BOSTON – In the most terrifying of moments, she made a solemn promise. She made the promise in spite of her sudden fears and the sudden screams of a firefighter. She made the promise even though the woman in her arms was someone she didn't even know.
Through the horrifying minutes, depressing days and arduous months after that moment, she kept the promise. She's keeping it still.
She says it's the least and the most she can do.
To hear Lauren Blanda describe the Boston Marathon is to feel what it's like to run it. She talks about the beauty of the Wellesley campus and the college women blowing kisses. She talks about the rancor of Fenway, and how the pavement is sometimes sticky with leftover beer. She talks about Heartbreak Hill, and how the downhill parts can cause your quad muscles to scream more than any ascent.
And she talks about the thrill of the start of the final stretch: "When you turn that corner out in Newton, at this firehouse, and there are people on the hill screaming, and all the B.C. students. I've always remembered that area being fully lined, both sides." She gets goosebumps just talking about it.
Blanda, 32, has loved the Boston Marathon since before she ran it for the first time in 2006. She's from Nashua, N.H., and she went to school in town at Emerson College. She's lived here since then, but she's been a runner all her life. She did the race three times and thought that was plenty, figuring she was close enough to the event working at the apparel store City Sports, which is an iconic part of road racing in Boston. Last year, on Marathon Monday, she was with a group of friends, including her boyfriend, near the finish line when someone wanted to get something to drink. So everyone filed into Marathon Sports for a few minutes.
Then she saw it.
"I saw a huge explosion through the front window of the store," Blanda says. "That's when everything started to happen."
There was a huge flash and then black smoke. Her mind reached for a benign explanation. Maybe it was a streetlight that blew out.
"In my heart of hearts," she says, "I knew what it was."
A few seconds later, there was another explosion. And then came the rush of panic. People began rushing everywhere. Blanda's mind bolted to dark places. What was in all that smoke? What was everyone breathing in?
"It smelled like fireworks," she says. "That's something that stays with me."
Her boyfriend, Andrew Daley, had already started out toward the street to help people when the second bomb went off. There was an alley behind Marathon Sports, and Blanda and the others could only think to help ferry people from the street through the store and out the backdoor of the building to safety.
The store quickly became a triage unit for first responders. One of Andrew's childhood friends who worked at Marathon Sports, Joe McMenemy, took off his belt and used it as a makeshift tourniquet for an injured woman. Lauren leaned over her and cradled her in her arms.
"I was holding her head," she says, "and she was saying, 'Don't leave me.' "
But the store wasn't a safe place. There was a palpable fear that another bomb would go off at any second, and maybe more explosions would follow. A fireman appeared and told everyone to get out.
Lauren, Andrew and Joe didn't feel like they could – not with this poor woman lying helpless. "We couldn't leave," she says. "We promised her we would not leave."
So they stayed.
After minutes that felt like hours, the woman, whose name is Michelle L'Heureux, got the medical care she needed. Lauren and her friends held her hand and called her father. Finally they could go, but they were ushered through the front of the store instead of out the back. What they saw was ghastly and deeply upsetting.
"There were still some people out there," Blanda says. "The sidewalks were covered in blood."
Lauren went back to her place in Cambridge and tried to process what had happened. She was supposed to go to work the next day, but she couldn't imagine leaving her house. She had acted bravely, like so many other Bostonians on that day, but she felt weighed down by guilt, knowing that so many others were dealing with agony that she could have felt had she not gone inside at the right time.
"I could have been one of them," she says. "Still, to this day, it's a little hard to shake."
Running was only somewhat helpful. Blanda tried to funnel some of her emotion into it, but there was still the knowledge that she could run and others couldn't. Work, when she returned to her job, was also bittersweet. "The marathon is part of our business," she says. "It's hard to separate the two."
By January, Lauren and Andrew started to talk about the 2014 marathon. They knew they would always remember where they were when the race returned to Boston.
"If I hadn't run, how would I feel?" she says. "I knew if that weekend came, and I wasn't running, it wouldn't feel right. I think I would regret it if I didn't."
They were engaged now, Andrew and Lauren. And together, they would run.
But someone else would be running that weekend, too.
Over the course of the last 12 months, the group of friends stayed in touch with L'Heureux, the woman who they helped in the store on that awful day. Healing was very difficult for her: she needed surgeries to repair an arm and a leg, along with skin grafts. Both her eardrums had blown out from the blast, so she had hearing loss as well.
L'Heureux, 38, fought through it all, and she became close with Lauren, Andrew and Joe. The four decided that on the Saturday before this year's marathon, they would run the 5K in Boston together. It was L'Heureux's first road race.
Blanda has devoted a lot of energy to helping the bombing survivors, including being a part of raising $120,000 from City Sports T-shirt sales as the company's newly promoted head of merchandise. Her bond with L'Heureux, though, is most rewarding of all.
In her own writing, L'Heureux has called Lauren, Andrew, and Joe her "heroes." Lauren, who has been very reluctant about public attention and praise, is happy just to see her friend feeling better. She says the Saturday race was "the most fun 5K I've ever run."
Lauren is racing on Marathon Monday, for what she says will be the final time. Once more, she'll leave for Hopkinton at dawn, take in the beauty of Wellesley, smell the beer of Fenway, make the turn at Newton and push herself toward the distant clamor beneath the skyline.
The pain has been great, during those sad nights and the 20-mile training runs in the cold days. But there is something greater now: the race she ran a year later with her new friend, and the promise she kept.