Alameda marathon runners offer accounts of bombing's aftermath

Alameda marathon runners offer accounts of bombing's aftermath

Michele Ellson

When a pair of bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, John West was just a few blocks away, waiting for a high school friend he was meeting there to come pick him up.

“I thought, that sounds – that didn’t sound right,” said West, who said he had finished the race well ahead of the explosions. “And my brain was sort of going, ‘What could that mean?’”

West is one of three Alameda runners who offered their accounts of the bombings’ aftermath this week – friends who are part of the same Oakland running group – and one of five who completed the marathon, online race records show. All three described how their elation and exhaustion gave way to a dawning awareness that something horrific had happened, and of the fear and disbelief, the search for answers, that has followed.

“It’s good to be home but I’m feeling uneasy about being so close to disaster,” longtime runner Debra Cramer told friends in a Facebook post she shared with The Alamedan.

West said police showed up where he was waiting within 15 minutes, with a warning to him and others to report unattended bags and suspicious people and also, news of the bombing. But Cramer, a longtime runner who had also finished well ahead of the blasts and, foregoing an impenetrable crowd of spectators, had already gone back to the hostel where she was staying, didn’t hear the blast and lacked access to the Internet, which was full of the news.

One of Cramer’s roommates at the hostel kept getting texts from people from her native Germany who had heard about the explosion and were checking to see if she was safe.

“I’m thinking an explosion could have been balloons popping or something falling over, but ‘bomb’ hadn’t crossed my mind,” Cramer said. Her husband and daughters, though, “had all seen horrific photos on the Internet and were worried sick” until she was able to get in touch, she said.

Suzette Smith said her phone was “going crazy” as she raced to the airport just after completing the marathon in Boston. A longtime runner who coaches girls’ cross-country at St. Joseph Notre Dame High School, Smith had come to Boston after running the Paris Marathon, and after 12 days away, she was eager to get home.

“I remember thinking, ‘I just have to run hard to get through this to get to the airport on time. So that was my whole focus,” said Smith, who said she completed the race 20 minutes ahead of the blasts.

Smith said she knew something was going on because her hotel and the mall connected to it were being evacuated as she bolted to the subway. She saw images of people hurt on the television screens she passed, but the images and calls led her to believe there had been an earthquake in California.

“When I got on the (subway), I realized, something going on and it’s here,” Smith said.

Smith wore her marathon medal to the airport, thinking it would help her get through security faster. Instead, it drew the scrutiny of a Homeland Security agent who asked if she and her friend had seen anything as machine gun-toting security patrolled the airport. (Like many participants, West said he was also questioned briefly, by someone with the FBI.)

As Smith dashed to the airport, Cramer – who earlier had joked with Smith about the heavy police presence in a secured section near the start of the marathon – was watching SWAT trucks and bomb squad vehicles travel “en masse” past the hostel where she stayed, which was four or five block from the finish line, to Boston Commons.

The subways were shut down and people were advised to stay in their hotels, so Cramer – who hours earlier had planned to be drinking beer at a post-race concert and celebration at Fenway Park – found herself sharing pizza at the hostel with marathoners and spectators from all over the world.

West had joined a frantic exodus out of the city and was at a cousin’s house in the suburbs, watching footage of the bombings and their aftermath on the television news. West’s cousin, who was born and raised in the area, was angry about the bombings, he recalled.

“It’s his local turf,” said West, who took up running a few years ago and said participating in the Boston Marathon meant a lot to him because he has family nearby – family that goes back generations.

All three runners said they’re trying to make sense of bombings, and to understand the motivation of the person or people responsible.

“It’s just unbelievable that somebody would target the Boston Marathon. I can’t even fathom what somebody is thinking about,” Cramer said. “I keep thinking, ‘What’s the message?’”

West is wondering why the attacker or attackers chose to strike at the race’s finish line – “a big deal finish line,” according to Smith, where exhausted runners are experiencing a stew of emotions.

“It’s pretty dang twisted,” West said.

West said the attack won’t stop him from running marathons – he tries to stay positive, and he doesn’t anticipate a second race attack. But he will think twice about being in crowded places, he said.

“Is it going to have me hesitate from running another marathon? No. But being in crowds of people, it’s going to make me second-guess it,” West said.

Smith, who’s running another marathon at Big Sur at the end of the month, said the horrible act “takes the joy out of running” and will have lasting effects on her race experience. She hasn’t watched or read anything about the attack since she got back to Alameda, she said; just thinking about it gives her chills.

“I wonder if I’ll always look at the finish line now and think – I think I will,” Smith said. “When I see the finish line of any race, I think I will always think of that.”

EXTRA: Marathoner John West said this Facebook posting by Amy Huerta of Alameda summarized his feelings about Monday's Boston Marathon bombing. He shared it with Huerta's permission.

If you've ever run a marathon, then you know how it feels ... to approach the finish line and to see the arch above it, looming there ahead of you, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You're exhausted but elated, depleted but triumphant, still unsteady, yet completely certain, that you can do it, that you've DONE it. It's a feeling of utter relief, pride, and accomplishment that cannot be fully expressed. You are there surrounded by your brethren of runners, the only people in the world who are truly sharing that moment with you, who know how you are feeling, who have been there with you since the start. They are not your competition. They, and all the other runners who have ever trained for and completed this 26.2 mile race ... they are your FAMILY.

Up until today, I could not imagine feeling anything more wonderful and amazing than that moment. If the explosions at the Boston marathon today were an intentional act of violence and terror ... if someone or some group has tried to take that moment of shining glory and gratitude away from us, tried to taint it with fear and sorrow ... you do not know who you are messing with. You'd better run. Because we are angry. And we can outrun you.