I like running, and I like racing. But when it comes to running marathons, I really like the sense of accomplishment that comes from crossing the finish line! A marathon can be summed up as “the agony that leads to ecstasy.” Certainly the Boston Marathon of April 15, 2013, illustrates those feelings more than any in recent memory.
Little did I realize that on a cool, sunny Patriots’ Day I would come just minutes from being in the blast zone of two bombs set off by terrorist brothers.
I was properly trained and well rested at the start. Just to qualify for this, the oldest marathon in the world, I had to run a sub-four-hour marathon at age 67 the year before. My friends, Ed and Marilyn Lugenbeal, dropped me off at the starting line, expecting to pick me up a few blocks from the finish line eight hours later. I carried a disposable camera, hoping to take some memorable photographs along the 26.2-mile course.
I was oblivious to the fact that my last picture before finishing in 3 hours 57 minutes would show the crowd and race officials lining the sidewalk at the very location of the first blast. Sadly, some of those pictured would lose their limbs, even their lives.
The time of the first blast: 4 hours 3 minutes after I started running. I heard it echoing up and down Boylston Street, louder than the final boom at a fireworks show. I saw the rising cloud of blast powder like a funeral pall settling over both runners and spectators. One blast was so powerful that it jettisoned the lid of a pressure-cooker bomb to the roof of a building six stories high.
I saw panic and bewilderment in the eyes of runners attempting to evacuate the area. But at the same time I saw race officials calmly hurrying toward the finish line to assist the wounded and dying. I didn’t see the carnage, however, and it was probably just as well. It would have been frustrating to see those bleeding and burned while being untrained to assist them medically.
My first thought after the blasts was to retrieve my race gear from the storage buses parked at the end of Boylston. Soon I had a warm jacket on, but I was still shivering, perhaps from the fright of what I had just experienced. Fortunately my bag with race gear had a cell phone in it; but unfortunately, within two or three minutes of the blasts, all cell-phone lines were blocked. How do I reach my wife? I thought. And next, How do I contact the Lugenbeals if cell phones are useless?
I hoped my friends would be able to get past all the emergency vehicles converging on the finish-line area. Sure enough, we met 45 minutes after the blasts at a pre-selected meeting area.
Now safely in their car, I continued attempting to get a call through to my wife, Loretta, who was working in her office as one of the assistant deans of Loma Linda University’s School of Medicine. She knew I was planning on finishing in four hours flat, so, not hearing from me, she assumed I had been injured, perhaps seriously.
Finally I was able to get through to her while we drove toward the outskirts of Boston. How comforting it was to hear each other’s voices!
The Lugenbeals had their own story to tell, a story of providence as well. Earlier in the day they had thought about changing their plans and meeting me near the finish line. Their daughter, Michelle, had always wanted to watch the runners come in, but never had the opportunity. Ironically, they would have been standing on the same side of Boylston Street as the bombings, close to where the first bomb went off. But at the last minute Michelle was called to work, and their plans redirected them back to our original meeting place.
I can’t imagine how I would have felt if close friends of mine had been wounded while cheering me and other runners to the finish. Imagine the plight of scores of runners who had family members and friends seriously wounded, some of them with lifelong injuries, all because they were there to support the runners.
More than 260 spectators were injured, besides the three who lost their lives. Why hadn’t I heard reports of dozens of runners transported to area hospitals? Weeks later I realized that the crowd of spectators, usually four or five rows deep, took nearly all the flak from the shrapnel. I learned that only one runner, John Howser, ended up with a piece of shrapnel in his foot that required six stitches.
I thought back to the weekend a couple weeks before the marathon when we joined the rest of the Christian world in commemorating Christ’s death and resurrection. It took on a dramatically new meaning as I realized that Christ came into this darkened world and took the shrapnel hurled by the enemy so that we could run successfully the race that leads to His kingdom. I want to finish that race. I want family and loved ones there also.
The best advice I can share for successfully completing the great race of life is nearly 2,000 years old: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses [spectators], let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Heb. 12:1, 2).
While running this race, remember, Christ took the flak for us!