It’s Tuesday morning and I am sitting in my hotel room next to my wife. Just a few hours ago I was afraid I might never see her again. My memory of the day is a strange contrast of joy and sorrow. But most of all it was a day in which I felt the hand of God in a very real way.
Amy and I woke at five in the morning to get dressed and have our breakfast. At six we made our way to the subway station next to our hotel for the short trip down to Boston Commons where the buses would be collecting us for our drive to the starting line. Amy and I shared a kiss as she headed to get on the bus. I went to the predetermined corner where I would meet up with Slawek the visually impaired runner that I would be guiding during the race. Unfortunately, he never arrived so I made my way onto the bus and went to the starting area to search for him.
Once I saw the chaos of the starting area, imagine 27,000 people in an encampment, I headed down to the start corrals hoping that he would find a way to make it to our corral. I explained the situation to the corral officials. They let me stand at the entrance with them while we all looked for Slawek to appear. I stood there as the announcements were made; “45 minutes until the start of wave 1”, “30 minutes until the start of wave 1”, “15 minutes until the start of wave 1”. I was feeling awful. I thought about what I must look like standing there. I was wearing a bright yellow t-shirt provided by the Achilles Foundation the group that brought Slawek and I together in the first place. It said “GUIDE” in big letters on both the front and back. My bib was pinned to the shirt and it read “GUIDE BLIND RUNNER”. However I was standing there alone without my runner. I went over my apology in my mind. If he didn’t show up would I run anyway? I had qualified for the race and I had my own number. Would I run the race with the “GUIDE” shirt on going full speed like I had successfully dropped my runner somewhere earlier in the race?
The announcement came for ten minutes remaining. I said a short prayer. “God please let Slawek find me here. He has had enough disappointment in his life.” And then, there he was. Wearing his sunglasses and white and red racing singlet in the colors of his country Poland. I called out to him and he said “Kevin?” as a smile started to cross his face. He gave my a giant hug and I silently thanked God for this gift.
I met Slawek the night before. Amy and I went to a dinner hosted for all the Achilles Foundation runners and their guides. While we were sitting in the meeting room waiting for dinner, a young man walked in on artificial limbs. He was strong and handsome. A reporter and camera man walked up to him and addressed him as “Captain”. We learned later that many of the mobility impaired runners were part of the “Wounded Warrior Project”. They were soldiers who had lost limbs from explosions in foreign lands. These individuals were not giving up on life. They were choosing to pursue their dreams. I never dreamed that in a few short hours the same type of tragedy would occur on home soil.
Over the course of the evening we found Slawek to be a very happy person. Telling jokes which were translated for us in broken english by his friend. But you could also tell that he was a very tough person and proud. His face had scars and dark gray areas where he had forever been marked by an industrial explosion when he was a young man. He had been born with very limited sight in one eye and the explosion took out the vision in his other. I asked the translator to find out if he still wanted to run a 3:10 marathon. The 52 year old man responded emphatically yes. I then asked how his training had been going. He shook his head and the reply came back that it hadn’t been good due to all the snow in Poland. That told me a lot about Slawek. I knew that he had a strong will and was willing to hurt to achieve his goal.
Standing in the start corral I learned just how strong willed he could be. He was gesturing toward the front of the race to the corrals closer to the start line. He wanted to move up to the front. I knew that not only was this against the rules, race officials actually check for this by comparing your chip start time to the rest of your assigned corral. People had been disqualified for this very thing. I shook my head no and tried to explain. He understood nothing that I said. He more emphatically gestured to the front and again I shook my head and tried to explain. He started to move and I was about to physically stop him.
A man next to us said, “Maybe I can help?” I replied, “Not unless you speak Polish.” “I do.” he said. The youth leader at our local parish calls these type of moments a “God Sighting”. 27,000 runners broken into three waves with each wave containing at least 10 corrals with each corral holding a couple hundred runners and standing right next to me is a man who spoke both Polish and English. His name was Toyvek and he was originally from Poland but had been living in the US for the last 20 years. Toyvek explained the situation to Slawek and he finally understood. Toyvek asked me if there was anything else that I would like to communicate to Slawek. I explained the difficulty in finding Slawek. I explained how I couldn’t explain to Slawek my concern that he would be disqualified. I said please tell Slawek that God wants us to run together today and that he wants us to know it. Toyvek spoke for a long time and then a smile crossed Slawek’s face and he hugged me.
