Here is a guest post from my friend Ethan Imhoff who ran in the 2013 Boston Marathon. This is his account of the race and what happened after he crossed the finish line.

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Marathon running is a niche sport. Even though almost half a million Americans completed a marathon in 2012, it’s a sport that many consider to be too extreme for their liking, an endeavor of the fringe. Usually only the winners of the Boston or New York marathons even make a brief headline on major sports news websites. And before the third week in April, I’d bet that 99% of the public outside of Massachusetts couldn’t have correctly identified when the Boston Marathon takes place, or even how far the race is for that matter. It’s mostly for this reason I never even contemplated a bomb going off at the Boston Marathon. It’s too small of an event to attract such attention. Even when I heard there were explosions at the finish line my first thought was of a malfunctioning electric transformer or ruptured water line. I never thought of a marathon as a target.

Ethan, in white with blue shorts on the right at mile 1

Ethan, in white with green shorts on the right at mile 1

Though I first spied the clock at 3:17 a.m., my day began at 5:00 when I got out of bed. I dressed, ate a banana, shaved, and kissed the wife and son goodbye before heading to the Boston Common to catch the bus to the start. As I walked down the street to the subway station, the sun was rising over the Prudential Tower, a landmark in the Boston skyline. The air was crisp and I thought to myself that this was a perfect morning.

When I walked out of the subway station and headed towards the Boston Common the chills began. I had made it to the Boston Marathon. I’ve arrived as a marathon runner and today is my day. The school buses that would carry us to Hopkinton and the start of the race were as far as the eye could see. I walked a block or so to the first bus with vacant seats, sitting in the last seat on the bus. My seatmate was a runner from the English Channel Island of Jersey. Across from us was a runner from France, and in front of me was a guy from Pittsburgh (who would run by me a few weeks later while I was cheering on runners at the Pittsburgh Marathon). We all swapped stories about how we arrived at this magical point in time. The guy from Pittsburgh hung out the bus window while his wife took pictures, the Frenchman shared that he was happy the race course was marked in kilometers, and my seatmate from Jersey told me how he encountered a bear in the White Mountains on his last run before the marathon.

ethanboston04When the buses departed for Hopkinton, it felt like we were in a presidential motorcade. All the Europeans were amused by the ride in a yellow school bus, which they had seen in the movies but never in person. Police were at every intersection, holding up traffic for the buses to pass through. It would be this way the entire way to the start. People in their cars were taking pictures of the buses. You felt like someone important. The bus ride took a little less than an hour to the start line in Hopkinton.

Since we were in the first wave of the race, and the first group of buses to arrive, the Athletes Village was empty when we departed the buses. The Athletes Village is constructed on the campus of Hopkinton Middle and High Schools. On marathon day, their athletic fields are converted into a gigantic tent city filled with runners who wait for a couple of hours to start the race. Most runners just lay down on the grass. Some had beach chairs or lawn chairs to sit on. I hadn’t thought of that, I only had a garbage bag. There were lots of porta potties, and all you could eat spreads of Power Bar energy bars, gels bagels and the like. There were also free massages somewhere. I was truly surprised how huge the place was.

My seat mate from the bus ride and I found a nice patch of grass, laid out the garbage bag I brought with me and relaxed until the start. Barry was an extremely pleasant Irish native who had qualified for Boston at a marathon in France. We bonded over our journeys to Boston, swapping running stories to pass the time until the start. By the end of our morning together, we had invited each other to our respective hometown marathons. Our biggest fears at that point were that our wives were spending too much money in Boston!

