There were bystanders who tied tourniquets rather than fleeing, nurses with little experience treating trauma who tended to severed limbs, and police officers who led the search for the bombers. They and thousands of others, among them many who had never run long distances, clamored for a spot in next year’s Boston Marathon.
Choosing among them was a delicate task.
So officials at the Boston Athletic Association announced last month they would allow potential runners to seek one of the Marathon’s highly coveted bibs if they could demonstrate in a 250-word essay how they were “personally and profoundly impacted” by the attacks on April 15.
The association received nearly 1,200 essays, and over the past week, a committee vetted each of them, playing Solomon, as it struggled to discern what “profoundly” really meant and who was worthy of the rare race bib that does not require having achieved an elite qualifying time or raising thousands of dollars for a charity.
“The overwhelming majority gave very compelling, very heartfelt descriptions of their experiences, and we tried our best to include people who were at the finish line, who provided care to the victims, and who served as first responders,” said Kevin Brill, one of several association officials and volunteers who evaluated the essays. “It was extremely difficult to make a determination in many cases, as it was inherently a subjective process.”
In the end, they selected 467 people to receive the special bibs.
Among them was Bruce Mendelsohn, 45, of Auburn, who was at a Marathon party in an apartment a few stories above the candy store Sugar Heaven near the Boylston Street finish. When the first bomb exploded, he was knocked off the couch he was sitting on.
Seconds later, he raced down three flights of stairs onto the street, where he found shattered glass, growing pools of blood, and scores of people in agony, suffering from horrific wounds. A former Army lieutenant, he put his training to use, tying a rag around the lower left leg of a young Northeastern University student, making a tourniquet that helped saved her life.
In his essay, Mendelsohn, who works for an engineering program at MIT, wrote: “I would like to run the Boston Marathon to help bring my personal healing full circle, and to honor the other bombing victims who cannot run.”
Next April will be his 18th marathon — a number that symbolizes Chai, or life, in his Jewish faith — and he expects it to be the most meaningful.
“Running, to me, means we won’t be defeated,” he said. “This will be hugely significant.”
Each of those chosen will have to pay the same $325 entry fee as other non-qualifying runners and will join a significantly expanded field from previous years. In all, the association plans to issue 36,000 bibs for the 2014 Marathon, 9,000 more than last April. That includes more than 5,000 runners who were offered bibs because they were blocked from crossing the finish line in April.
Tom Grilk, executive director of the association, said his staff has heard from people around the world who want to run the race next year. They have received calls and letters from potential runners whose friends and family suffered grievous wounds, those who witnessed the attacks and have experienced deep emotional stress, and others who just want to take part in the symbolic act of crossing the finish line, showing solidarity with a city deeply shaken by the attacks.
With such an outpouring of desire to run, of a need for closure and a means of proving their resilience, Grilk said the association felt an urgency to respond.
Running the Marathon would be ‘a statement that no terrorist act will stop Boston from being united.’
“What happened last April was an attack on all of us,” he said. “We wanted to be as respectful to as many people as we could.”
But they had to say no to hundreds. Those essays that didn’t pass muster were well intentioned but seemed “more general,” laden with bromides, such as, “I don’t want to see us give in to the bad acts of bad people,” Grilk said.
“The challenge came in the close cases, where the story or connection was very personal or profound,” he said. “It was very difficult making the close calls.”
In her winning essay, Kate Plourd, who had just finished running the Marathon, described how she was recovering in a medical tent near the finish line when she heard the bombs. She had to leave to make space for the wounded. As the magnitude of the attacks dawned on her, she feared for her fiancé and good friends, who had come to Boylston Street to cheer for her. Unable to reach them, she broke down.
“It was the worst hour I’ve ever experienced,” said Plourd, 29, of Jamaica Plain, who still has flashbacks and at times shudders at the sound of ambulances. “Everyone I knew could have been dismembered or dead.”
Plourd, who works for the New England Clean Energy Council, wrote to the association: “The anger, guilt, and heartbreak I still feel today will never go away. But running the 2014 Boston Marathon will help me heal my mind. My loved ones weren’t harmed, but not a day goes by that I don’t think of those who were.”
At 57, Watertown Police Chief Edward Deveau thought he was done with marathons, but after what he and his officers went through that week, he felt an urgency to run one more time.
“Next year is very symbolic to the rest of the country and the world,” he said. “It will be a moving experience for all of us.”
In his essay, Deveau wrote about the bravery of his officers as they engaged the alleged bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, in the shootout on April 19 in Watertown.
“For 8½ minutes, they were shot at and had four bombs thrown at them,” he wrote. “The actions they took saved many, many more lives. They are among the real heroes.”
He added that running the Marathon — it will be his fourth — would be “a statement that no terrorist act will stop Boston from being united.”
For Hilary Hayden-Moryl, 36, a veteran nurse from Ware who was volunteering at the main medical tent, taking part in the race will be cathartic, she said, a way of taking back a previously joyous day she now associates with “threat, anxiety, sadness, and fear.”
She wrote about how she could feel the concussion from the bombs in her chest, how she froze and panicked, how she has struggled with the images that linger in her mind: the exposed bones piercing singed skin, the rivulets of blood, the chest compressions and other intense efforts to resuscitate the wounded.
“It will be a way of getting back what they took from me and many others that day,” she said.
In her essay, Hayden-Moryl described how her experience at the finish line “changed me greatly.”
“I am scarred and now have PTSD and anxiety,” she wrote. “I am fearful of going into big cities and I have anxiety when I hear sirens, hear loud noises, or see the word bomb.”
She told the association she plans to run as a tribute to a young girl with a rare genetic disorder.
“She is my inspiration,” she wrote. “Running for her would take this horrible experience and turn it into a positive one.”David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.