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Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Running Boston (and hills) to remember

By Courtney Marum
Special to ESPN.com


Hills, hills and more hills. They can be a runner’s nightmare, and I can’t leave my driveway without going up or down one. I don’t really have a choice in the matter, but for runners training for the Boston Marathon, they are a necessary evil anyway. There’s a reason a stretch of the race is called Heartbreak Hill.

My training for Boston this year was no different. Braving the hills during New England winter is always a challenge -- frozen water bottles and energy gel turned to a thick sludge are the norm -- but I’d rather use my treadmill as a coat rack than a training tool. Still, on some days I wondered if I should run in boots or snowshoes instead of sneakers.

The end result is that I feel slightly unprepared and under-trained for this year’s race, but I'm more motivated to run Boston than I've ever been before.

My initial feeling about whether to run Boston this year for the fifth time was this: If I qualified for the race, I'd better run it. After all, the field is comprised of the fastest and most dedicated marathoners, who have either qualified based on times or are members of a charity organization and have raised lots of money. To run Boston is an honor. It’s not just a typical marathon, especially this year.

I find myself reminiscing about my previous experiences in Boston. My first Boston was in 2007, during a nor'easter. My mom thought I was crazy to run (and she might have been right), but so were the other 20,000-plus runners and countless supporters who braved the elements that day.

I posted my best time in 2010, my 3:10:56 besting my dad’s fastest time from the 1970s. The heat was a major factor in the 2012 race, but I still posted one of my better times while all around me runners were dropping like flies.

Then 2013 happened. It started out like any other Boston Marathon, with perfect weather, enthusiastic fans and amazing support from volunteers. One of the highlights for me was running the majority of the race next to a man wearing a pink tutu and crown and carrying a magic wand.

It’s hard for non-runners to believe this, but the 26.2 miles go by pretty fast. I survived Heartbreak Hill and before long I saw the CITGO sign that’s a familiar sight to Red Sox fans looking over the Green Monster.

Turning left onto Boylston Street and seeing the finish line ahead was the best reward for months of training and perseverance. Nothing beats crossing the finish line and having someone place the finisher’s medal around your neck.

And this is when the pain sets in. Not physical pain, but the emotional pain when thinking about the fact that I finished and so many others didn't, and the guilt that I not only finished but survived.

After I collected my medal and other gear I walked to the family meeting area to find my boyfriend, and then headed to a local bar in the Back Bay area for the essentials: water, food, beer and bathrooms, not necessarily in that order.

A little over an hour later, our ears were filled with sirens and news reports. Panic-stricken people were running in every direction outside the bar. We didn't know whether we were safe there. With only $30 in our pockets, we decided to stay put and gather as much information as we could, relying on the media and second-hand reports to help us plan our escape.

My exuberance over finishing was suddenly replaced by a fear of dying.

After a few hours, we ventured out into a ghost town, walking our way toward Kenmore Square. Fortunately, the green line was operating and we made our way back to family in Newton, then home to Connecticut.

Shock and outrage eventually set in. How could such a tragedy happen? How could anyone be so evil, do something so completely wrong? Why did innocent lives get taken? Why did so many people get hurt?

On Monday, I’m running because I can. I’ve logged in my training miles, run the hills and eaten well (more or less).

I’m running because others can’t. I will hold the victims of last year’s tragedy in my heart over every step of those 26.2 miles. I’m running to show the world that while I may fear a repeat of last year’s events, I am not completely afraid.

Someone recently asked me what my finishing time was in 2013 and I replied that I didn’t know. I couldn’t remember and had to look it up. I finished, but I don’t really care what my time was (3:25:53, for the record) because plenty of others didn’t cross the line.

I remember the tears, panic and stress, and I remember just wanting to go home. I also remember complete strangers giving runners their jackets, blankets, water and food, sharing their cellphones. In the midst of the chaos and tragedy I saw true kindness and humanity.

This year, runners and spectators alike will no doubt unite to make this year’s marathon bigger and better than ever. This year, my fifth Boston Marathon will be filled with only the happiest of memories.