At 9:15 it was time to walk to the start line, which was about a mile from the Athletes Village. Before I left, I employed a tip given to me by a friend who had run Boston before. He advised me to take a garbage bag and water bottle to the Athletes Village, just in case you had to go to the bathroom before the walk to the start line and the porta potty lines were too long. Normally I don’t have an issue with going before the race, but with temperatures reaching toward 60 that day, I knew I had to hydrate more than usual. And wouldn’t you know it, I had to go right before it was time to leave. True to my friend’s advice, I would have never made it to the start on time if I waited in the porta potty lines. So, I quietly donned the garbage bag for privacy, knelt down, and took care of business. Not sure if anyone noticed, or all the serious runners had probably done something similar in the course of their running careers and just didn’t care. Either way, now I was ready to head to the start!

ethanboston03The sun was out, but it was still cool. Chills covered my body the whole way to the start, and not because I was cold. Bigger chills once I entered my starting corral. It’s going to happen, I’m going to run the Boston Marathon. I had about 15 minutes between when I entered the starting corral and the start of the race. I gave the guy next to me from Indianapolis a hard time for wearing headphones. He was also running for the first time. How anyone could wear headphones on the Boston course is beyond me. I don’t know how any soundtrack could be more motivational than thousands of people cheering for you. Also before the start, I would receive my best advice from a 10 year Boston veteran. He said to take it easy in the early miles, and let people run by you on the initial four mile descent. Then he claimed you would pass them all and more in the hills from mile 16-21. It proved to be good advice.
The race started and I had tears in my eyes, as so did many others. After visualizing this moment for many years, and putting in 70 mile weeks during a brutal winter, here I was starting the Boston Marathon. As I crossed the start line, you could see an immense gathering of people on a little hill, the Hopkinton town common. They were cheering the runners, and formed the beginning of a human chain of spectators that stretched pretty much uninterrupted to the finish line.
Immediately I headed towards the edge of the road. For the first several miles, while those who wanted to push the pace early ran by me, I must have given hundreds of high fives to kids and adults who were along the course. It was wonderful. The people along the course were genuinely excited, and they definitely make the event special. In many of the towns along the course, spectators were 5 or 10 people deep, on both sides of the road. The spectators are just as important to the event as the runners. I had never seen anything like it before, a true celebration of the human spirit and what we can push our bodies to accomplish.

Ethan behind the runner from Ireland, waving his hand at the camera.

Ethan behind the runner from Ireland, waving his hand at the camera.

As the miles flew by a runner approached me from Ireland, who told me he’d noticed we were running about the same pace. We stuck together for about the next ten miles, alternatively moving towards the edge of the race course to greet the eager spectators. He soon exclaimed that running in America was absolutely lovely! I asked him how so? In the thickest Irish accent he exclaimed, “The women, man! The women!” He then explained with a few expletives that Irish women don’t wear skimpy shorts to run marathons like several of the top 200 or so female runners who were in our midst. He was really thrilled, and it was funny. He also thoroughly enjoyed the women of Wellesley College and their infamous scream tunnel.

The best surprise of the day came as I crested first hill at Mile 16 in Newton. I was running on the outside edge of the road, feeling good having passed many runners on the first of Boston’s infamous four hills. Something caught my eye and I looked back to my left, where I saw my son yelling, “Dad!”. I never thought I would be able to find my family in the crowd, and we didn’t have a prearranged spot. I stopped and turned around to give Atticus a high five and Nikki a kiss. Atticus also gave me a pack of fruit snacks for energy. The crowd loved the kiss, and when I turned back towards the course I could hear the crowd going, Awwwww…

The next hills I barely noticed, but I could tell not everyone felt the same. I must have passed hundreds of runners on each hill. I really couldn’t believe it, and I wasn’t pushing the pace hard either. Training in the Alleghenies has its advantages. Heartbreak Hill was long but not steep, and again I passed what seemed like hundreds of runners. The spectators on Heartbreak Hill were incredible. There were dozens of families along this part of the course, each with their own aid station stocked with water, oranges, Twizzlers, M&M’s and just about any other food you could imagine. Just tremendous crowd support.

After cresting Heartbreak Hill at Mile 21 we ran through Boston College. At this point I thought the spectator scene couldn’t get any better. But the students, many of whom must have cracked their first cold one well before the start, were incredibly enthusiastic. They were literally all screaming at you, and everyone else that went by. “You’re amazing! You can do this! Let’s Go #5382!”. The high fives at this point were strong. They wanted to give you five. In the great debate over who cheers the loudest, Wellesley College or Boston College, I have to give the nod to BC. Though, the BC students don’t offer to kiss you like the Wellesley girls.

