Running back to Boston

Heather midway through the Boston Marathon

Heather Irvine is the associate editor of The Juice Online. She ran the 2014 Boston Marathon, with a time of 3:42:34, returning to a site where a horrific bombing occurred a year before. This is her story.

The buildup to the 118th running of the Boston Marathon was intense, and it started on the evening of April 15, 2013 — a day that will forever mark the world’s greatest marathon. Boston Strong became a rallying cry, not just in a city still reeling from an attack on Patriots’ Day, but across the country and around the world.

I ran my first marathon on April 15, 2013. Having grown up cheering on the runners in Natick, I was excited for my first to be Boston. I hit my sub-four goal with a time of 3:56:42. And I raised more than $5,000 for the American Liver Foundation’s Run for Research team. I didn’t plan on coming back unless I qualified (3:35 or better for my age and gender). Those who know me know I stick to a plan.

Heather after she finished the Boston Marathon

But as I turned off Boylston Street and onto Clarendon at 2:50 p.m., the bombs went off, and my plan changed. Of course I had to come back in 2014 — it was going to be a race like no other.

So for another year I trained. I fundraised. I shaved seven minutes off my Boston time in New York last November (on a course where personal records are hard to come by).

I cried when I watched coverage, read articles, saw pictures of that fateful day at 2:50 p.m., exactly 10 minutes after I crossed the finish line. But they weren’t true cries. My throat choked up. Tears came. But I held them back. I gritted my teeth and embarked on yet another training journey, during the winter of the Polar Vortex.

As the months and weeks leading up to April 21, 2014 went by, I started prepping myself mentally. I knew this was going to be an amazing race, but I kept forgetting how emotional it would be. How hard it would be to turn onto Boylston Street and run by the site of two bombings.

The week before the big day, I ran in Stage 308 of the One Run for Boston, a relay started last year by three Brits. Runners ran from Los Angeles to Boston to honor the fallen. On April 11, I joined about 20 other runners for a 9-mile run from the World Trade Center to Harlem. I cried at the start. A memorial to commemorate those lost on Sept. 11 and running for those affected by the Boston Marathon bombings? It was too much. But we ran. And it was an incredible experience. It got me even more psyched for Boston.

In the early morning of April 21, the 36,000 runners in Athletes’ Village in Hopkinton stopped their nervous chatter and put down their Vaseline and bananas to observe a moment of silence, reflecting on the events of April 15, 2013. I welled up but then refocused on the task at hand: 26.2 miles to Boston.

We all knew the weather was going to be rough (high of 66 degrees). I had my goals (3:30-3:40), but mostly wanted to enjoy the race and finish strong. Dare I say it, Boston Strong?

The crowds were like nothing I’ve ever witnessed before. We really did come back stronger than ever to see more.

I ran hard but even until mile 18, when I hit the Newton Hills. The heat was getting to me, and I started slowing as I crested Heartbreak Hill. I knew my 3:30 was gone, but that was OK. Today wasn’t really about that, as much as my competitive self tried to fight back. “Enjoy every step,” I kept saying. “Every painful step.”

Once I saw the Citgo sign looming in the distance, I was rejuvenated. I knew what was waiting for me, as I turned right on Hereford and left on Boylston. So I pressed on, gritting my teeth with every step.

I couldn’t have prepared myself for Boylston Street, with the finish line in sight, “just” 385 yards down the road. The crowd put the Wellesley Scream Tunnel and Boston College kids to shame. Faster and faster I sped down Boylston. This is it. My GPS watch lost reception — who cares? I looked up at the cameras (I still don’t know how the picture came out — ugly, I’m sure) and nearly collapsed over the finish line.

I fell into the arms of a volunteer as she carried me to the medical tent. They gave me fluids, congratulated me (“Why do you do this for us crazies?” I asked). Once I got my color back and caught my breath, they dismissed me. I meandered along Boylston, receiving my coveted medal and a blanket.

I was amazed I had been so strong emotionally. My focus was on the crowd and the finish line. I thought I would break down as I passed Marathon Sports, where the first bomb went off. But I didn’t. The crowd was carrying me.

But then I turned onto Clarendon Street, and I lost it. I started crying hysterically. I thought I was going to collapse. This is where I saw the bombs go off. This is where I thought they were cannons, generators. I hyperventilated into the jacket of a volunteer (a U.S. Marshall). She didn’t talk. She just hugged me. As I started to regain composure, she told me she lost a cousin in Iraq. I started bawling again. Where did this come from? As I tried to process why this was happening, it dawned on me: I never really cried. This was my closure: nearly the same time and place that started it all a year ago.

I will still grieve, every April 15, every Boston Marathon. But a weight has been lifted — one I never knew I was carrying. My legs cry in pain every time I move, but my heart is lighter.

The Boston Marathon hurt me last year. But that same great race made me stronger and gave me back my finish line. And with it, a new PR of 3:42:34.