BOSTON — An explosion ripped through the air.
Elite runners of the Boston Marathon experienced flashbacks as they hit the ground. Voices raised in volume as everyone reacted to the perceived threat.
Run Now Relay runner Johnny Clemons said he was in search of the perpetrator. He did not have to go far. The source of the loud noise was a blown tire.
The story came on the heels of his participation in the marathon. We stood outside of a pizza joint called Viga in downtown Boston. Nearby stood two members of the Run Now support crew, Ivey Lawrence and Cark Campbell. All three of us worked to get interviews for various news agencies — me with my voice recorder and them with their video recordings.
Two aspects of Johnny’s story jumped out at me. First, how terrified the brave, supportive and strong runners must have been at the sound. Second, Clemons’ determination to help others in the face of danger reminded me of why he would join the Run Now Relay effort.
More than 30 individuals, a mixture of runners and support crew, set out Saturday, April 12, from Cleveland to run 1,075 miles to Boston in honor of the city and those harmed in the 2013 bombing.
I arrived on the scene Saturday, April 19, in Hopkinton, Mass., to witness the arrival of the group to the start line of the Boston Marathon.
The eight-day journey was well documented by Lawrence, Campbell and the five Run Now teams: Big Orange, Green Machines, the Purple Pavement Pounders, the Mellow Yellow Submarines and Blue Boston Boomerang. Tweets were sent out to various news agencies along the route, which explained their presence Saturday afternoon.
Although the race was still two days away, the town of Hopkinton was alive with activity.
Businesses and families set up booths, activities and signs of encouragement in the yards bordering the route. A row of portable toilets as far as the eye could see seemed to take up one of the small streets. Road workers and police officers doggedly checked manhole-covered sewers to ensure nothing dastardly waited beneath the roadway.
In the middle of the town stood a bunch of rambunctious Cleveland residents acting as giddy as school children to be reunited in one place. They stood out for both their sheer number, as there were about 30 of them, and for the neon-yellow shirts they sported.
A cheer arose from the group as the final team joined the yellow mass. Quite suddenly, the Cleveland crowd turned to the Boston Marathon start line. After months of planning and eight days of strenuous labor, the last quarter of a mile was before them.
It was inspirational.
It was exciting.
And, yes, it was hilarious to see Campbell run backwards in front of the crowd to capture the final leg of the journey on his live feed.
Congratulations colored the air as celebratory hugs took team members off their feet.
I was surprised by the energy of the group.
Weren’t these the same runners suffering from sleep deprivation? They sure seemed like the same group. Whether through a runner’s high or an energy supplement, team members gamely took photos, comfortably answered interview questions and listened to the next list of instructions.
Reorganized, the teams made their way back to the vans for a trip into the heart of downtown Boston.
My friends and I jumped into a car to follow. We only got lost like twice, maybe three times. You know what? This is not pertinent to the story.
Our car ride from Hopkinton to Boston was my first taste of the city’s spirit. It seemed like every shop, whether a tourist attraction or a restaurant, sold some sort of “Boston Strong” shirt. This was a city united by more than its proximity. Its determination shone through the faces, the signs and the intention to carry on in spite of a traumatic experience.
Run Now Relay runners joined hundreds of like-minded supporters at the Marathon Coalition pasta dinner at the Boston Park Plaza when they drove into the city.
Dream Big! founder and director Linda Driscoll gleefully summarized the mission of the relay team, to include its benefit to both her nonprofit and the One Step Ahead Foundation. All 30-some-odd participants then took the stage in a surprise check presentation.
I attempted to take pictures throughout the exchange. Just in case you are curious, I did indeed try to be as unnoticeable as possible while carrying a camera in front of several hundred men, women and children.
Despite heavy eyelids and loaded yawns, the relay runners managed to pull through the dinner without falling face first into their plates.
The remaining group of runners once again rallied, post-pasta dinner, to follow teammate Duane Goff to a fire station about a mile and a half from the plaza. He explained the station had recently lost two of its own in a house fire. As a Bradley County Fire-Rescue firefighter, he wanted to show a sense of solidarity to the firehouse’s men and women.
The group more or less stayed on task from point A to point B. A major roadblock came in the form of the Boston Marathon finish line. Tourists stopped to take photos in front of the large blue overhang and blue-and-yellow banners. The relay runners were no exception — and neither were my friends and I.
