BOSTON — “I need to run.”
The messages started arriving just hours after the bombings, pleading for an entry into the 2014 Boston Marathon. For months the calls and emails continued, runners begging for an opportunity to cross the finish line on Boylston Street and convinced it would ease at least some of their grief.
“They’d say, ‘I’m not a qualified runner; I don’t think I ever will be. I train. I run. I could do it. But because of what happened last year, I need to run,’” Boston Athletic Association executive director Tom Grilk said last week.
“It might have been because they were present at the finish, or they knew somebody who was working or was affected. They might have been somebody who lives in Haverhill, Mass., and they were watching the race and it hit ’em hard. That was true for a lot of people.
“And we received some of these communications and we thought, ‘What do we do?’”
The association had already expanded this year’s field to include more than 5,000 runners who were stranded on the course when the two explosions killed three and wounded 264 others. A few extra invitations were sprinkled among the first-responders and the victims, or their families; others went to charities and the towns along the route; some who said they were personally touched by the tragedy were already given bibs.
But organizers said they felt they might still be missing people, people who perhaps didn’t think their trauma was worthy amid all the lost limbs and physical scars. So, in November, they announced that about 500 bibs would be available for those “personally and profoundly impacted by the events of April 15, 2013.”
In 250-word essays submitted over the website, 1,199 would-be runners made their case. Almost 600 had the connection the association was looking for.
“The anger, guilt and heartbreak I still feel today will never go away,” wrote Kate Plourd, who was in the medical tent, dehydrated and vowing never to run Boston again, when she heard the announcements: “Explosions at the finish line. Casualties. Dismemberments. Prepare yourself to treat the victims.”
“Running the 2014 Boston Marathon will help me heal my mind,” she said in the essay that landed her bib No. 28115. “I’ll push myself ... to finish the 2014 Boston Marathon in honor of those who won’t ever give up, who I won’t ever forget.”
Running as tribute
The past year in Boston has been punctuated with memorial services and other tributes, as well as fundraisers that have raised more than $60 million for the victims.
But for those who feel a connection to the Boston Marathon, that connection is most often felt through running. And when they decided they had to do something, they decided they had to run.
Dr. Alok Gupta, a trauma surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, about two miles from the finish line, thought about treating so many leg injuries caused by the ground-level bombs and concluded that running the race would be “just really poetic.”
“I decided that’s what would be meaningful for me,” said Gupta, who was a medical student in New York during the Sept. 11 attacks. “Running the Boston Marathon this year — not next year, not New York, not Chicago: Boston. I just thought it would be meaningful for me.”
A competitive swimmer in high school, the now 37-year-old Gupta had no experience in distance running until he began to train for Monday’s race.
Googling “How long does it take to train for a marathon,” Gupta got an answer of 18 weeks. Patriots’ Day was 18½ weeks away. He applied and received bib No. 35542.
Alan Hagyard ran Boston for the first time in 2012 and was back in the field last year, coming down Boylston when the first bomb went off about 30 feet away.
“The memories often bring tears to my eyes,” he wrote in his application.
The explosion left him deaf in his left ear. But he never considered sitting this one out.
“The next day, that night, I was ready to go again,” said Hagyard, 67, of Hamden, Conn. “Partly to say, ‘You can’t stop us.’ ”
Having missed the qualifying time by 13 seconds, Hagyard wrote the association to ask for a waiver. When organizers created the special invitation, he asked for a chance to rewrite the ending to last year’s race.
“I want my current memory of Boston to be the perfect marathon,” said Hagyard, bib No. 24812. “To run it again is to say, ‘We’re going to make it perfect this year, better than ever.’ ”
About the runners
So many of those contacted had the same request: Please don’t make it about me.
The association declined to make available those who read the applications, saying they wanted the attention to be on the runners. After sharing her story by telephone, finish line volunteer Adrienne Wald called back the next morning to express regret; after all, the victims had it much worse.
“It’s weird to talk about being affected by the marathon,” Plourd said. “No one I know was injured. A lot of us had really horrible experiences, but everyone walked away unscathed.”
But the victims are “so inspiring,” she said. “If people who have gone through this tragic experience can pull it together and be so strong, I figured I could, too.”
Orthopedic surgeon Sue Griffith is raising money for Shriners Hospitals for Children in Philadelphia to supply prosthetics for children. She wrote that she was celebrating her finish last year “until I found out that the cannons I heard at the finish line were actually bombs.”
Returning to work in Doylestown, Pa., she found her friend and running companion Amy O’Neill on her patient list with shrapnel deeply embedded in her calf.
They are returning to Boston together, Nos. 21321 and 21648.
“It’s going to be a great event, and we’re going to celebrate with the people of Boston,” Griffith said. “And that’s what we’re going to do.”
These are the people the Boston Athletic Association was hoping to find, Grilk said, when it opened up the usually rigorous entry process for those who might qualify on an emotional level as well. Organizers heard from doctors and nurses and soldiers and victims and first-responders — the usual kind like police and firefighters, but also the ordinary individuals who rushed in to help.
Sarah Gasse, a nursing student who volunteered last year, said receiving her bib this way was itself an honor. Now 21, she wrote in her essay that her mother also ran the race when she was 21, and following her footsteps from Hopkinton to Copley Square had long been a goal.
“Because of my experience, it now holds an entirely new meaning for me,” wrote Gasse, No. 28230. “Running the 2014 Boston Marathon would allow me to pay homage to those lost and injured that day, one more runner proving just how strong Boston truly is.”