This blog was originally posted on September 24, 2013 and is authored by Jim Thelen. At that time, Thelen was Vice President for Legal Affairs and General Counsel for WMU-Cooley Law School. He attended the 2013 Boston Marathon in support of his wife, Kara Zech Thelen who was a WMU-Cooley assistant professor at the time.
For the second straight year, I raced around the Boston suburbs along the city’s famed marathon route — not as marathon runner myself, but to cheer on my wife, Kara Zech Thelen, who was running the historic race. Taking a commuter train from downtown Boston out to the Wellesley area, I was able to cheer her on at the halfway point, and, catching the same train back, cheered her on again with Fenway Park just over my shoulder, a mile from the marathon’s finish line. Having learned from experience last year how crowded the sidewalks and streets are near the finish line on Boylston Street, this year I decided to jump on a subway to bypass the finish line and head directly to the family meeting area, three blocks down from the finish and one block over.
While Kara covered the last mile in perhaps eight-and-a-half minutes, it took me nearly three times that long to cover the same distance in the crowded, slow-moving subway! But I knew moments after I emerged from the subway at Arlington and Boylston Streets that she had crossed the finish line about fifteen minutes earlier, thanks to the tech-savvy Boston Marathon’s smartphone app that I had been using to track her progress throughout the day. My cell phone battery was down to 10 percent charge, taxed by the near-constant data stream I had demanded from it over the course of the race to follow my wife.
The family meeting area was a sea of energy. Excited family members crowded around the steady stream of exhausted-but-exuberant runners, easily recognizable in their post-race foil-like Mylar warming capes. Volunteers slowly weaved their way through the crowds, pulling wagons holding pails filled with long-stemmed red roses, passing them out freely to family members to give to their runners.
I hadn’t found Kara yet, but knew we would meet up shortly. I was excited to give her a congratulatory hug.
And then the loud, explosive boom echoed down the street corridor.
There was nothing right about the sound; everything about it was wrong, out of place. And yet, since we couldn’t see the blast’s billowing smoke, after a slight collective pause and momentary hush on the street, the clamor picked back up. We didn’t know yet what had happened.
My cell phone rang. It was Kara. She didn’t mention the race.
“Where are you?” Concern in her voice.
And then: “There were explosions at the finish line … I don’t know, but I think a building might have exploded.”
Shaken and uncertain now, we picked a new meeting spot, in a nearby hotel lobby where I had said goodbye and good luck to her just that morning before she was bused out to the starting line. Sirens were wailing now. With slow dawning horror, I had the vague notion that news of this was going to flash across the country. I looked down at my cell phone. Five percent charge left. Already six missed calls, and as many voicemails. Twelve text messages. Family and friends didn’t know yet if we were safe.
As we sat on a bench near the hotel’s entryway, dumbfounded with the realization of what had occurred, we managed to send a few short text messages to family and friends, letting them know we were OK.
The next several hours morphed by in an anxious blur. Our cell phone batteries died, leaving us unable to communicate with friends and family, some of whom we had yet to contact. We tried to walk back to our hotel, which was a block behind where the explosions occurred, but the police had cordoned off our street, nervously sweeping for more bombs. We were literally stranded on the street then, not sure where we could go, not sure, frankly, if it was even safe to be on the street. Kara was shivering and hungry and tired, denied the normal post-marathon recovery of nourishment, warm clothes, a hot bath, even just the chance to get off her aching legs.
And then the kindness of Boston and the marathon community took us in.
A young couple on the street, seeing Kara shivering in her race clothes and wearing the marathon finisher’s medal, gave her an orange and a protein shake. It was all they were carrying.
A few blocks down the street, some Boston University grad students had set out hot tea and coffee, bagels, and granola bars on their sidewalk steps, cheerfully offering them to runners who walked by.
We returned to the hotel we’d left to shelter in after the race, and it graciously offered its lobby for stranded runners and their families. Once inside, we encountered a man from Texas. As if by magic, he pulled out cell phone charger cords that matched our phones, and offered them to us to charge up our batteries so we could reconnect with concerned family, friends, and coworkers. We sat down, exhausted, at a nearby table, and the four Chicago women next to us, marathon finishers themselves, offered us their hotel room for the night if we couldn’t get back to ours.
We were finally permitted to go back to our hotel about seven hours after the race. The hotel staff offered complimentary glasses of wine. Maybe on a normal post-marathon day this wouldn’t make sense, but nothing made sense that night, and Kara told me later the wine was exactly the thing to help her start to relax from the tension of the day.
And yet we couldn’t relax. We had no choice but to immediately pack up. Flights were still flying in and out of Boston, and we were to be on a 6:00 a.m. flight the next morning for a long-scheduled and now sorely-needed vacation. As we walked up the sidewalk the next morning, the streets still empty and dark at the four o’clock hour, to a line of waiting taxis, a taxi driver farther up the line saw us approach. He must have seen Kara’s brightly colored Boston Marathon finisher’s jacket, for he called out to her, “Thank you for coming to our city.” It was the perfect thing to say.
We are so saddened by what happened in Boston, sick at heart for the families of those killed and maimed. And yet, we were comforted by all of the small acts of kindness extended to us as mere bystanders to the horror, not physically injured ourselves. There were so many more good people than bad in Boston that day, so many more willing to help than to hurt.
“Thank you for coming to our city” still resonated with us. Indeed. We’ll be back for next year’s marathon, hoping to find any number of small ways to repay the city’s kindness to us.