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11 Days: When tragedy trumps triumph

4/11/2014

In the 26 days leading up to the Boston Marathon on April 21, ESPNBoston.com will share inspiring stories, detail important logistics and go inside the planning for what promises to be an event like no other in the wake of last year's bombings. There are 11 days until the race.

The 2013 Boston Marathon was supposed to be a special one for running legend Joan Benoit Samuelson.

It was the 30th anniversary of her 1983 triumph on the same course. Ever the competitor, she set a goal last year to finish within 30 minutes of that two-hour, 23-minute, 43-second then-world record. She finished in 2:50:29 -- a record for her age group -- to achieve her goal with a time that would prove somewhat eerie just moments later.

It was 2:50 p.m. when the bombs went off on Boylston Street.

“I remember thinking this was a day when tragedy trumped triumph,” Benoit said.

Samuelson was with her husband at a nearby hotel when the unthinkable happened. She remembers just moments earlier talking to medical professionals at the finish line. She gave some of them high-fives and noted how quiet the medical tents were, especially in comparison to the year before, when temperatures soared into the 80s and thousands of runners sought treatment for heat-related issues.

Samuelson told some of the doctors and volunteers that they deserved the break. Little did anyone know what was about to happen, and Samuelson has wrestled with the tragedy as much as the rest of us.

Her own healing has come through two sources, those directly impacted by the bombings and the sport itself.

“Our sport and the victims... they’ve been as resilient as our sport has been resilient,” she said. “We’re all in this together. The fact that the Boston Marathon was chosen as the site to hurt is beyond me, because the whole world comes to Boston.”

Samuelson will be back again this year to mark another 30-year anniversary. It was in Los Angeles at the 1984 Summer Olympics where she became the first woman to win the gold medal in the marathon. It was one of the country’s glowing moments in hosting its first summer games in over 50 years. But another instance from 1984 resonates with Samuelson these many years later, a moment that offered another lesson in the power of sport, a lesson she will carry with her on the course April 21.

Samuelson was particularly touched by the outpouring of support for the Romanian athletes, whose country was the only one in the Eastern Bloc to ignore a boycott driven by the Soviets. The circumstances are very different this year in Boston, but the message has staying power.

“Everybody processes differently and it will not be forgotten, nor will that day in Boston be forgotten, but running has changed so many lives in so many positive ways that hopefully with time, more time, those who were affected and whose lives were altered will also reap the benefits of the goodness of our sport,” Samuelson said.

Does Samuelson see a healing power in the sport that has defined her?

“Yeah, I do," she said. "Everybody heals on a different scale. Some are still struggling. Some are looking to get back to life as they knew it as normally as possible. We’re all different but we’re all one.”

That’s been the message since soon after 2:50 p.m. last April 15. Boston Strong. The One Fund. We Run Together. And amid this year's run will be 56-year-old Joan Benoit Samuelson, likely shattering a record along the way and showing others -- in the best way she knows -- how to heal.