COLUMBIA, SC — Carol Wallace, like many runners in the Governor’s Cup half marathon, is using the Nov. 9 event to gauge her fitness for a marathon in early 2014.
But for the Blythewood resident, the journey to that next marathon has been different than most. She was a half mile from the finish at the Boston Marathon this year when the bombs exploded. After much internal debate, she accepted the Boston race organizers’ offer to let 2013 non-finishers return in 2014.
“It was not a no-brainer,” Wallace said of the decision to run Boston again. “I had to decide if that was what I wanted to do. I don’t know how to explain how I felt about it.”
The 2013 event was her second attempt at Boston, and she had crossed the finish joyfully in 2012. Until the bombs exploded, the 2013 race was near perfection for her.
“I was having a great time,” she said. “I took my camera, and I was taking pictures along the way. The crowd, the weather, everything was good up until it was stopped.”
Then all hell broke loose.
“About a half mile from the finish, everyone was stopped,” Wallace said. “I was thinking, ‘What’s going on?’ ”
It didn’t take long for someone in the crowd to let them know, there were bombs at the finish line.
“My first thought was, ‘Where is my family?’ I knew my husband was near the finish line,” Wallace said.
She borrowed a phone from “a friend I had just met” and tried to text her husband, Braden, but communications lines were jammed in downtown Boston.
The person who had lent a phone to several runners finally started getting incoming texts and passing them along. A simple question from the phone owner turned out to be some of the sweetest words Wallace had ever heard. “Whose area code is 803?” Braden was fine. He had been close enough to see the first explosion and hear the second, but he was unharmed.
People in the residential area where Wallace’s race had ended went into their homes to get water and jackets for runners stranded in the cold. After hours of waiting to be allowed to move around the city, Wallace finally made it back to her hotel.
Braden watched the TV coverage of the bombing all night. Carol sat in a chair with her back to the TV because she couldn’t bear watching.
“It was a surreal experience,” she said of the finish line chaos. “I wasn’t there. I was a half-mile out.”
Wallace, 56, had planned for her second Boston Marathon to be her last. Initially, when invited to return for 2014, she was leaning against it. Then a friend qualified for Boston for the first time, and Wallace decided she should be there with her friend. Also, even though she had finished Boston before, there was a little something nagging at her about not finishing in 2013.
“You can’t be a quitter and be a marathoner,” she said.
Another Midlands resident, Marie Bridges of Lexington, was a few miles behind Wallace at Boston. She ran nearly four miles after the bombing, with the crowds in the residential neighborhoods still cheering the runners. Then at the 25.5-mile mark, a race official told Bridges the race was over.
“What do you mean the race is over?” she asked, and only then did she hear about the bombing.
Like Wallace, Bridges relied on strangers to help her keep warm and get word to relatives she was OK. It was a few hours before she got back to her hotel, but she was out on a plane the next morning just as scheduled.
“It took awhile for it all to sink in because we weren’t there” at the finish line, Bridges said.
As soon as the Boston organizers invited the non-finishers back, Bridges started planning her return. “It’ll be bigger and better this time,” she said. “I already have my plane and hotel booked.”
Bridges, who retired in June after 32 years at Lexington Medical Center, opted not to run in the Governor’s Cup, which is sponsored by the medical center. Instead, she will ride portions of the course on a bike to encourage a son who is running his first half marathon. “I’m saving my 68-year-old knees for Boston,” she said.
For Wallace, the Governor’s Cup comes at the ideal time.
“It’s a really good race to see where you are, what your current fitness level is,” said Wallace, whose first half marathon was the 2002 Governor’s Cup. “The course IS challenging, but I run those streets all the time.”
After giving her body a little recovery time, she’ll start the 16-week regimen for Boston — training 50 to 80 miles per week. But this time, the preparation involves more than getting the legs and lungs ready. There’s a new aspect of dealing with the memories of 2013.
It’s not fear as much as a heightened awareness of her surroundings. When she attended a large running event in Baltimore in May as a spectator, “I picked out every SWAT team member I could find in the crowd,” she said.
Wallace even felt an odd pang one day while training at Riverfront Park when an ambulance’s siren wailed on a street nearby. Her third run in Boston definitely will have a different feel to it.
“I’ve got to prepare mentally as well as physically,” Wallace said. “I’m probably going to stop for a second where I had to stop last time. Then I will be thrilled to be able to take those last two turns. I can’t imagine what the finish line will be like.”