Marathon mayhem: Training didn't include running for their lives

We had all prepared for this day, but we had not prepared for this scenario: The panic of frantically attempting to count heads, fearing anyone unaccounted for at that moment might well be dead, or dismembered.

Our hotel lobby, about three blocks from the finish line, was teeming with runners, some still caped in shiny space blankets, and others, damp-haired and freshly showered, wearing their blue-and-yellow Boston Marathon jackets.

The preparation for a marathon is impressive– for the runners, and for those who organize the event. My husband, Harry Landers, is the marathon runner in our family. He arises well before dawn nearly every morning, for training runs and track workouts with his Charlottesville runner friends, known as the Boston Bounders, a group organized by Mark Lorenzoni of the Ragged Mountain Running Shop.

As the 2013 Boston Marathon approached, the Boston Bounders were obsessing over their checklists. In addition to running clothes and footwear, they’d better not forget the high-tech watches that monitor speed and mileage, and the water bottles, packets of high-energy gel, Vaseline for the toes– the list goes on.

The folks in the Boston Athletic Association, no doubt, had their own checklists involving road closures and police protection; medical provisions for dehydration, pulled muscles, and heart attacks; and thousands of yellow-and-blue-ribboned medals to hand out.

On the big day, near the finish line, staff at Marlo Marketing prepared to celebrate Patriots Day and the Marathon with a cocktail party for their employees, two floors above the Sugar Heaven candy store, which is next to the Marathon Sports shop.

Someone was tasked with building a tower of margaritas: individual glasses filled with the tequila cocktail, stacked high and ready for thirsty guests. The margarita tower was not far from the expansive windows looking out over the finish line on Boylston Street below.

And somewhere nearby, in the days and hours preceding the carnage on Boylston Street, two brothers were busy with their own checklists. They gathered pressure cookers, ball bearings, nails, batteries, explosives, wires, circuit boards, along with backpacks to transport their carefully assembled bombs. Additionally, there were locations to scout, there was timing to consider. So much preparation, and it would all be over in a matter of seconds.

It was a gorgeous day, chilly and sunny. Harry and the Boston Bounders had assembled at dawn for the bus ride out to the starting line in Hopkinton. I kissed him goodbye, but didn’t start a conversation. I knew he was nervous and had a lot on his mind. A lot to remember about what to bring, about pacing, about strategy for his goal of finishing the race in under three and a half hours.

This is what runners enjoy about the marathon: It’s an ever-changing challenge as the terrain varies; wind, sun, and temperature fluctuate; and their bodies react to the physical trial. Harry tells me that it is never monotonous, you’re always thinking about how you’re handling whatever conditions you’re encountering, moment by moment.

The runners have been preparing for multiple contingencies, and all this information is running through their heads as they make their way to the starting line.

That morning, Harry’s Vermont friend, Troy Headrick, was in the North End of Boston, preparing for the Marathon with a big box of cannolis from Mike’s Pastry. Troy’s tradition is to hand off a cannoli to each of his runner friends at mile 25 of the race.

As we traditionally do, the friends of the Charlottesville contingent assembled at mile 25.5, along with coach Lorenzoni, to watch the action, monitor everyone by way of the online tracking service, and cheer our runners toward the finish line.

By two o’clock, Harry had passed us, grinning and brandishing his pistachio cannoli. He was headed toward a three-hour-and-thirty-nine minute finish, missing his three- and-a-half-hour goal, but having a good time, nonetheless.

Assuming the finish line would be so crowded as to be impassible, I have never– in the five Boston Marathons he has run– watched Harry cross it. As I made my way back to the hotel to meet him, I gave the finish line a wide berth, got lost, and it took me until maybe 2:30 to return to the Loews hotel on Stuart Street.

By that time, 25-year-old Jenna Llewellyn, who grew up near Charlottesville and now lives in Boston, was attending her company’s cocktail party at Marlo Marketing. The ladies were in dresses and heels, and it was a lovely affair with a lofty view of the finish line– and margaritas, to boot.

The Boston Athletic Association’s volunteers were busy handing out medals and directing exhausted runners to pick up their bags of food and drink. Dehydrated runners were hooked up to IVs in the medical tent.

Everyone had prepared– runners, spectators, organizers. Everything was going according to plan.

All the while, the Tsarnaev brothers were sharking around on Boylston Street, carefully setting down their backpacks at the feet of unsuspecting spectators. They placed one pack on the sidewalk below and off to the left of the Marlo Marketing party, in front of Marathon Sports, the other in front of Forum restaurant, a block down Boylston. Dzhokar Tsarnaev appeared relaxed and pleased. His preparation was about to pay off.

Back in our hotel, I was composing a Facebook status update, bragging about how my guy had just completed his fifth Boston Marathon.

At that moment, Jenna Llewellyn was at the cocktail party at Marlo. She reached for a margarita from the tower of filled glasses. As her hand extended, the glass tower exploded toward her, disintegrating into fragments as the windows blew in. The room filled with smoke, and someone had to break a window in the back of the building so everyone could reach the fire escape.

Below, the second bomb had gone off, and Boylston Street was puddled with blood.

That’s when the preparations made over the course of entire careers swung into place, as lives were saved by strangers (including uniformed soldiers who had walked the marathon route) using belts and clothing as tourniquets, and emergency responders flooded in to rush the injured to hospitals.

In our hotel room, we felt nothing, heard nothing. I read a Facebook post in which a friend wrote, “Holy shit— explosions! What is happening?” We hurried down to the lobby where we knew everyone would be gathering and heard the ghastly updates.

When you have a runner in the Boston Marathon, you can track his progress electronically. You know where he is, you know if he’s on pace. You know when he crosses the finish line. You know he’s alive.

We thought we had prepared ourselves for everything. We had not prepared for this. Not for horror and shock arising from cruelty that defies comprehension. Not for frenzied scanning of every face in the crowded lobby, praying to see one of the many people not yet accounted for, envisioning them with legs blown off, or dead in the street.

In time, we checked every name off our mental list: Everyone safe, everyone accounted for. Jenna Llewellyn was miraculously unscathed, and had jumped to safety by way of a fire escape that didn’t quite reach the ground.

We all, whether we’re good guys or bad guys, do our best to control our worlds by way of checklists and preparation. The trouble is, if doing harm to us is on someone else’s to-do list, it may be impossible to control our world. The best we can do is start over, and make a new list.

Janis Jaquith lives in Free Union, and is the author of the Kindle eBook Birdseed Cookies: A Fractured Memoir, a collection of radio commentaries she has broadcast on NPR stations.

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