The race began. It was bright and sunny and everyone was happy. We ran on pace for about the first five miles but I could hear Slawek’s labored breath. He pointed at the pace band that I had printed for us and that I was wearing on my wrist. He made a “no” sign with his hand and I knew he needed to slow down. We slowed our pace by about 15 seconds a mile and settled into the run. I could tell by his breathing that Slawek was working. I was afraid that when we hit the hills of Newton they would do him in and he would bonk. I grabbed him drinks of Powerade and water whenever he would accept them.
We hit the hills and slowed a little but he was holding on. I knew he was hurting as I had been there two years before. I had started too fast for my ability then and by the time I hit those hills I was done. I walked most of the second half of the course. But Slawek ran on. He never walked. We crossed the crest of Heartbreak Hill and I looked back and smiled at him. He began to push harder. Slawek finished strong with a time of 3:25:20. This was about 15 minutes slower than his goal but still good enough for third place overall in the visually impaired category of the race. We crossed the finish line holding hands raised in the air. We hugged and I knew that Slawek was very happy with his performance. He made a gesture like a roller coaster and I knew that he was paying homage to the difficulty of the legendary Boston course.
The representative of Achilles met us and handed me instructions on how to get Slawek back to his family. We slowly made our way through the crowd, gathered our medals and Slawek’s drop bag, and made our way to the subway station. We pushed onto the crowded train with standing room only. We arrived at the North Station on the green line and found his family. Pictures were taken and I told them that we would celebrate that night at the planned dinner party being sponsored by Achilles. I got back on the train to head back to my hotel.
Right outside of Arlington station next to the finish area the train stopped. We sat for a long time. At first there were announcements that we were waiting due to “heavy traffic caused by the marathon”. As people began to think about this they started to realize that it didn’t make sense. I heard a little boy ask his father, “Why would the marathon slow down the subway?” The look on his father’s face said that this was a good question. After we heard this message several times a new message came over the loudspeaker. “This train is being taken out of service at the next station due to a police action in the city of Boston.” There was absolute silence. What did this mean? We pulled into Arlington and were told to exit the train and station as fast as possible. Police officers urged us out of the station at every turn. There was panic on the faces of the train employees.
We came out of the underground station in bright sunlight and I waited for my eyes to adjust. Police vehicles were everywhere. Sirens were blazing and emergency vehicles were racing by. There were plenty of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances but there were other vehicles. Sinister looking machines that looked like military vehicles except that they were painted black. They were filled with men in full military gear. I had entered that tunnel a few minutes earlier that day from a scene of joy and when I had come back out of that tunnel I was in a war zone.
I like to run light and I sweat a lot so I never carry my cell phone in a race. I don’t like to deal with drop bags either so I was just standing there in my race clothes and shivered. I asked the closest person what was going on. He was a teenager around 16 years old. He had that tight curly red hair that almost doesn’t seem real. He also had those perpetually rosy red cheeks and he wore wire rim glasses. He told me that two bombs had gone off at the finish line. That the subway had been shut down and that the police were blocking off the area. I asked him how long ago the bombs had gone off. He said, “Twenty minutes.” I quickly did the math. If Amy had run on pace she would have been clear of the finish before the bombs exploded but if she was struggling… I didn’t want to think about it but I knew that either way I needed to get back to the hotel as fast as possible. She would either be back there and worried about me or I needed to get my phone to try and find her.
I got my bearings and began to run toward our hotel out by Fenway. I knew it was about two miles west. I found that bright shining sun in the sky and knew which direction to head. As I ran west, the police were pushing the blockade further north. I picked up my pace to stay just ahead of the roads I was running on being blocked off by the police. I crossed the point on Commonwealth where the race had been stopped. It was chaos. Runners didn’t know where to go. Families were rushing into the area to try and find their loved one to make sure they were safe. You could hear people screaming “There she is!” or “I think I see him.” Others were lifting up there loved one in embrace and crying together. Still others were just crying.
I arrived at my hotel out of breath. The elevator was so slow. I ran down the long corridor on our floor and put the key in the door. I rounded the corner for the moment of truth and I saw her. Amy was sitting in the window looking down at the scene below. We hugged and cried together for the longest time. Moments like this make everything in your life crystal clear. There is no doubt about what is truly important. We began to respond to family and friends that were already looking for us.
I don’t understand many things about what happened yesterday. I don’t know why God allows evil to happen and certain people to be hurt while others are safe. I know the intellectual arguments for these things but I don’t really understand it. I don’t know why God would be interested in a blind man running a marathon or what lesson he wanted me to learn from the experience. But I do know that God was actively involved in my life yesterday. I know that He wanted me to know it. And I know that things will never be quite the same.