It’s the third Monday of April, a regular day for most of the country, but in Boston, far from that. The calendar reads Patriots’ Day — Marathon Monday to locals.
Packed commuter rail trains heading north and south converge in the city. A short subway ride on the MBTA’s green line gets you to where you want to be. As you emerge from the underground station (likely between Arlington and Kenmore) you suddenly become one among thousands.
It’s a pure celebration. No work or school adds to euphoria in the air. What the weather will be like in late April is impossible to pinpoint, but there are two constants that make the holiday unparalleled: the early Red Sox game and the Boston Marathon.
The Fenway faithful gather into the ballpark for matinee action. A few steps outside in Kenmore Square, the runners’ 26.2 mile trek from Hopkinton passes right through en route to the coveted finish line about a mile away. Streets are packed with people cheering, and the 35,000-plus from the Sox game eventually intensify the madness.
April 15, 2013 was no different — everything was great, until it wasn’t. The Red Sox had just completed a three-game sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays thanks to a Mike Napoli RBI double off the Green Monster in the ninth inning.
The game ended around 2:10 p.m. EST and about 30 minutes later explosions rang out as two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Roughly 210 yards apart from each other, at the most crowded area in Copley Square, on the busiest day in the city.
Three were killed, countless injured and multitudes unable to finish the race. An area often overcome with tears of elation was tragically transformed to a bloody horror story.
“Runners all of the sudden started coming at me and there was just sheer panic and terror on people’s faces,” remembered Courtney Gardner, a Boston University alum who was stopped less than a mile short of crossing the line. “I switched into ‘screw the race, I have to get to my family’ mentality.”
Her family had traveled in from different parts of the country to watch her run. As she fought through immense pain that she later found out was a torn meniscus, they tracked her every move and enjoyed the atmosphere. In preparation to capture the awaited moment, her mother and aunt headed left toward the finish line, while her father and uncle made their way right toward the final turn.
The bombs went off soon after with them caught in the middle of chaos. Luckily, they escaped injury. Many others weren’t as fortunate.
“[I] didn’t really have any harsh feelings about not finishing, all that mattered to me at that point was that my family and friends were safe,” Gardner said. “I hadn’t realized how bad it was until we got to my friend’s apartment and started watching the news. That’s when it really sunk in.”
Around the country people were glued to TVs and social media desperate for information. Meanwhile, some in Boston still didn’t have a clue what was going on.
One resident reminisced on how naive she was to see runners crying and thinking it had something to do with the emotions that come from running 26.2 miles.
“I can see light in it now how amazing it was to see everyone lending a helping hand among all the craziness and uncertainty,” said Wunmi Opere-Toyin, who lived around mile 23 at the time.
Like most college students in Boston, she was enjoying the best day on the calendar. It’s as much a rite of passage as seeing the New England Patriots win Super Bowls. We wake up earlier than usual and prepare for a marathon of our own — daylong binge-drinking while cheering on waves of randoms. A day with nothing to worry about besides having fun with your friends, the pinnacle of a Boston college experience.
“Marathon Monday is better than Christmas!” Gardner proclaimed.
As we prepare for the spectacle, others have been doing so for months. The prestigious Boston Marathon brings out the best runners from around the world. It means more than other races because not just anyone could participate. Strict, insanely fast qualifying times or raising thousands of dollars for charities are the two main ways to get an entry. Athletes stress over a “BQ” which is running a Boston qualifying time in a prior marathon just to get access to toe the line in Massachusetts. Others fundraise for incredible causes and train vigorously to accomplish the goal.
Red Sox more than baseball
Sure, there are other marathons with bigger crowds and more runners, but this one is always a bit more special.
That’s why the pain of two cowards trying to ruin a tradition stung a little more. That’s why David Ortiz’s “this is our f---ing city!” speech at Fenway Park five days later turned into arguably his biggest moment as a beloved Red Sox legend.
From Big Papi’s moment in April to a World Series parade on a chilly November morning, the band of bearded brothers were able to finish their own race. For Boston. In a city so rabid about its sports, in a time of needed healing and distraction, it was Ortiz and the Sox that changed the landscape with a championship celebration.
As the duck boats made their way down the final meters of the marathon course, it felt like everything froze as Jonny Gomes gave us something to eternally remember.
“The moment during the parade when Jonny Gomes laid the jersey over the trophy — it’s gonna go down as probably one of the best moments in Boston sports history,” said Daveson Perez, who worked for the 2018 champion Red Sox and ran the marathon in 2019.
“You can’t help to get chills while you’re running to think about it,” he added. “Especially when you’re taking that left and running down Boylston toward the finish line because it’s so vivid in our minds as Bostonians everything that happened.”
“Boston Strong” morphed into more than just a saying. It became a mantra of resilience reminding us to dig deep during our toughest times. Not only did the city rise up to overcome tragedy, but the nation and world aided throughout the process too. Love and bravery overpowered hate and evil. The spirit of the city grew stronger. Thus was born “One Boston Day” as Mayor Martin J. Walsh signed a proclamation to make April 15 a day dedicated to random acts of kindness.
That’s perhaps the best illustration of what a marathon produces. Along the course you’ll be uplifted by people you never met before. You’ll be mentally — sometimes physically — carried to the finish line. And through it all, you’ll provide an insurmountable amount of inspiration to others.
Take one of my best friends, Jeison Arboleda, for example. In 2013 he was in a conference room in Louisiana waiting for a meeting to start when breaking news out of Boston crossed the TV. He was a month away from heading overseas for his second military deployment to fight terrorism while watching it unfold on our own turf. In 2017 he served as military police security at the Boston Marathon. Two years later, in full uniform, he completed the 26.2 miles himself, recalling the bittersweet feeling of crossing the finish line.
“Once we got to that point you could feel the air getting heavy,” he said. “It was pretty crazy, I don’t think that’s ever gonna change.”
Those are now unfortunate emotions that will always be related to the Boston Marathon because of what happened on April 15, 2013.
They tried to take our joy but it only empowered us. You can’t shake the unshakeable.
“Even though I was in so much pain, it was an experience that I wish everyone could have,” Gardner said. “It was the most beautiful demonstration of human encouragement from complete strangers.
“Boston Strong, it’s a very real thing.”