By - Dan Soleau
When the first bomb went off in front of our store, the Marathon Sports family was doing what we usually do on Marathon Monday: Cheering runners across the finish line, celebrating with co-workers and friends who ran, enjoying the day, and selling shoes.
Marathon Monday is akin to a holiday to all of us here at Marathon Sports. In the months leading up to the 3rd Monday in April we are helping our customers who are training for the Boston Marathon. We answer their footwear questions, make apparel recommendations, we offer advice on how to deal with aches and pains that pop up as training progresses. We work with charity runners to help them toward their training and fundraising goals. We listen with a patient and interested ear as our customers tell us their amazing stories. Our customers are wonderful. Some of them run for a charity – choosing to take on the Herculean task of Boston as a way to support a cause that is close to their hearts. Some of them run as qualifying runners – having worked and trained to improve their skill and ability in order to be included in that prestigious group of runners who have qualified for Boston. Whatever their motivation, everyone has a story. All of those stories culminate on Patriots’ Day. It is beyond exhilarating to share in the accomplishment of our customers, and all runners, on Marathon Monday. We are so fortunate to have the finish line steps away from our front door – to witness the human spirit, the toil, discipline, determination, and athleticism as it completes of journey of 26.2 miles that for most has taken months of training.
I will never forget the bright orange explosion of fire as the first bomb exploded. It is burned indelibly into my mind. The aftermath is a jumble of memories – smoke, blood, glass, sirens, alarms, screaming. I remember checking myself for injuries several times – shocked that there didn’t seem to be any, worrying if I couldn’t feel any pain because I was in shock. I remember seeing my coworkers and colleagues taking action and doing what they could to help others. I remember not feeling anything –autopilot had engaged – until there was nothing more I could do. I remember hugging my coworkers tightly as we were forced out of the area and went our separate ways to find a safe place.
If my memories of what happened immediately after are a jumble of snapshots and feelings, the weeks after the Marathon are more of a blur – an indistinct emotional journey that alternated between desperate grief and numb detachment. Some memories are very clear.
The onslaught of media calls immediately after was relentless. If the phone in the office rang, I would numbly answer it expecting the standard “Hello, this is (some reporter) from (some media outlet)”. One time I answered the phone anticipating another media inquiry and was surprised to find myself listening to a customer. He had run the Boston Marathon the past 9 years and had made a tradition of purchasing his official Marathon gear at our store on Boylston Street on the day after the Marathon. Clearly he was unable to do that this year. As he was sharing his story with me over the phone, I could feel myself turn the autopilot switch off and allowed myself to become emotionally engaged with this perfect stranger over the phone. As he continued, he asked if all of our staff were okay – that was the reason why he called. My heart broke and I started sobbing, trying to assure him through my tears that we were all fortunate to have made it through without physical injury.
That’s how I lived for several weeks – alternately grief stricken and emotional, or unresponsive and desensitized. As I was attempting to find normalcy in my work routine, I made a trip down to Cape Cod in advance of our new store opening in Mashpee. I was driving and listening to NPR when they started playing an interview with a contractor who was working in our Boylston Street store laying new stone tile. I was caught off guard and my emotional floodgates opened up – I could barely see the road through the tears and was forced to pull over until the emotions subsided.
I had countless experiences like these – far too many to catalog – where I’ve felt helpless and damaged.
My awareness of tragedy seems to be heightened. Or, there is simply more tragedy in the world. West Texas. Moore Oklahoma. And on and on. I’ve lost some of the joy and vibrancy that used to live inside of me.
Time has helped. I no longer feel like I’m always on the verge of losing control. Being surrounded by my friends, family, and coworkers has helped. They have provided support, stability and guidance back toward normalcy. Witnessing the city of Boston rally in response to the Bombings has been a remarkable experience that also gives me strength. Watching the survivors of the Bombings has been an inspiration. I marvel at their resilience, determination and resolve. I think about how deeply this has affected me and wonder how they are able to find such grace as their cuts run much deeper both physically and emotionally. I grieve for the lives that were lost – all so young – and their families and friends.
I continue to struggle with my emotions. I still feel grief, but sadness and disbelief have also moved in. I haven’t experienced the anger yet. Looking back on that day and seeing how the bombs tore apart lives, families, businesses – I struggle to understand how somebody could inflict that damage upon other people. I don’t know that there will ever be an explanation presented to me that makes any sort of sense.
Before it was packed up and sent to the city archives, I went to visit the Memorial frequently. I saw it in its infancy as it blossomed as tributes at the barricades on Boylston Street while the crime scene was still active. I watched it evolve and grow into the incarnation in Copley Square. I went early in the morning when nobody was there, and midday when it was crowded with others who wanted to mourn and pay tribute. I was touched by the displays of affection and support from people across the globe. I cataloged as much of it as I could in photographs. I watched volunteers tend to dying bouquets of flowers, lovingly adjust stuffed animals, light candles that had gone out. I added the shoes I was wearing on Marathon Monday to the throng of other shoes. I laid my beloved Red Sox hat in line with hundreds of others. I have so much affection for the Memorial – it was a ramshackle shantytown of random offerings – but it was organic, impulsive, genuine, sincere and beautiful. The beauty of it was that it was a memorial built and created by thousands and thousands of people from all over the world.
Working in our store on Boylston Street has had been a dichotomous emotional experience. When we reopened 10 days after the bombings, it felt so fast – like time had suddenly sped up to the point where the 10 days prior were a whirring buzz of a VHS tape on fast forward. Our customers flooded in to show their support and solidarity – to share their grief and offer their comfort. People who used to live in Boston and have since moved away who are back in town visiting make it a point to come into the store to say hello and share their compassion and sympathy. Customers who are local and loyal come in to see the familiar faces of our staff. Businesses, vendor partners, and other members of the community have been instrumental in our path towards healing. The flip side of the amazing show of positive and healing experiences is that our store has become a destination for the curious. It was inevitable – especially with the dismantling of the Memorial – but it is unsettling. It is emotionally draining when people ask about Marathon Monday: Where did the bomb go off? Were you here that day? What was it like? There is no good way to answer any of those questions and when they are asked, you struggle with your emotions to find a way to convey a polite response that is in line with whatever emotions you are feeling at that moment. None of us were trained for this. We were trained to work with each customer who walks into one of our stores and help them find a solution for their fitness and health goals.
More than 4 months later, it is business as usual back on Boylston Street – or as close to usual as possible. Our store now has a wall of “Boston Strong” shirts – people are drawn to them as a badge of pride they can wear to show their solidarity with this fine city. They are drawn to because they are a reminder of the strength of a community. They are drawn to them because there are still so many questions left unanswered and that simple mantra of “Boston Strong” gives them focus.
I don’t think any of us who were there that day will ever experience the degree of normalcy we had before the bombings. I never thought that at 36, I would still have innocence left to be lost. But what I can appreciate from the experience is the bond that was instantly created with coworkers, friends, strangers, and others who were affected. I am inspired as I witness the recovery of the survivors, while grieving the lives that were lost. I find comfort in the company of my coworkers as we continue to make our way on the long journey toward healing. I find solidarity in a city that was strong, graceful, compassionate and poised in a time of tragedy. And I find joy in our customers as they continue to turn to us for advice and guidance as they work toward their fitness goals and allow us to be a part of their own journeys.