Remembering Boston Marathon tragedy inspires patriotism in one 477 FG runner

  • Published
  • By Dave Nickell
  • 477th Fighter Group

As I prepare for the 2017 Boston Marathon, pounding the payment in 0 degree temperatures, on snow and ice covered trails, my mind is often drawn back to my first Boston Marathon, the 2013 marathon and my journey getting there, and the catastrophic ending to the event.  Although I was not a victim physically, the events that day certainly had an impact on me and my family and altered my perspective on many things.

My running journey began in 1981 when I was 25 years old.  I had never been athletic growing up.  But, while stationed in Germany I decided to quit smoking and I replaced it with running.  Jim Fixx, Frank Shorter, Bill Rogers, Alberto Salazar and others exploded onto the scene with Olympic and major marathon wins and all of sudden running became in craze in America.  Someone suggested I read Jim Fixx’s book, “The Complete Book of Running.”  I was hooked and immediately began searching for a marathon that I could run.  It just so happened that the Frankfurt Marathon was scheduled for May 1982.  So, referring back to Jim Fixx’s book, I built a training schedule and I stuck to it.  I can remember laying on the living room floor in tears because my shins hurt so bad from overtraining.  But, I kept running and within six months I transformed from a pack and a half a day smoker to a marathon runner.  That was 34 years ago, and since then I’ve ran 35 official marathons and several volksmarch type marathons.

I’ve ran some pretty neat marathons all around the world, however running the Boston Marathon is every marathon runner’s dream.  It is the longest consecutive running marathon in the world, with this year’s event being the 121st.  It is also the only marathon that you have to qualify for.  Although I had qualified for Boston while I was in my thirties, being stationed in Europe made it logistically impossible for me run it.  However, in 2012 I ran a qualifying time at the Air Force Marathon in Dayton, Ohio.  The qualifying standard for my age group at that time was 3 hours and 40 minutes.  I ran it in 3 hours and 25 minutes and placed second in my age group.  I was ecstatic.  The Air Force Marathon was the 15th of September, the same day registration closed for the 2013 Boston Marathon.  Following the marathon, I hurried to the hotel room and, with just minutes to spare, submitted my application online to the Boston Athletic Association.  Five days later I received an email stating I had been accepted to run the Boston Marathon.  I was beside myself.  After 30 years of running marathons, I was finally going to be able to participate in the premier marathon. 

The training began then, right then.  I didn’t wait until January, I started the moment I got the notice.  I laced up the running shoes and hit the pavement.  For seven months I trained.  I even signed up for another marathon, the Richmond Marathon, in November and cut ten minutes off my qualifying time.  April 15th couldn’t come quick enough.  What a great event it was going to be.  On April twelfth we loaded up two cars and headed for Boston.  I had quite the support team which consisted of my mother and father who had travelled from Arkansas, my daughter, son in law, three grandkids, and, the head cheer leader, my wife.  Every window on our cars had cheers painted on them with yellow marking chalk…Boston Marathon Bound, and Team Nickell along with my race number.  Needless to say, we drew a lot of attention during the drive to Boston.  It was a big deal and my family made sure it was a big deal for me.  We had a great time at the expo rubbing shoulders with other die hard marathon runners…the best of the best which added to the excitement. 

The morning of the marathon was certainly an emotional time for me.  Of course most marathoners are very emotional…we cry at the start of the race, we cry when we pass a wheel chair racer struggling up a hill, we cry when we see an amputee hobbling along, and then we cry when we finish.  If we don’t cry real tears, our heart swells to the point of bursting.  Anyway, when the gun went off my emotions almost got the best of me…after all these years I’m finally running the Boston Marathon!  As I clicked the miles off, I couldn’t believe the number of spectators along the course and the enthusiasm they exuded.  Bill Rodgers the four-time winner of the Boston and New York marathons, probably described Boston Marathon fans best when he stated in his book Marathon Man, “These aren’t your average running fans.  They are as loyal as they come, showing up year after year, rain or shine.  They know the marathon, they understand its tradition, they admire the runners, and they sure know how to party.  It’s like loving the Red Sox. They’ve been around for a hundred years, and so has the Boston Marathon.  It’s a lifetime relationship.”

