Five Years After the Marathon Bombing, Is Boston Still Traumatized?

Five years after my first and last Boston Marathon, I can’t help but wonder if Boston is still traumatized. By Jason Clemence

Illustration by João Fazenda

A few months ago, I sat in the waiting room of my new primary care physician, filling out the usual intake form on a much-handled iPad. After checking the boxes about family history, allergies, and alcohol consumption, I came across a question I’d never been asked before: “Have you ever had a traumatic experience?”

It was a yes/no question, so I couldn’t answer it the way I wanted to, with an asterisk and a long, involved, heavily qualified explanation. But I checked “Yes” and waited to see if my new doctor would ask about it.

Like most people who identify as being from Boston, I have my own stories from April 15, 2013: I ran my first (and last) Boston Marathon; I was close enough to feel the first blast; I experienced the staggering kindness of strangers in the aftermath; I had a profound rush of relief when I got home and my family was there waiting for me. And in the strange, anxious quiet of the following day, and in the five years since, I’ve been looking for—and generally failing to find—a reasonable answer to that question: Am I traumatized? Or at least more than anyone else is because of that day?

 

I’d never expected to race in the Boston Marathon. A casual runner since I was a kid, I started going for one- or two-milers with my dad, only later in life entering the occasional 5K. But in 2010, during a rapidly dying first marriage, and in need of release and a reason to get out of our sad one-bedroom apartment, I started going for longer runs, pushing way past what I’d ever imagined I could do. I hit seven miles for the first time in February and double digits in March. I ran a half marathon that May, then vowed that I would run 20 miles before the New Year.

Long-distance races seemed like the next logical step. I distinctly remember thinking “I’m gonna get one of those 26.2 stickers for my car or die trying,” and I signed up for a marathon in Vermont, followed by one on Cape Cod, another in Vermont, and one in Lowell. But if you’re talking marathons around here, there’s only one that matters. My times were still a far cry from the three-hour-and-five-minute clip needed to qualify—averaging just over a seven-minute mile—so I tried out for the charity team at Tufts University, set about fundraising to earn my spot at the starting line, and trained with dozens of runners under the guidance of “Coach Don” Megerle, Tufts’ former varsity swimming coach, who wore shorts in the dead of winter and chided me for going too fast in our last training run before the big race. “Jason,” he told me, “there’s nothing to be gained by showing off.”

The morning of the marathon, third-wave runners like myself marched the quarter-mile from the Athletes’ Village to the start. We lined up and waited. And waited. And then we were off. Maybe someone fired a starter’s pistol or blew a bullhorn. Whatever sound was used to tell us to start was too far down the road for me to hear.

We started off jogging, barely lifting our feet off the ground, too tightly packed in to move freely as we fiddled with our sports watches and sipped water. Hundreds of runners, apparently those who never made it to the Hopkinton portable toilets, immediately veered off into the woods to relieve themselves. The crowd started to thin out, and we finally broke into true running strides, gliding past the families with picnic baskets in Ashland, the bold flirtations of Wellesley students, the grueling Newton hills, and the Boston College beer blast.

It’s said that running the homestretch through Copley Square is the closest that non-elite runners will ever get to feeling like revered Olympic athletes. But to be honest, I don’t remember anything between turning onto Boylston and crossing the finish line. Afterward, I hugged Coach Don, downed a bottle of water, accepted a finisher’s medal, and lingered for a few minutes to exchange high-fives with teammates before beginning the long eastward trek down Boylston. When the first bomb went off, maybe half a block away, I felt the delicate shockwave push against my back, then turned to see billowing black smoke, people running in all directions, flying debris, and the twisted metal of crowd-control barriers. The air smelled like the Fourth of July.

Then the second bomb exploded. And suddenly we were running again, hustling down Boylston, being pushed and jostled and firmly told by faceless voices to “keep moving, MOVE!” Everyone produced a cellphone and began texting and calling. Cell service went down in less than a minute. I don’t remember much else about my journey from that spot in front of the Boston Public Library down to Arlington Street. My only thought was: My family might be dead and it’s my fault. After all, they were there to see me.

By the time I collapsed onto the grass in the Public Garden, far enough from the blasts that people there may not have even known what had happened, my leg muscles cramped up beyond use. I couldn’t walk and was now unable to communicate with anybody or meet up with them. Instead, I lay there—a 31-year-old man who had just accomplished a gut-wrenching, longstanding goal—and sobbed.

Moments later, a couple, maybe three years older than me, walked over, knelt down, asked if I was okay, and offered me orange slices and a bottle of water. They’d been at the marathon and were walking back to the Park Street subway stop to get home. They didn’t know what had happened—only that it was bad. When I told them I couldn’t walk or contact my family—and I could hear myself blubbering hysterically at this point—they didn’t make me feel weird about it. They spent the next two hours by my side. The man slung my arm over his shoulder and helped me get feeling back in my legs, propping me up as I stumbled up and down Arlington Street. His wife took my phone and tried over and over to call my wife, even though we all agreed that, yeah, cell service was definitely down.

Finally, they helped me walk five blocks to the Back Bay T stop, the closest station that was still in service and not surrounded by police with assault rifles, so I could get on the Orange Line to Chinatown, walk two blocks to South Station, and then catch the Red Line home to Davis Square, where, indeed, my wife, sister, and parents were waiting.

 

A few weeks after the marathon, in early summer of 2013, I signed up for a seven-mile summertime race called “Beat the Heat” in Scottsdale, Arizona, just outside Phoenix, billed (dubiously) as “the hottest race on earth.” I loved running in high temperatures and was in such peak shape at that point that I thought I might have a shot at finishing near the top of the field and claiming some of the not-insubstantial prize money.

