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Back from Boston

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One L&L reader who ran the Boston Marathon shares her story.

Donna Dowell | May 3, 2013

Donna Dowell is vice president at DowCo Enterprises, which she operates with her husband, Maurice, and their daughter, Kelly, in Chesterfield, Mo. She ran the race while Maurice waited at the finish line. For more photos, visit Donna's website. Check out the June edition of Lawn & Landscape for Ken Hutcheson's, U.S. Lawns president, experience at the Boston Marathon.

Ever since I turned 40, I’ve hoped to qualify for the Boston Marathon. That was 12 years ago, and last year, a friend encouraged me to start training again. There’s a small race in Santa Rosa, Calif., that touts a large percentage of Boston qualifiers. My dad was there at the finish line when I crossed running the fastest marathon of my life.

Little did I know last summer that this year Dad would be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. By the time the doctors found it, the cancer was stage four and had metastasized and spread. I flew to California to be with my folks in March, and we all flew home to St. Louis. Mom, Dad and their dog, Louie, all share our St. Louis home now.

My parents have always supported me in the pursuit of my goals. I’ve been blessed to have a husband, a son and daughter who encourage and share my successes. In the weeks before Boston, they all rallied behind me to go run that marathon. My brother Mike came and stayed at our home with my folks, and Saturday Maurice and I flew to Boston.

This race was for Dad. The whole experience was meant to be shared. Saturday afternoon we landed at Logan Airport, so I called home. Maurice and I went to the marathon expo, and I texted pictures to the family and my support team of friends. We went out to eat a lobster roll, I sent a photo home. Sunday we went to the race pasta dinner, I sent more pictures to the family.

Monday morning I woke at 5:30 and was out the door walking to Boston Commons by 6:15. The whole Boston Marathon experience is amazing. There would be about 27,000 runners and 500,000 spectators.
It’s a long ride by bus to the start and after I while I found myself thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I have to run all this way back.”

The bus dropped us off at the Athletes Village where I connected with my friends, Janet and Flavia. There were huge tents with Power Bars, fruit, bagels, coffee, water and Gatorade. An announcer blasted instructions from giant speakers and music filled the air.

For days I’d studied the Boston weather forecast. My suitcase held running gear for every possible weather combination. Unfortunately Monday was one of those borderline days where the weather could swing either way.

Since I’d had such a great run in Santa Rosa, I opted for those same thin split shorts with a t-shirt. I also added a layer of “throw-away clothes” on top of this: some old warm-up pants, a long sleeve t-shirt and then one of Maurice’s old sweaters. I had a knit cap, gloves and some trash bags. Just before my wave was to start, I reapplied sunscreen and optimistically took everything off except the shorts, t-shirt and gloves.

Some years ago, a St. Louis couple purchased a home in Hopkinton, near the starting line, and every year before the race they would open their home to runners from St. Louis as a place to stop in and hang out before the start.

The home has been sold a time or two since, but the current owners continue the tradition. On our way to the start, Janet, Flavia and I stopped in and met Boston Betty. Inside her friends and family gathered providing food and – most importantly – a bathroom with no line. I told Betty about my dad, and she pulled us aside toward another runner who “was a believer in prayer” and suggested that we all pray together. Tears filled my eyes as I left and walked to the starting line.

Runners filled the streets, which were lined with metal crowd barriers. The three of us slowly inched to our corrals.

The people were squeezed tightly together and I wondered if I would make it to my designated starting place in time. I arrived with a couple minutes to spare and then we were off.

Veteran runners had warned me to go slow. “It’s a downhill start and it will deceive you,” they said. “Take it easy.”

What I didn’t realize until around mile four was that you get sucked into a fast pace. This is no ordinary marathon: Everyone is fast. My quads started to send distress signals and I realized that I needed to reassess the situation. I slowed down and concentrated on saving my energy for the big hills that you run into around mile 16. They call it Heartbreak Hill.

