turn it off. Her family begged her not to watch, but she had to look to understand. "It was disbelief," she said, seven weeks after the event. "I'm thinking, 'I can't believe that this happened. I can't believe that I missed it.' There was a moment of time I thought, I don't want to do this again, it's not worth it. But now, I run in honour of those who were hurt, and killed."

Because running is what runners do, and the joy of running is something that arcing wires of cruel and calculated rage can't take away from you. The people who were there hold onto this, their version of redemption, and resistance. Tim McCarthy went back to training with his group, Road Kill, about 20 of them that jog around Assiniboine Park or Grant Park High School every Tuesday. The other runners went back to their training too, this time bearing stories of "before" and "after," but more and more those lines begin to blur together.

"I never did stop feeling good about the marathon," Bob Conarroe said. "About the run itself, and all the crowds and everything. I never stopped feeling good about that. At the same time, there was the horror and the tragedy of everything that happened. There's a little bit of, almost like guilt. When I told my wife about it, it sounded like I was a bit too happy about the marathon. She says, 'don't tell people you had a good time'."

But he did, that much is true, and in a show of solidarity other runners are planning to be happy about it, too.

This year was supposed to be Raymond Jones' final Boston Marathon, his sixth. But on the night after the bombings -- or rather, after the marathon -- he walked through Boston Common with his wife, and stopped to gaze at banners there emblazoned "Boston Strong." He leaned down to sign the banner, and a news reporter turned a camera on his face and asked him to be on TV. So Jones told the world why he was there, and what he had written, and then he realized: he couldn't end his Boston running career on that note. He will run the Manitoba Marathon this year, paced to qualify for one more trip to Boylston Street.

Next year, it may not be the same. Maybe security will be tighter, maybe the emotions of the day will surge higher. When Melanie Sifton goes back, she admitted, she'll probably be "pretty spooked."

But running is what runners do, and the grace of that transcends all the evils men can do.

"Running as a whole makes me feel incredibly grateful, and vulnerable," Sifton said. "It humbles me completely. When I'm running I'm always so grateful I can get through this. Every mile, it's 'thank you, thank you, thank you,' because you don't know what you're going to be faced with."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 0

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Updated on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 1:43 PM CDT: Fix spelling of Hopkinton.

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