So for 26.2 miles spectators lined the course.  The noise level was almost deafening at times and I fed off their energy.  Although Boston is known to be one of the most difficult marathon courses in the world, the energy gained from the fans more than makes up for the course difficulty.  Of course I had heard horror stories and read about how difficult Heartbreak Hill was so I had made a plan that I was going to conserve my energy in order to tackle it.  Upon reaching it at the 20 and a half mile point I was ready for it.  After cresting the hill I turned to a runner next to me and asked, was that it?  I had psyched myself up so much for it that it was easier than I had anticipated.  From here on it was a fairly easy downhill stroll to the finish.  When I made the turn onto Boylston Street for the home stretch the cheers of thousands of people sounded like a rumbling geyser.   Then my eyes caught sight of my family standing there cheering me on.  Although I was mindful of my time, I veered off the most direct path to the finish and ran to the sideline to give them all high fives…probably cost me 10 or 15 seconds, but I didn’t care at this point. I was about to finish the most prestigious marathon in the world and in a very respectable time and all of my family was there to see it and celebrate with me.

After, crossing the finish line I felt awesome…and yes I cried. I felt so good that when my family joined up with me I informed them that I was ready to start the trek to the subway.  Normally, following a marathon I have to rest for a little bit to recover and I usually stick around to cheer on other runners. Not this day. I felt awesome and for some reason was ready to depart the area. What a joyous time it was. I was receiving texts and phone calls from friends congratulating me. Who would have thought that within a few minutes my time of celebration would be come to an abrupt halt? 

Approximately an hour and 10 minutes after I finished and just as we were getting into our car at the subway station parking lot, we received word that two bombs had just gone off at the finish line.

To say we were dazed and confused at that moment would be an understatement. It wasn’t until I was standing in the shower a few hours later that it really hit me as to how catastrophic this event was and how so many lives had be tragically impacted. I was overwhelmed with emotions. Overwhelmed with grief for those that were suffering, and overwhelmed with thankfulness that my family had narrowly escaped being victims of this selfless cruel act. My entire family was standing just a few yards from where the second bomb had gone off.  Had I needed time to recover, we would have probably returned to that spot to regroup and cheer on other runners. 

For the next few days we were engulfed finding as much information as possible about this tragic event. Life came to a standstill for us. We were dazed. Oh, we went about our daily lives, but mostly numb to everything other than what was going on in Boston…the manhunt, the stories of those that had lost relatives, the healing process for those injured…we were captivated…we wanted justice.

During the year between the 2013 Boston Marathon and the 2014 marathon we watched with great pride as runners, a community, and a nation came together as one. One, to help those that have suffered to recover. One, to resolve never to allow terrorism to control our actions. One, to show terrorists or those that might support terrorism that Americans will not succumb to fear.

As I ran the 2014 Boston marathon, and yes I ran it although others thought I was crazy for doing so, it became immediately apparent to me that although the terrorist might have inflicted pain on a few, they had not affected our resiliency…if anything, they brought runners, Boston and our nation closer together and even rekindled the patriotism that often becomes silent and buried within each of us. 

That’s one thing that makes Americans special. Hollywood and the media often portraits us as an unpatriotic, apathetic, a laissez-faire group of people, but let something tragic happen among us and watch as the patriotism and the “stand-as-one” attitude rises within us.

The number of fans at the 2014 marathon increased from an average of 400,000 to over 1 million. I tried to take in as many signs as I could while running. But the theme was consistent,  they said things like: “Thanks for Running,” “Boston Runs as One,” “Boston Strong,” and “We Run Together.”    

Then, as I turned that corner once more onto Boylston Street and heard the crowd of thousands of fans screaming and cheering, I felt like I truly understood what the term Boston Strong meant. These people were telling the world, “You can’t get us down…this is our race, this is our town…you might have hurt us, but you haven’t taken us out of the race.”

Finally, as we were riding the subway back to our hotel I noticed four people sitting across from us in the car with VIP seating passes around their neck. I pointed them out to my wife who doesn’t have a shy bone in her. To my amazement she asked them how they got their VIP seating passes. One of the two ladies very humbly informed her that her husband and the other gentleman with her had performed the amputee surgeries on most of those injured. She had in her hand a flag that Carlos, the man who was shown with the cowboy hat pushing the wheel chair, had given her. All four of them were quick to let us know that even after seeing first-hand the grotesque results of the bombs, and that it could possibly happen again, they wouldn’t have missed this event for anything in the world. They also congratulated me over and over again for completing the marathon…like I had won the race and I was an elite world class runner and hero. I thought, and what I thought, my wife said for me, “You got it all wrong, you two are the heroes.”  True Stand-as-One Americans.

This year will be my fourth year to make that turn down Boylston Street. Once again I’ll be overwhelmed with emotions as I see hundreds of thousands of spectators showing the world true American grit.  Yes, once more my heart will swell with pride, proud to be an American and to be a part of a group of people that when put to the test will stand together as One!