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B.A. Blackwood is the author of the Siren Song trilogy, a trial lawyer, a marathon runner, and indentured servant to her two couch potato pugs, Waldo and Jonesy.

The Twelfth Man Triumphs at the Boston Marathon Bombing

I was smiling when the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon.Boston spectator

I’d flown in from Texas less prepared than I should have been for a 26.2 mile race, figuring I’d spend the last ten miles in total agony.  If it had been any other marathon, I’d have stayed home, but this is Boston. It’s like being the lunchroom nerd who finally gets asked to sit at the cool kids’ table. I’d crawl to the finish line if I had to.

I’m not a fast marathoner.  I’m speedy enough to qualify for Boston, but that’s only through the grace of the age-adjusted qualifying times. The elite runners have already had their victory ceremony, held a press conference, soaked in an ice bath, and phoned all their relatives back home by the time I cross the finish line. But you’d never know it by the spectators at the Boston Marathon.

April 15, 2013 was my fourth Boston Marathon and my twenty-first overall. To run any marathon, you have to be all in. And the thing is, at Boston, the spectators are all in with you. In the hand to hand combat with your mind and body that is the essence of completing a marathon, you’re surrounded by an entire battalion doing everything they can to make sure you win the war.

wellesley boston marathon kissCrowds line the course for hours after the elites have buzzed by, cheering on ordinary people like me as though we’re the second coming of Frank Shorter.  The girls at Wellesley College wave clever posters and yell themselves sick as runners slog by, offering kisses to anyone who needs a pick-me-up. Children and adults offer hands for high (and low) fives, whooping with delight when palms slap. Residents stock up on orange slices, water, gummy bears, Twizzlers and even beer to hand out in between the official beverage stations.

Rather than suffering through the race as I thought I would, the spectators’ enthusiasm buoyed me along as though I were on some immense human conveyor belt ferrying me to the finish line. I finally understood the motivating mystique of Twelfth Man E. King Gill, the Texas A & M student who came down from the bleachers and suited up during an epic football game in 1922, standing ready to dive in if his team ran out of players. Gill never made it onto the field, but tradition has it that his willingness to do so inspired his team to win. I’d been running with my own 500,000 strong Twelfth Man.

As I made my way from Hopkinton into Boston on the spectator-packed streets, I mused about my Twelfth Man, trying to put my finger on why the onlookers at the Boston Marathon are so passionate about the performance of total strangers. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled out of my mind to run Boston, but I’m rational enough to realize that endurance running is not much of a spectator sport. There aren’t any fast breaks or buzzer beaters or Hail Mary passes to shake your head in wonder over.  It’s just people putting one leg in front of the other with monotonous regularity for 26.2 miles.

I know it has something to do with watching a regular person set a difficult goal and achieve it. That it creates hope that we can all do the seemingly impossible if we try hard enough. That watching any human being overcome adversity creates optimism in all of us. But that still doesn’t totally explain the delight marathon spectators take in a total stranger’s success – a stranger whose name isn’t Tom Brady or LeBron James or Derek Jeter.

On Marathon Monday in Boston, I didn’t have the answer. But that’s why I was smiling when the bombs went off. I was thinking of the people who’d cheered me on for 25.8 miles, who’d offered me towels to wipe my face, who’d assured me I’d make it, who patted me as I went by. Those rowdy, sweet people who had no reason to cheer for me other than a collective spirit of human generosity – wanting to see me succeed for no reason other than the sheer joy of it.

Because of them, I felt as strong as Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, background music and all, with less than half a mile to go.

Then everything changed.

Seconds after I heard the two blasts, the police stopped me and the other runners  3/10ths of a mile short of the finish. In an instant, all my warm thoughts vanished, blown away by the horrific news that someone had planted bombs at the finish line. What had seemed like a warm and welcoming place had suddenly turned into a scary, uncertain arena invaded by bomb wielding monsters.

runners stopped at boston marathonWe were stuck in limbo, held in place by police who couldn’t be assured of a route to safety.  In the meantime, runners shivered with cold, and some looked like they’d faint at any moment, overcome with exhaustion. Tears streaked down the faces of many – tears of grief for the injured and dead, tears of anxiety over the unknown fate of family members waiting at the finish.

Quietly, residents of the houses lining the streets began to filter through the crowd, bringing coats, blankets, garbage bags, rolls of plastic – anything that could be used to keep us warm. They handed out water, aspirin and fruit. They offered bracing hugs, comfort and reassurance.