The closer we got to Boston, the larger the crowds became. When the Citgo sign came into view, I knew it was getting close. The end was near, and in a few minutes I would be a Boston Marathon finisher. I still felt good, but didn’t want to push the pace too hard for fear of hitting the wall. I wanted to be in good enough shape to savor the legendary right on Hereford and left on Boylston.

Ethan high-fiving the crowd.

Ethan high-fiving the crowd.

I crossed the finish line in 3:03:06, a new personal record. I ran my perfect race, and a negative split at the Boston Marathon. I would have liked to have gone under three hours, and may have if not for all those high fives that would seriously make my right pectoral muscle sore the next day. I also accomplished my goal of being within one hour of the winner. Turns out I lost by 52 minutes (my father in law seriously wonders why my wife and I run marathons, since we never win). After crossing the finish line, I stopped several times in the chute to take in the scene and savor the moment. It was a thrilling moment that again brought tears to my eyes. I wish it would have stayed that way.

After meeting the family about a block from the finish line, we walked back to the hotel and I relaxed for a bit. Our hotel was about a half mile from the finish line, within the crime scene area. And that’s where we were when the bombs went off. Nikki received a text from her brother saying there were explosions at the finish line. Like I said before, at that point I found it hard to believe someone would bomb the Boston Marathon. We decided to leave our hotel and get something to eat. As we walked around, there were police and ambulances rushing by on the streets in volumes that clearly indicated something was wrong. We ran into the “man in the cowboy hat” as he’s now known being interviewed by media in front of a closed off Boylston Street. We then ran into a guy who told us his sister worked for the FBI and that we shouldn’t go back to our hotel for a while.

Because the authorities had shut down cell coverage, there was a time we couldn’t call, text or use the internet. The family was understandably frightened. We started to see visibly distraught runners coming back from the finish line area, and we knew something horrible must have happened. Soon communications resumed, and we heard from family and friends there were indeed explosions at the finish, the race was stopped, and it looked like an intentional act.

After walking around a bit, we decided to sit down in a nearby Whole Foods and have a bite to eat. As soon as we sat down to eat our food, we were told Whole Foods was closing early. We had to leave. At this point I was thoroughly exhausted, both physically and emotionally. I was hungry and angry. I had hit the wall. I called our hotel and asked if it was safe to return. They said yes, and so we returned and stayed there the rest of the night.

Ethan running toward the finish.

Ethan running toward the finish.

From our room window on the 14th floor, we could see military and police stationed outside the hotel. Also, the streets in the vicinity were closed. As the night went on the police presence increased. It was the same thing when we woke up in the morning, so we decided to leave early, having to show id’s to National Guard to leave the hotel area. This wasn’t somewhere we wanted to be for two more days. We left with heavy hearts.

It was incredibly sad to learn that an 8 year old boy was killed. I couldn’t help but think of my own family, and what if it was my son. I was glad my family was okay, but how unfair and tragic it was a fellow runner lost his son. And I wondered if maybe I had slapped five earlier in the day with one of the two other people who died, or the hundreds who were injured.

The weeks following were almost more exhausting than running the race. I understood that everyone was curious to hear our story, but it seemed I couldn’t go anywhere without having to repeat the marathon story, time after time after time. After a while I just wanted to talk about something else, anything else. There were times I didn’t go out because I knew I’d have to tell the story. In retrospect, it made me realize how many people care about my family, and for that I am extremely thankful.

Looking back, the events that followed reaffirmed to me the runner’s soul is one that is caring and compassionate, yet resilient, tough and determined. I have no doubt the running community will continue to rally around the victims, their families and those affected by the bombings. I know we will support them tremendously and run in memory of the four lives lost. I also know the good people of Boston will see to it the wonderful marathon tradition continues, and that our institutions and freedom to assemble will not be curtailed by deranged individuals. As President Obama said, “We will run again.”.

We will indeed run again. I will run again, and so will many others. To Boston 2014.