Michele Blackburn went nine years without attending the Boston Marathon after the bombing in 2013 nearly claimed her legs as she stood outside Marathon Sports on Boylston Street. She was cheering with exuberance for her best friend participating in the race until the pulsing sound of the crowd was met with deafening silence.
But on Monday, she returned.
She stood exactly where she had been on that fateful day, when one step forward moments before the explosion saved her limbs. Her cries of support were reserved for the woman running in her honor: Jess Sims, a Peloton instructor who grew up in Peabody.
In December, Sims — one of the most well-known faces of the interactive fitness platform — received an inquiry in her business inbox from Blackburn asking if she would accept the invitational entry the Boston Athletic Association offers to survivors each year on her behalf.
Blackburn had begun taking classes offered by Sims from her Uxbridge home prior to the pandemic. She bought a stationary bike to help remain active — a recommendation from doctors to help treat the swelling stemming from her injuries.
With mantras like, “line ‘em up, knock ‘em down,” Blackburn heard the way she approached her recovery — in small and attainable steps — put into words. Sims was the instructor she kept going back to.
“I have tried to pick someone every year who has made an impact on my recovery journey and this year I honestly can’t think of anyone better to run in my honor than you,” she wrote to Sims. “I have been taking your classes for almost two years and am so inspired by you.”
Sims said she will “never forget” the moment she saw the message. Fresh out of teaching a class, she was surrounded by a few other instructors in the locker room of the New York City-based studio.
“My heart immediately was like, ‘OK, I’m running this marathon. I’m doing it.’ But then my mind was split 50-50 because I’m a worrier at heart, and I have let fear and worry dictate a lot of my choices in life,” she said.
After processing the email for a few days, Sims responded and the pair then hopped on a FaceTime call. In a two-hour conversation, her decision was solidified. Sims, who had never run farther than eight miles — and that was only one time, she emphasized — would be returning to Boston in April to participate in one of the most prestigious road racing events in the world.
It would mark a homecoming for the Peloton instructor, who said she “didn’t have much of a pull” to return to the city until this opportunity arose.
“She never put pressure on me,” Sims said. “I felt like even just by me responding to the email to say like, ‘Hey, girl, I see you and I am you. I’m from Boston. I had friends racing that year and my whole family is from Boston. Like I am you.’ I felt like we both had this weight lifted off of us in such a beautiful way.”
From the moment Blackburn and Sims first spoke, Sims decided this journey would be only between them. She told just a few other instructors, including Kirsten Ferguson, who followed her to the race, and told her own sister just three days before that she was running.
“She just really felt like this was for her and I,” Blackburn said. “Her keeping me in the loop with her training and just letting me be a part of her process was a gift to me.”
Though a multisport athlete her entire life, Sims did not grow up with a love for running. But the Marathon presented a challenge of not only physical and mental fortitude, but of everything she exhorts in front of the camera.
“I’m only human, and I have insecurities. I have worries. I have stresses and traumatic experiences from my past. Michele really helped me confront this first and foremost, and just had me realize my own inner strength — that I can do hard things,” Sims said. “Literally everything that I preach ... is something that was tested.”
In moments of struggle for Sims during her preparation, Blackburn responded, at one instance gifting her a necklace with a note attached that it symbolized “grit,” and another with a copy of the speech she delivered at a law enforcement convention detailing her experience that pivotal Patriots Day.
Sims told herself she would save the speech for the day of the Marathon, when she would “need it the most.” And on the bus ride to Hopkinton, she pulled it out and read it in full.
It was during their last FaceTime call on the Friday before the Marathon that Blackburn made a big reveal to Sims: She would be waiting at the finish line.
“If she can get there, so can I,” said Sims, who recalled choking up in the moment. “After that, I said this is easy. The hard part is already done. I already trained for this.”
When Sims set off on the 26.2-mile course, the rallying cries of onlookers, who brandished signs of all varieties, enveloped her.
“I felt super disconnected with my city, and I used this as healing,” Sims said. “This is just joining Boston Strong and not feeling adjacent to that movement, but feeling part of it.”
She ran with Blackburn the entire time. On the back of her hand, she had written in black marker, “We get to. Michele. I get to.”
Blackburn was nervous at first about going — as was her husband, Jim Blackburn, whom she had been on just four dates with at the time of the bombing, and now shares two children with — but with his reassurance, she knew everything would be all right.
She remained in front of the storefront where she had once been left with wounds so severe doctors originally thought her left leg would have to be amputated. Blackburn was accompanied by her former roommate Erin, whom she had rooted for all those years ago, and a cousin who has been “an incredible support” for her.
The world seemed to stop for both Blackburn and Sims when they locked eyes at the end.
“She crossed [the finish line] and then we saw each other and we hugged, and I just had this overwhelming feeling that this was the way it was supposed to be that day,” Blackburn said. “And I never got that and I never thought that I needed it until I was in that moment and it just felt like it had finally come full circle.”
After this joint undertaking, Sims said, the two will be forever connected.
“She’s my sister for life.”
Shannon Larson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shannonlarson98.