Marathon Memory: A Reporter Reflects
Forgive me for starting this story — my story — in my head, three miles into a 10-mile run on a frosty Good Friday morning.
I need the endorphins for this one, the way some writers need nicotine or caffeine or alcohol to jump-start the nerves between their brains and their fingertips.
I considered writing it in the press room at Boston’s Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel a year ago, while first-responders were treating the wounded and clearing everyone else away from the crime scene and trying to figure out who the hell would set off two bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Since the authorities had locked down the hotel, and I and a herd of other reporters who were filing or starting to write about the 117th running of the race couldn’t slip out to see the mayhem and try to capture it in words, I e mailed Jeff Good, who was the editor of the Valley News at the time. He encouraged me, in the absence of access to the square, to write a first-person story about what I was seeing and thinking and feeling for the next day’s news paper, or for the day after the day after.
Here it is, one year after …
Before writing the lead to what was supposed to be a fun story for the sports section of the Valley News about how Upper Valley runners had fared on the 26.2-mile pilgrimage from the western suburbs to Boston, I sent this e mail to my wife, Goodie, at work in Dartmouth’s Baker-Berry Library, at 2:32 p.m.: “Just back from tracking down our first man (a Thetford Academy grad now living in North Carolina) and first woman. Tried to find a couple of other people, before deciding it’s time to start writing and get out of here sooner than later.”
A few minutes later, she replied:
“Good decision not to spend more time trying to find others; I’m sure you have ample material.”
Twenty minutes later, the material — and the world — changed.
“Hi, again,” I wrote at 2:56. “In case you hear about a couple of explosions at the finish line just now, I’m fine, in the ballroom of the Fairmont Copley Plaza. We heard a couple of thumps in here, and a few minutes later they announced that they were checking reports that bombs went off. … Right now, the building is in lockdown, so I can’t get out to see what happened. Not sure I want to. Power’s still on, so we’ll see … Love you … David.”
After eight minutes, Goodie replied: “Good gracious. I had turned off the coverage so I hadn’t heard about that! Keep me updated on what’s happening when you hear more.”
By now, a parade of Facebook friends, whom I had been updating during the day about the still-happy news from Boston, were writing to ask where and how I was.
Before I could post a semi-reassuring message that I was, for now, out of the line of fire, a distance runner about whom I used to write for Valley News sports wanted to know: “DUDE, you ok???? Bad (stuff) going down. Who the (heck) blows up a marathon? That’s a new low for humanity.”
At this point, I was worrying less about the who than about how on earth to tell this story from a bubble.
Finally, after some back-and-forth with the folks at the Valley News , I heard a reporter who had filed his story about the winners say that one of the Army National Guardsmen who annually walk the marathon course bearing full field packs was in a hallway off the ballroom.
Off my duff and onto my feet, I embarked on my own marathon to find, f irst, that veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan coming to grips with seeing wounds in the finish line medical tents that he hadn’t seen since the wars.
Then, in the lobby, a middle-aged Minnesota marathoner, hustled into the hotel by the cops and waiting to hear from his wife, who was more than half a mile from the finish when everything went haywire.
And now, a stricken Joan Benoit Samuelson, 1979 and 1983 Boston women’s champion, 1984 Olympic marathon champion. Her sub-3-hour performance — five minutes faster than the runner-up woman in her age group — long forgotten, she couldn’t bring herself to talk about the unfolding nightmare, turning me over to her Hanover-raised husband, Scott Samuelson, with whom she had been celebrating in the hotel when the bombs went off.
“My heart shook,” Scott said. “I could feel my head shake.”
As best I can remember, my fingers stayed steady while I cobbled together what I still consider a Frankenstein’s monster of a story.
Thanks to the magic of cyberspace, veteran marathoner Jim Burnett, of Canaan, had received my email asking him to call me, and with cell service working again on Copley Square, he got through as they drove home to the Upper Valley. Burnett recounted his nerve-wracking odyssey from the place, a few blocks from the finish, where he heard the explosions and saw the smoke, to the parking garage where his son, Joe, was waiting for him. Approaching 6 p.m., I had my new lead … and miles to go and megabytes of emails to answer before I filed, let alone slept.
“Oh dear oh dear … the news is so dire,” Goodie wrote before leaving work.
Then Good, seeking names of local runners so Valley News staff writer and Web editor Maggie Cassidy could check running commentary on social media.
Finally a colleague from the weekly paper where I worked before the Valley News, asking after my welfare and, in relief at my reply, wondering if I could write an account of my day for Friday’s edition.
“I might be able to work something up for you,” I wrote back. “I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
Assuming there would be a tomorrow, I tapped away at the keyboard for another hour, maybe 90 minutes, before transmitting the story to the Valley News news desk and calling to tell them it was there.
By now, the media herd in the press room seemed to be thinning a bit. Maybe they were letting people out, finally?
Scouting for food in an adjacent hall for reporters, I found a mother lode of untouched energy bars — flavored Play-Doh never tasted so good — and a few bottles of spring water, then wandered back to find an e mail from night editor John Lippman, asking for some fine-tuning of the story.
That done, a bit after 8, I called Goodie at home to let her know I’d soon be trying to find a way back to the car — parked in the garage beneath the Boston Common about a mile away.
At the entrance of the hotel facing Copley Square, the doorman and a couple of Massachusetts state troopers looked at my press pass, ignored the backpack containing my laptop, Goodie’s iPad and my notebooks, and waved me along.
I resisted looking across the square to the crime scene, and turned right down St. James Avenue, parallel to Boylston Street, toward the Common.
At a series of security barriers, everyone let me through with barely a glance.
Around me, I saw several runners and their families, with looks mixing relief and disbelief.
At the Common, a fleet of Humvees and SUVs loomed from among the trees in the darkness. Entering the garage, I met a state trooper, and we looked at each other silently for 10 or so seconds before I offered my backpack for inspection.
“Sure,” he said wearily, before examining the laptops and zipping up the pack.
I descended into the bowels of the garage, trying to remember where I’d left the car. Mercifully, most of the vehicles that had crowded it when I arrived on that morning so long, long ago had left, and no one had towed mine.
I started it up, drove through the entrance with no one there asking me for my ticket or any identification, and drove up the ramp onto Charles Street. At the traffic light before the access road to Storrow Drive, I turned on the radio and searched the dial for news updates.
I didn’t worry about falling asleep at the wheel on the way home … only about moose straying onto the interstate, and about what time and where I would run the next day.
David Corriveau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3304.