Julie Gillis is an avid runner and documentation specialist. She lives in Lancaster, MA with her husband Chris of 18 years and her two sons Andrew, 14 and Brandon, 11. When she is not enjoying time with family and friends, she’s out running the beautiful country roads of Central MA. Running has always been a positive force in Julie’s life until the recent events that occurred on April 15 at 117th Boston Marathon. She hopes that sharing her story will assist others in the healing process and inspire them to keep running.
The Boston Marathon has always represented that race which nagged me to the core. That race I would never be fast enough to qualify for until I was 90. That race I would sit out year after year only to result in Marathon depression because I wasn’t participating in the Super Bowl of running events. That race that people would assume I had run because I was a marathoner, a non-runner just couldn’t comprehend that there was any other race.
Finally on Patriots Day of 2012, I decided I would run That Race! To prove to others and myself that the Boston Marathon was that race I could tame. To find out what this Boston Marathon frenzy was all about. To be able to answer to a non-runner that, “yes I have run Boston.” To not have to be a wallflower on race day. I would put in the months of training in the rain, sleet and snow, run the most grueling races with 18 miles of hills, after hills, after hills, which would result in not be able to walk normally for days.
A few weeks before the 2013 race, the Boston Marathon frenzy had begun. Family, friends and colleagues came out of the woodwork to show support. To the point, that on several occasions, I was moved to tears by kind words and gestures of support. Even the newspapers wanted to talk to me, I had never experienced the true sense of community before and it was overwhelming. It was hard to focus on anything else. Finally, the true meaning of the Boston Marathon had revealed itself and we were all in this race together. Symbolizing that together we can inspire one another to reach our goals.
On race day my family and I headed out to Hopkinton in the early morning hours. Surprisingly, I was feeling pretty calm. Then, in the distance, I spotted the sign, “ Welcome to Hopkinton” and tears started to flow. The few hours before the race flew by. I hugged my teammate goodbye and wished her luck and then I entered my corral on my own. The start of the race was signaling to begin with the gun going off. Just 50 yards beyond the starting line, in the front row of spectators, were the smiling faces of my family who came to cheer me on. I knew my life would never be the same but not for the reasons I had anticipated.
Once reaching Wellesley Center, I finally started to settle in knowing my family was only three miles away at mile 16. That they had come all the way out to see me, motivated me to make it up Heartbreak Hill. The momentum was building; I knew I had this race beat! Miles 22-24 were the most strenuous part of the race, I had to stop and keep stretching because my legs felt like glass, as if one more step would shatter them into a million pieces. This feeling was familiar from previous races, but visualizing the ultimate celebration at the finish line kept me going. At mile 25 the pain disappeared and with the view of the Citgo sign in my sights, I started to play with the crowd, telling them to yell louder, high-fiving as many people as I could along the way.
At mile 25.59 everything just stopped… I began to think I was seeing things… maybe I was dehydrated. Was this the dreaded wall that everyone talked about? It couldn’t be, I was feeling great. No that wasn’t it…
Then my phone rang, it was my 14-year-old son, “Mom stop running, there has been an explosion. And then immediately I heard my husband’s voice, calmly on the other end. “There was an explosion right in front of us, but we are all OK!” We decided to hang up the phone to save our batteries until we could make a plan.
Side by side runners stood together in the street stunned and numb as the news traveled between us. Cold, with no water or foil blankets to keep warm; without warning we were ushered to the side of the road to allow for law enforcement to race past us in unmarked cars with tinted windows. It was like a scene from a movie.
I then went into survival mode and texted my husband my location “ I am at 395 Comm. Ave, come meet me.” At this point the phones were working sporadically, so I just kept texting. Then a reply finally came through: ”We can’t get you, won’t let us, we are in lock down in Prudential Center.” These were not the words I wanted to see scroll across my phone. Now we were separated and we couldn’t get to one another.
The cold started to settle into my body and I couldn’t stop shaking. A total stranger, who gave me the jacket off her back, encouraged me to seek shelter in a nearby hotel. At this point my fingers that were once pink and had now turned white. My poor circulation was now starting to catch up with me and my blood was starting to sludge—a term coined by my specialist who I had seen years ago for my poor circulation.
After the hotel employees saw how cold I was, they finally let me in. Initially the hotel management didn’t want to let us in for security reasons. They had some of the elite runners occupying the hotel and at that point everyone was still on high alert.
Finally a second call came in from my husband. He said that he was told by the police to leave the city immediately to just GET OUT! We couldn’t take our car as it was locked down at the Prudential, and there was no public transportation or cab service available. The city was going into lock down so we decided to meet up at Fenway Park in the corporate office, where my husband had a business associate who would be able to drive us home.
So with a bath towel wrapped around my body for warmth, I walked to Fenway to meet my family. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty; I just wanted to see them. I didn’t want to stop for a meal or water like my husband kept urging me to do. I wasn’t thinking about that fact that I had just run a marathon and needed to refuel, I just wanted to see their faces and know they were OK.
Two hours later, I was finally reunited with my family. We all embraced in a group hug and broke down into tears. Looking at each one of their faces making sure they were all physically healthy.
During the days and weeks that followed the race, I experienced a range of emotions. I felt terribly guilty for bringing my family to Boston. Running had become my selfish indulgence just for me, now it almost killed my family and shook them to the core. If it weren’t for my selfishness, they wouldn’t have been at the finish line and witnessed the cruel acts of terrorism. I was extremely angry that I had to listen to my youngest son relive his Marathon experience of the bombing with a smile on his face and tears in his eyes. Saddened by the fact that my husband had to search our finish line pictures for potential terrorists to submit to the FBI. Haunted by the screams of onlookers at the finish line and knowing that my family was caught up in the craziness and imagining their screams and cries when they realized what had taken place.
Visualizing the finish line during a tough training run had always gotten me through, but now was plagued with flash backs of bombs and bloody bodies. Once again, That Race, the all mighty Boston Marathon, had broken my heart.
The Boston Marathon may have broken my heart, but I won’t let it break my spirit nor will it stop me from running in 2014. Now I am even more determined to run, That Race and cross that finish line to fade the flashbacks. I want to honor my older son’s wish, who made me promise only days after the race, “Mom please tell me we won’t let this change how we live our lives”. So I will run this next race for my family, friends, community and charity, to let everyone know we won’t let this change us. We will remember the good things that this journey has given us, the new friends we have met along the way; the obstacles overcome to get to this race and the overwhelming support we received from our community. I will run this race most importantly, to honor those who were killed and wounded by the bombs.
In 2014 I will cross that finish line. The Boston Marathon will not break my heart and it will no longer be That Race.