Finally, the group stood before the fire station. A thoughtful silence came over the group in the presence of the flowers placed before the station. Goff left the group to speak to a firefighter while the relay runners considered the recently deceased Lt. Walsh and Firefighter Kennedy of Engine 33, Ladder 15.
An off-duty firefighter opened the door and welcomed the large group into the fire station complete with an emergency pole and two gleaming fire trucks.
He invited the relay runners to take photos inside. Runner E.K. Slaughter jumped into the front seat with a sheepish grin as he took a selfie with his cellphone.
“It’s for my son,” he said with a grin while Heather Carlson commented on how guys of all ages never really outgrow their fascination with the big, red emergency trucks.
Although small groups gathered together for bright-smiled photos, it was not lost on the runners why this stop was included in their night activities.
Goff presented the firefighter with several shirts and badges from the Bradley Fire-Rescue station on Inman Street. The firefighter responded in kind. He offhandedly mentioned the shirts were being sold for $20 each as a fundraiser for the recently deceased firefighters’ families.
He received an immediate reaction from the runners. Cash popped out of pocketbooks as the tiny group once again lived up to its hometown’s “The City With Spirit” nickname. The group soon exited, loaded down with new shirts, thoughtful hearts and unexpected memories.
A majority of the runners returned home on Sunday to family and friends in Cleveland.
As there were no official activities, my friends and I embraced the role of tourists — alongside the other thousands-some visitors of the city. We explored Harvard, ate at the oldest restaurant in America, attended the runner’s expo and discovered eight of the 10 landmarks on the Freedom Trail.
We could have gone farther, but our feet threatened mutiny.
The feel of Boston surprised me. I guess I expected it to be another version of New York City with its narrow streets, busy people and constant “wow” factor.
It was not.
Instead, there were random cobblestone roads as the new and old architecture met with startling grace. Yes, the contrast was at times stark, but it seemed there was an agreement between the old and new constructions.
Although excitement for the upcoming marathon tinged the air, it didn’t seem like the people of Boston were in near as much of a hurry as New York residents.
Marathon Monday dawned bright and early. Run Now members Goff, Corey Divel, Don Bennett, Teddy Bennett, Cameron Fisher and Clark Campbell stayed behind to cheer on Clemons, Fred Garmon, Matt Ryerson and Matt Carlson. The four men finished out the 1,075-mile journey as the original relay goal was cut short at the Boston Marathon start line instead of the finish line Friday afternoon.
Driscoll graciously presented Campbell and me with VIP bleacher passes. She said the only condition was to get good photos of the four men in the race. As Clemons had already passed our spot hours before our 3:30 p.m. arrival, we promised to do what we could for the other three.
It was packed.
People with every accent, every color and every cultural background seemed to fill the streets Monday. Native Bostonians stood side-by-side with Ethiopians, Australians and even Cleveland natives. Somehow it did not seem claustrophobic.
Police from Boston, other cities in Massachusetts, Maine and New York lined the route and the area surrounding the finish line. One of my friends pointed to the skyline where I saw two officers perched with guns on a nearby building. Boston was not taking any risks this year.
It seemed as if everyone was granted a VIP pass, as the bleachers were packed out. Seriously. The volunteers looked ready to pull out their hair in frustration with how many people pressed against the rails.
“People, you cannot stand here,” the volunteers said every five minutes when the standing area would become too crowded.
Eventually, I climbed into the bleachers in an effort to get a better shot of Ryerson, Garmon and Carlson. My elation at seeing each familiar face made me realize how much I was buying into the festive day. Before long, I joined in to cheer on the runners as they pushed their bodies to the limit for the Finisher’s medal.
My time with Run Now Relay ended at the Westin hotel after the remaining members graciously allowed me to interview them — in the midst of post-marathon pains and all. It was hard to believe the effort was over after months of following the developments, and finally the relay itself. I walked out with the Run Now Relay cheer loud in my mind:
(Editor’s Note: Those who wish to make a donation to the Boston Fire Department may do so by sending money to: Lieutenant Walsh-Firefighter Kennedy Memorial Fund, c/o the Boston Firefighters Credit Union, 60 Hamlet Street, Dorchester MA 02124.)