Monday, April 29, 2013

Boston Marathon Runner & Psychiatrist Shares Personal Story of Patriots' Day 2013

Special guest post by psychiatrist Brent Forester, M.D.
"People here need to talk about what they have been through,” says Dr. Forester. “I spoke with my medical students after the race, and they all wanted to do something to help. I told them that the injured, their families, and first responders all need a lot of emotional support.”
Monday, April 15, 2013 began as a sunny, chilly early spring day...a perfect respite to our long, dark, cold winter that brought challenges to the months of training required to run a marathon. My wife, Kim, was giving me a hard time for the training schedule I was keeping, perhaps secretly knowing what I did not yet realize: I was destined to run Boston in 2013.

What began as a challenge from Kim to run a half marathon in 1999 had morphed into a full blown passion and time consuming avocation: running long distance races to fundraise for the Alzheimer’s Association and this year, a mentoring program for future geriatric psychiatry clinicians. But after a personal best in the Chicago Marathon in October 2012, I had decided to spend 2013 focusing on a more “normal” distance of 13.1 miles, setting a goal of running 50 half marathons by my 50th birthday (35 down with three years to go!).

Perhaps by fate, one of my running buddies was felled by a foot injury and offered me his number for Boston in late February, with only six weeks to go until race day. Luckily, I had been training with this most incredible group of friends, all neighbors and fellow runners, meeting five days a week at 5:40 a.m. (or earlier!) at the corner of Ledge and Mossman in Sudbury. Sadly, a year of brainstorming had yet to generate a team name.

On Saturday before the marathon, our families and friends gathered for a festive night of pasta to celebrate all the hours and miles of running, lack of sleep, painful legs, and cross-training efforts that included early morning TRX and spin classes and a Tuesday night yoga group for runners (minus the see-through Lululemon wear). Anticipation and excitement for Monday, Patriots’ Day, was at a peak.

The Boston Marathon is known for Heartbreak Hill, the cheering Wellesley women, the rowdy and inebriated Boston College students, the biker bar patrons on the Hopkinton/Ashland line yelling in their black leather outfits drinking beers on a Monday Morning. Where else does this happen? The Boston Marathon is all about the crowds. They are loud, deep, diverse, and hysterically funny with signs and outrageous costumes. The same fans cheering on the world’s elite, yell even louder for the “normal” charity and barely qualified runners, distributing beer, oranges, pretzels, and even Vaseline on a stick to reduce the inevitable burning and blistering skin.

Monday, April 15th was a tough run for me. It was warmer in the sun than expected, and a pacing problem during the first half of the race left me weary climbing Heartbreak Hill. But a running buddy neighbor of mine ran a mile with me through the Newton Hills, and then I took off, determined to complete this race in less than four hours. It would be very close. The Red Sox crowd had just spilled into Kenmore Square when I arrived, and they were loud…but I stayed focused, down and up Commonwealth Ave. crossing beneath Massachusetts Ave., then a right on Hereford, a surprisingly tough hill up to Boylston, and a left hand turn down the long, endless 800 meters to the finish line near Dartmouth.

3:58:46. I did it! Exhausted. About to break out into tears reflecting my emotional sense of accomplishment and relief, when I heard behind me a massive explosion. I ducked. We shook. And then I looked behind me at a cloud of smoke and debris. “Oh my God,” I thought immediately of the many lives that had instantaneously ended or changed forever. But it was all very confusing: Where were my wife and daughter? I’ve got to get out of here. Where were the water and the silver warming cape? Was that a terrible accident or… And then the second bomb, panic; we were under attack.

Where was the next bomb going to strike? I borrowed a cell phone, “Kim, there was a bomb at the finish line; I am fine. Where are you?” She was driving on Huntington and Dartmouth, a block away…oh no. “Stay away from the Westin, do not park; drive to the corner of Boylston and the Commons.” How come everyone was so calm? The volunteers handed out our water, the silver cape, food, and the precious finisher’s medal, and then I left on Berkeley to the buses for my yellow bag and the port-o-potties, but were they even safe?

I do not recall well the four block walk to that meeting spot; it seemed endless, and there was no Kim when I arrived. And no cell phone service. Then, three of our psychiatry residents came walking across the street, calmly and not sure of what was happening. They are a godsend of emotional support with cell phones. I am shivering. I have not eaten or even sipped any water. An hour passes; finally Kim and my daughter arrive, unscathed. We were safe.

And then the “what ifs” race through your mind: What if I had taken my usual port-o-potty break or not pushed through those last few miles to break the four hour mark? I cannot really think about these realities.

Will the marathon, Patriots’ Day, Boston, Fenway Park, and all the stadiums hosting our beloved local sports teams ever be the same again?

The timing of the bombs was such that the charity runners were crossing the finish line, the four hour gang, not the elites or the sub-three hour athletes, but the everyday guy and gal who train though ice and snow for this moment, to cross the finish line in Boston cheered on by hundreds of thousands of loud supporters, strangers who seem to care about you and want to see you reach your goals whatever they may be. They were the targets of the Boston bombers.

Boston strong, the theme that has risen from the ashes of this tragedy, carries us forward and brings us closer together as a community of runners, spectators, first responders, healthcare professionals, firefighters, and police. We are all together now as one, culminating in the heroic 24 hour siege and Boston area lockdown, another surreal event capturing the intensity, exhaustion, and ultimately relief of a region.

Finally, at 8:42 p.m. on April 19th, it is over. In a boat on Franklin Street, five blocks from my old Watertown apartment. The local hero is a regular guy who spies the blood and then the suspect.

It’s now time to go to sleep. I'll be up in five hours to meet my running crew for a slow six miles around our neighborhood, running for the first time since Hopkinton and sharing our stories, our grief, our anger, and our triumphs. This is the way we process our emotions and move forward. We still need a name for our crew; Sudbury Strong may work.

The American Psychiatric Association's website has resources for coping with traumatic events and how to help children.

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