Shortly after registering, I was contacted by a public relations rep for the race. After seeing that someone from the Boston area had entered the event, she’d learned that I’d run the 2013 marathon. Over the phone, she asked if I’d be willing to take part in several interviews once I arrived in town. To me, it all made perfect sense; the angle of “Boston Marathon Runner Comes to Phoenix” had all the elements of redemption and resiliency that might make for a good story. I gladly agreed.

The media blitz turned out to be weirdly intense. I posed for photos at “A” Mountain—featuring a 60-foot-tall, gold-painted letter A at the top—near Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe and said something to the camera about how running in the heat is invigorating. I allowed a crew of reporters to follow my wife, my in-laws, and me to dinner at a Cajun restaurant. I participated in a lengthy phone interview with a journalism student, who asked if he could also interview my family, my coach, and my graduate school classmates back home. Part of me hoped to field a specific question about the marathon and the bombings, to get a chance to dig in and sort out the emotional aftermath, to feel like my perspective was important. Another part of me worried that by consenting to even a single interview, I was somehow exploiting the tragedy and betraying my city on the local news in a faraway state.

Instead, reporters’ questions largely centered on what motivated me, a New Englander, to participate in a triple-digit-temperature race in the Southwest. When it came to the still-pretty-raw topic of the Boston Marathon, the bombings, and the Tsarnaev brothers, it was clear that they didn’t have a whole lot they wanted to ask. Or, if they did, they weren’t sure how to ask it.

Before the desert race began, I urged my wife to write “BOSTON” on my right upper arm in thick, black Sharpie ink. I worried that my sweat would make it run and smear, but it held fast. I charged out of the gate way too fast and, having badly underestimated the potency of the Phoenix summertime sun, came nowhere near the top finishers.

Since then, I haven’t run another marathon, and I doubt I ever will. I still jog when I can, but I don’t really think of myself as a runner anymore.

 

So here we are, five years later. Mark Wahlberg and Jake Gyllenhaal have now made movies about the 2013 marathon. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is languishing in a Colorado supermax. “Boston Strong” T-shirts and bumper stickers are still everywhere, even if they are a bit faded and ragged around the edges.

On the second anniversary of the bombings, I went on Facebook, as one does, to write about the couple who found me in the Public Garden and took the time to help me. I included a picture of them, the one they’d given me during our only email exchange after the explosions. The response was immediate: a flurry of “Likes,” “Shares,” and somberly supportive comments.

In general, I’m wary of talking about my marathon experience. I don’t want to be the guy who can’t drink two beers without launching into some slightly new or embellished version of the tale. And so my relationship with the bombings over the years became oddly detached. I followed the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial with almost clinical disinterest, knowing that the guilty verdict was inevitable, though I was surprised and disappointed by the death sentence. I read about the moronic conspiracy theories and suppressed my furious desire to rebut them. I passed on the movies altogether. I still wear my blue-and-gold Boston Marathon 2013 T-shirt and jacket sometimes, but with a twinge of shame, as though I’m asking store clerks and fellow subway riders to notice and ask, “Oh my gosh, were you there?!”

Why am I reticent? Or why do I believe that I ought to be? Possibly because everyone in Greater Boston lived through that marathon, and I’m not at all convinced that my particular experience—the mere fact that I heard and saw the explosions in real time rather than mediated through a screen, or that my panic over the safety of my family members took place on Arlington Street instead of my couch or office—gives me any unique insight into the whole thing. I don’t believe that experiencing a cataclysmic event firsthand necessarily gives one a deeper, truer perspective on that event, at least beyond the visceral. Anyone who wasn’t there knows someone who was. We all endured, one way or another, through the otherworldly anxiety of sheltering in place, the manhunt, reports of gunfights and carjackings, and the revelation hiding beneath a tarp-covered boat in someone’s backyard.

And yet, while I know I have no unique claim on the event, I’ve caught myself in nasty little moments of resentment and possessiveness, none so complexly hostile as my squirmy discomfort with the phrases “Boston Strong” and “One Boston.” These quasi-official slogans, which seemed to appear, fully formed, while the local news played finish-line footage on an endless loop, never quite hit the right note for me. Something about them—I think it was how ready-made they seemed—made me angry.

Slowly, over time, I’ve softened on these phrases and opened up to the solace other people found in them. Their appeal speaks, I think, to the sense of community that the marathon has always embodied, and that the bombings so effectively amplified. And I realize, only now, that we have been living up to them. The bombings don’t get talked about a lot anymore, but as the national mood darkens, as the notion that America is divided becomes conventional wisdom, Boston has truly stepped up. On the campaign trail back in 2016, the man who would become our current president sowed the seeds for his travel ban with the asinine argument that the bombings wouldn’t have happened if the U.S. had refused the Tsarnaev family’s immigration. When he announced the ban a mere week into his presidency, Boston rallied against it right in Copley Square, where thousands of activists essentially announced that they are not afraid and that they understand the marathon bombs were detonated by a sociopath and his impressionable younger brother, not by some boogeyman embodiment of all Muslim Americans. Shortly afterward, our mayor announced that he would use City Hall as a “last resort” of defense if federal agents tried to arrest undocumented immigrants. Last summer, when we began to hear rumblings about a rally on Boston Common that might erupt into a sequel to Charlottesville, tens of thousands of people united to make sure that nothing of the sort would happen.

Am I traumatized? Is Boston traumatized? It’s certainly plausible. But if so, then the past year has shown that a trauma can be transcended, inverted, and turned into motivation to do good. The slogans that struck me as empty for many years seem much less empty now that we’ve shown we’re capable of living up to them.

So here we are, five years later. And just look at us now.