Amby Burfoot was a little more than a half mile from the finish line Monday, running happily with childhood friends from Groton, when suddenly a human traffic jam confronted him.
"I thought it was drunken college students," Burfoot said. "As I got closer I realized it was runners with nowhere left to run."
It was at that moment that the 1968 Boston Marathon champion, one of the godfathers of Connecticut distance running, got a call on his cellphone from his wife. The finish line had been closed. He backtracked and returned to his hotel.
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"As we walked five or six blocks, there was nothing but ambulance, police, fire personnel, chaos and cops, nobody who knew exactly what was going," Burfoot said. "Then you sit and watch TV like everyone else. It's so hard to believe what was happening."
Two explosions, 50 to 100 yards apart at Copley Square, simultaneously cut through the joy of Patriots Day at 2:50 p.m., 4:09:43 after the elite runners started and long after Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa had won the 117th Boston Marathon in 2:10:22. Three lie dead, including an 8-year-old boy, and more than 100 were wounded, the coordinated work of sick, twisted cowards.
"I'm sad and dumbstruck and I feel so much for the families of those on the sidewalks who were here to cheer us on," Burfoot said. "The spectators of Boston are the reason you run the race. To strike one of them is every bit as horrible as striking one of the runners."
There is a certain evil in this world that, over my 57 years, grows only more baffling to the mind and darker to the soul. Why would someone, anyone, set out to destroy an annual event that brings such communal joy? Why would someone, anyone, target the gentlest athletes on the face of the earth, whose only idea of pain is what they inflict on themselves on gut-cramping hills over 26.2 miles?
As President Barack Obama pointed out, Patriots Day is a holiday that celebrates the free and fiercely independent spirit that the great city of Boston has reflected from its earliest days. From Hopkinton to Natick, past the women of Wellesley, up Heartbreak Hill and on to Commonwealth Avenue, that spirit turns the marathon each April into a festival of sweat, morning cocktails and glorious support. Thousands of runners in shorts, hundreds of thousands more gathered on the side of the road, marathons also remain the softest of targets.
"It has run through all of our minds," Burfoot said. "You have 26.2 miles times two, with both sides of the street. No one is capable of securing that amount of territory. Nor would you want to. You want to have a joyous, open, street theater kind of event. We knew there was danger like this, yet never quite imagined it happening. It doesn't hit you until it hits you right in your face and then you are overwhelmed with sadness.
"We've all been wounded today to one extent or another. Our psychological and emotional wound is a real one."
I have covered the Boston Marathon most every year since becoming a columnist at The Courant in 1995. Exhausted after an NCAA Final Four trip to New Orleans and a drive back Sunday night from the NCAA Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, I sent Courant reporter Lori Riley a message: "No way I can get to Boston Marathon. Have a great 26.2!!!!!! Jake." Lori is the one I immediately feared for when news of the explosions spread. She loves to cover distance running, skillfully telling the stories of challenge and fulfillment it brings to men and women of all ages.
She was OK after the blasts, yet locked down in the media center. Such is the fallout of hate. Usually, a few rows behind us each year sits Burfoot. He is a bearded, thoughtful, gentle soul. An editor-at-large at Runner's World, he is an accomplished author. In another lifetime, Amby would sit at the foot of the Dalai Lama in Tibet or chat it up with Greek philosophers at the Parthenon. It has crossed my mind more than once he might even be the reincarnation of Pheidippides. At 66, Burfoot still runs Boston every fifth year and, having last run in 2008, it was his time again Monday.
"Anger is not the nature of most marathoners," Burfoot said. "We are not combatants at large. We just fight our inner demons and fight the marathon for personal challenge. I just feel so bad for the spectators, for the organizers of the race, the best in the business. There's just nothing you can do about random violence."
Mac Cerullo, the former managing editor of the UConn Daily Campus who now works for The Daily News of Newburyport, was on the other side of the Copley Plaza mall when he heard the explosion. Earlier he had been about 100 feet from where one of the blasts hit.
"We heard the explosion and had no idea what it was," Cerullo said. "Then we walked around the corner and it seemed like every firetruck, police car and ambulance in the city rushed past."
Cerullo and his friends went to get on the train. It was closed off. They walked toward Kenmore Square and Fenway. They saw the mass of humanity Burfoot found.
"At first, a lot of people were walking toward the finish line, aggravated they couldn't finish," he said. "Then you saw people running away from it. I saw some people crying, they must have seen what happened. It was pretty upsetting."
Last April, I set out to find two Connecticut wounded veterans, two Purple Heart winners, two great Marines who had finished the Boston Marathon. I found handcyclist Greg Caron first, and was moved to write this:
"There may have been no grander portrait than the one behind the medical tent shortly before noon. Here were all these guys bent over their wheelchairs and handcycles, embracing their exhaustion, each wearing giant ice packs on their shoulders. It was, to be honest, a fairly comical sight, until you look a little closer. You see one cyclist missing a leg. You see another missing both legs. You see men missing body parts in ways God had not designed, maybe hadn't even imagined. And in that moment, you see the portrait of bravery. In that moment, you know American heroism."
Caron, a Marine sergeant, had both his legs torn off below the knee and lost part of a finger when struck by an IED in Afghanistan. Later, at the finish line, not far from the explosions of Monday, I would find Manny Jiminez of New Britain, a Marine corporal, had lost his left arm, the hearing in his left ear and partial sight in his left eye after a bomb detonated in Afghanistan.
I walked away from both interviews with tears in my eyes, moved not only by their bravery and resilience, yet also relieved their war was in their past. Whether it's Boston or the Olympics, it is always something I think about with the Marathon. When the Greek messenger Pheidippides had finished his run in 490 B.C. from Marathon to Athens, announcing the Persians had been defeated before collapsing and dying, inherent in his cry of victory was that the war also was over.
Good God, this unseen war, this war of terrorism, this war of cowardice, whether it be from outside our borders or from within, never seems to end. As all those flags of different countries from around the world tumbled to the ground around the explosion site, it was impossible not to feel we all share in the grief of this dark day.
"There will be people who will begin to question if they will run marathons at places like Boston and New York," Burfoot said. "But I also believe marathons, like all great American democratic traditions, will get back on their feet, dust themselves and welcome people with open arms.
"This is a low point right now, a horrible thing that has happened. When you are this low, you can't quite imagine it. But we will bounce back. There is only one Boston Marathon."