In other words, the Twelfth Man came onto the field.

Over an hour later, we were bused away to Boston Commons, where it was up to us to make our way back to our hotels or families in a strange city with all public transportation shut down. The bus driver gave me detailed directions to my hotel which turned out to be unnecessary because someone stopped me at least once every block to ask if I was okay and if I needed help.

By the time I was able to call my husband and parents to let them know I was okay, almost two hours had passed since the bombs had exploded. Friends had called and come over to stay with my relatives to wait for news. While strangers were caring for me in Boston, friends were caring for my husband and parents in Texas and Oklahoma.

As the week has passed, I’ve mourned the deaths and injuries that occurred on Boylston Street. But I’ve been heartbroken about the fact that all of the deaths and most of the injuries were inflicted on the Twelfth Man, people who were there for no other reason than to help runners like me finish the Boston Marathon.

I don’t know the motives of the monsters who caused so much terror and grief.  As of today, I don’t know how many were involved, either actively or by providing training, money or other types of aid.

It doesn’t matter.

Whether it’s ten or 10,000, they’re outnumbered. If their purpose was to divide, intimidate, scare or change our basic nature in any  way, they totally failed. The first reaction of the Boston spectators and residents was to help. The first reaction of people across the country was to sit with and comfort those waiting for word. The monsters didn’t change the basic core of the Twelfth Man for even one second.

Thank you Boston. I’ll be back.boston marathon number

 

Comments

  1. Beth Ann,
    Those were awesome words and perspective. I’m watching today the massive manhunt for the second suspect. I grieve for the ones lost and the ones who lost them, but so thankful you had not quite”finished the race” when looking at what you could have encountered if you were only a little closer. I know you will train hard to be sure to be in the “comeback crowd” next year.

    • BA.
      That is beautifully written;; poignant and sad at the same time passionate and purposeful. No one could ever break your spirit because it is made up of so many good qualities.

      I too am sure you will be back next year. It is part of your nature not to succumb to evil, but to triumph over pain and adversity.

    • B.A. Blackwood says:

      Thanks, and thanks for checking in with Tom. You guys are the best.

  2. So thankful for your safety, the spirit of Boston’s “twelfth man” and your powerful words! Thanks for sharing!

  3. So relieved that you are OK, BA. Glad they are honing in on the remaining coward. Your story is beautifully written, thanks for sharing. I’m about to share it now.

  4. What an amazing story. Beautifully written account of that day.

  5. Carol South says:

    What an amazing story, beautifully written.

  6. Brad Booke says:

    Your lyrics capture and express the spirit of Hillary Clinton’s “village” metaphor. Well done–on foot and with pen (or keyboard).

  7. Jeanie Westnedge says:

    Wow, Beth Ann, what a wonderful positive perspective on what was such a terrible tragedy. Thanks for giving us hope. I’m proud to know you, and am grateful God gave you a chance to help with the healing.

  8. Jeanie Essl says:

    I think everyone before me has said it all! I cannot think of another adjective to add to the accolades already given to you for who you are and how exquisitely you described things for us on the day the group of 12 th men / women came out to play. God obviously has more for you to do and I think you are already well on your way to accomplishing that! You can also add motivational speaker to your credits. Hugs, J

  9. Reading your story, I’m “there”. You captured the spirit of the moment in indelible ink. Although we won’t forget the monstrous tragedy in Boston, we will always remember the undaunted spirit of every-day Americans. Thanks for bringing it to life for those of us who couldn’t be there. We are incredibly grateful for you!

  10. Beth Ann, I finally got a chance to sit down and read this– you wrote it so beautifully. I loved your positive spin on this tragedy; it shows that for all the bad, some “good” did come out of it.

    • B.A. Blackwood says:

      Thanks – I’ve always thought people don’t “rise” to the occasion, but rather that the occasion, whatever it may be, gives people a chance to show their true selves on a big enough stage for others to notice.

  11. Cliff Eubanks says:

    Beth Ann – beautiful story…really enjoyed it. Keep running and writing!
    Your cousin of twin mothers,
    Cliff

  12. Rena Woolf says:

    Great and inspiring story Beth Ann! Hugs, Rena

  13. Cathy Cook says:

    How beautifully written. Thank you for sharing the love you felt. May God Bless you.

  14. I just read your article in Marathon and Beyond this morning while riding the train to work and I had to hold back tears when I reached the line “In other words, the Twelfth Man came onto the field.” Very well written. Thank you for sharing.

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