Somewhere around halfway the wind decided to kick up and the clouds rolled in covering up the sun. Hello, headwind! It was sharp, cold air blowing right at me – through me.

In the meantime I stopped and took a few photos. I sent a few text messages. I took some walking breaks. Some say the Boston course is made to humble you. I tried to race smart, tapping into all my prior experience working toward that finish line. I thought about the special people in my life who were tracking my progress. I felt their love and support trudging on as my quads protested. The wind blew and my head hurt. I remembered that my Dad was in pain and suffered every day. I said a prayer and kept moving my feet.

Around mile 18 they gave out power gels and a lady shouted “Caffeine!” I grabbed a latte power gel with double caffeine and my head felt better. I kicked it up a notch, mile by mile making my way to the finish. Maurice texted me to ask how I felt and I replied “COLD.” When I was about a half hour away from the finish, he asked if I needed a jacket. I said yes.

Finally, I saw a sign saying less than one mile to go. I ran for a while and then remembered to take off the sweatband I was wearing. I twisted and wrapped the soggy terry cloth band around my wrist. I didn’t want that band across my forehead during my Boston Marathon finisher’s photo.

I’m almost there. This is the moment I’ve waited for and suddenly everyone stops. Runners in front of me are standing still. We just stop. People are saying they closed the race – they shut down the race. Then someone shouts out make phone calls while you can, soon you won’t be able to. There’s been a bomb at the finish.

Everyone who had a phone starts trying to make calls. A few people around me are crying; a fellow beside me starts throwing up. Sirens scream out and get louder as they seem to be arriving from every direction. Police cars with lights flashing and horns blowing drive through the street as the mass of runners step aside. Nobody knows what is going on and cell phones are not working.

I try to find out if Maurice was at the finish. We wait for a long time and everyone is cold, although no one says a word about that. People try to tuck their arms into their shirts and then neighbors, people nearby start to bring trash bags out of their homes. Strangers appear with pitchers of water and cups, Gatorades, sandwiches, trail mix – anything they could find to help. A woman gave me a white kitchen size trash bag to keep warm.

Eventually the crowd starts to move and I follow along walking. I could see metal crowd barriers blocking the course as we walked one street over. Looking down the side streets I could see emergency vehicles with their lights flashing. We ended up being funneled around to the bag check busses where they handed out bags of food, water and Mylar blankets. It was odd because nobody knew where to go. I couldn’t get the map on my phone to work so I kept asking people how to get to the Marriott.

By this time I had found out that Maurice was OK. When I look back on the day I am thankful that God kept us out of harm’s way. Each time I stopped and slowed down during the race moved me back from the explosions. Maurice had been at the hotel retrieving my warm up pants and jacket when the bomb went off. I have never run with a phone, but this time I took a phone and charger so I could keep in touch with the people I love.

That phone was vital when I was trying to find Maurice and find my way back. I had a few frightening moments of uncertainty but the horrible reality is that other people had terrors and losses no one should experience. Innocent people suffered, not because of an accident or a natural disaster, but something planned to do harm. That is what grieves me the most.

What wasn’t planned was the response. Strangers helped me. Everywhere you heard stories of people helping other people. The next day Bostonians would say to us: “Don’t let this keep you from Boston.” Maurice and I received loving messages of care and concern from family and friends.

Tuesday night as I walked through the airport wearing my Boston Marathon jacket a TSA agent gave me a thumbs-up and said “We’re glad you guys are back safe.” Over and over, unplanned goodness was shared by strangers.

Monday night after the race when I settled in at the hotel, I phoned my dad. “Well, Dad, you were going to be the first one I phoned from the finish,” I said.

I could tell the tears were falling as he told me how happy he was to hear my voice, to know I was OK. He told me how special it was to see that I had written “Dad” on my arm. I was able to talk once more to the father that I love. I had one more occasion to say I love you to the people that matter. That is my biggest take away from this marathon.

We have opportunities every day to tell the people we love that we love them. We have the chance to let our friends know just how much they matter to us; this is what’s really important. People.
 

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