I am experiencing the lingering effects of a bad hangover. I’m not just referring to last night (which happened to be my bachelorette party), but rather to an exhausting week filled with tragedy and mixed emotions. The physical symptoms of racing the Boston Marathon on Monday have mostly faded, my legs already raring to go for my next event; it’s everything else that I’m still trying to process…

I am deeply grateful that I finished safely, 29 minutes before the bombings, and my loved ones were not harmed. Yet I was one block away, hundreds of people were harmed and I can’t help but replay Monday’s events in my mind…

Sounds of the explosions, misunderstood and dismissed at the time, and then of sirens, which did not register from too many years of living in NYC. The overwhelming flood of concerned calls and messages asking about my safety and alerting me to what had just happened. Disbelief – who would possibly bomb a marathon finish line?!

Police everywhere, roads blocked, train shut down. Confused spectators and runners. Walking (hobbling) for 4 miles parallel to a deserted race course – in the opposite direction to what I had run not long before with such hopefulness and determination – trying to get back to where we were staying. Stranded runners who weren’t able to finish their race, completely shell-shocked. My heart ached for those runners who were stopped so close to the finish line, even though that meant they were safe! One woman, who had been running for charity, showed me a photo of a young boy on the back of her t-shirt. She had been running for him. My medal hung heavily around my neck with shame, tucked beneath my bright yellow marathon shirt. I couldn’t part with it, nor could I be proud of it.

Empty race course

I felt numb as I watched the news later that evening. I couldn’t – and still can’t – wrap my head around what happened, nor do I expect to. But as I reflect back on my experience and continue to process what happened, running the Boston Marathon has taken on a very different meaning to me.

While driving to the expo, it occurred to me that somewhere along the winding path towards achieving my BQ, I had lost sight of the actual goal – to run in Boston! Of course I was eager to experience the famed crowds, conquer the Newton hills and earn that amazing unicorn medal at the finish…but if I am honest with myself, it was the challenge of qualifying in itself that had been pushing me to the start line. I wanted to prove that I could run fast enough to gain entry into one of the most honored and historic marathons, to belong to this special club of “serious” runners who wore their official Boston Marathon jackets on long training runs like badges of honor.

After several failed attempts, I finally joined that club at the finish line of the Chicago Marathon last October. My mantra throughout that race had been, “I want it more than I fear it,” the “it” being a BQ, and whatever physical pain I had to overcome to reach my goal. I remember seeing my parents at mile 25 and yelling to them, “I’m going to BQ!” The emotional impact of that statement, as I heard myself say it aloud and knew in my heart, my legs and my tears that it was true, was indescribable. Finishing that race was a spectacular moment – sheer joy and surprisingly, not much pain. Within 30 minutes of attaining my BQ, I registered for one of the last spots to run the 2013 Boston Marathon.

It was on Boylston Street, while visiting the finish line that it finally hit me – I was about to run THE Boston Marathon! I felt proud of my accomplishment but also humbled and inspired by the myriad official race jackets that surrounded me. I had only qualified by two minutes, but I worked hard for my acceptance and it was time for my 26.2 mile victory lap!

Race jackets Number pickup

Finish line Finish line

On race morning, a friend from college who has run Boston many times before and who runs a similar pace to me offered to pick me up and drive me to Hopkinton before the roads closed. We relaxed and kept warm at her friend’s house in Hopkinton until an hour before our Wave 2 start, allowing us just enough time to drop our bags and wait in the long bathroom lines. Speaking of which, tip to runners – don’t wait in the crazy  lines in the village as we did – there are tons of toilets near the corrals, so drop your bags and head over there!

What struck me most about the Boston start was that despite being a major race, it somehow had a small community feel to it. The atmosphere reminded me of any number of UK towns where I used to run local races while living in London, where my dream to run Boston emerged. As I waited in my coral, I felt a unique connection to the runners around me; we all knew what it had taken to get to Hopkinton!

Wanting to BQ but knowing I didn’t have to meant that the pressure was off, so when my hamstring started to hurt early on at mile 6 and I felt fatigue setting in much earlier than anticipated, I decided to stop looking at my watch. I was two minutes off my pace band but I didn’t care – I knew I would be better off running according to feel. Running as strong as my body would allow and finishing in a respectable time were my new goals!

Everyone told me to “enjoy every step” and I certainly tried, but it was a tough course and a good chunk of the middle miles were  unpleasant. The euphoria I experienced while passing through the “wall of sound” in Wellesley and again at BU snapped me out of my funk. My pace jumped as I felt a surge of energy from the deafening cheers. I embraced the physical pain while repeating my new mantra, “with heart and courage move I.” I had borrowed this phrase from a Native American friend while she was discussing similarities between modern marathon runners and the Ridge Runners of California coastal tribes. I no longer “wanted” anything as I did in Chicago – I simply let my heart and legs guide me towards the finish, one step at a time.

Team Claire – which was much larger this year – awaited me at the base of Heartbreak hill, infusing me with the strength I needed to reach the top. I love the two photos that my Dad took, especially the first one with the random guy on the phone and my expression (hill? what hill?!).

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Shortly thereafter, I spotted my friend from college. We pushed each other through some of those long, final miles, which was refreshing given that I usually run alone, 100% focused on my own race. I must have pushed a little too early since my pace began to slow with over 2M left and one more unexpected hill, but I knew E was waiting for me at the Citgo sign (mile 25), which kept me going.

mile 25 mile 25

The final mile seemed endless, but I felt strong as I sprinted to complete my first Boston Marathon. I didn’t get that same feeling as I did in Chicago, nor did I achieve another BQ, but I was proud to have run my second fastest marathon that day, paced extremely well to boot (check out my Garmin details). Considering the talent of my fellow runners, I am very pleased with my placements.

Boston Marathon 2013 splits & placement

I found my friend at the finish and we shared our race experiences while hobbling along to receive our medals, get food and collect our drop bags. It took us at least 25 minutes to finally reach the reunion area, where we each found our loved ones and snapped a few exhausted but happy photos. Such big smiles!

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That’s when we heard the explosions, and slowly everything unraveled into the tragic and disturbing situation we all know too well. As much as I try to make sense of it all, I just can’t. What happened was senseless. All I can do is appreciate my own experience and keep running strong in honor of everyone who was killed and injured.

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It’s worth noting that Boston came right on the heels of my not matching to a Dietetic Internship, a huge and unexpected disappointment. Just days before the race, I commented on how much I appreciated the timing of Boston just one week after Match Day, as it would remind me that there are other things in my life that I failed to achieve on my first try, but with perseverance and belief in myself, I made it happen. I wanted to run strong in this race to prove that I refused to give up on myself. And I did just that.

I no longer see the Boston Marathon as just a symbol of athletic achievement. It represents the physical and emotional hills that accompany all of life’s ambitious pursuits; the pain of failure, the joy of success and the multitude of emotions in between! We embrace these worthy challenges and even in our weakest moments, we somehow summon enough strength and courage to reach our goals. It may take several tries and at times we may lose faith, but with the support of loved ones and others sharing our path, we keep moving forward.

As much as I can’t help but care about my time (I am a runner after all), it’s everything else that keeps drawing me back to the marathon distance, and particularly to the Boston Marathon. I will be at the start line on April 21, 2014 – that is, of course, if I can get in!