At the Boston Marathon a decade ago, Michele Blackburn was in the crowd near the finish line on Boylston Street, cheering on the runners and waiting for her best friend to pass by.
Then the bombs went off. Splayed on the ground in front of Marathon Sports, she saw that most of her left calf was missing. Five surgeries and months of physical therapy followed. She had been fortunate not to lose the leg, doctors told her.
For years, she avoided the race altogether, haunted by the memory of that day. But next month, in a statement of liberation and defiance, she is running the long road from Hopkinton to Boston.
“I’ve conquered that,” said Blackburn, 35. “I’m running this crazy amount of miles that I never saw myself doing, and I can guarantee that if I never went through the bombing that I would never have run a marathon. I’m grateful for the fact that I can do this — because of — not in spite of.”
Blackburn returned as a spectator last year, standing in the same spot on Boylston Street to cheer on Peloton instructor Jess Sims, who had accepted her invitational entry from the Boston Athletic Association to run in her honor. In the months before the race, the two developed a close bond, and when Sims crossed the finish line, the pair hugged and tears fell. It was a moment that brought a sense of closure Blackburn never knew she needed.
“This is the way that it was supposed to be that day,” she recalled thinking last year. “It was that experience of having that weight lifted off of me — of feeling like I completed something after all these years — last year with Jess’s help. That gave me the headspace to even start thinking, ‘Is this something that I could do?’”
Seeing her friend’s triumph filled her with pride and a profound sense of relief. She recognized her own dream of running the race, and within a day, the mother of two young children had raised the prospect to her husband, Jim Blackburn, Erin Eliopoulos, the friend and former roommate she had rooted for in 2013, and Sims, who paved her way.
On Mother’s Day, Michele laced up her sneakers. She stepped outside her home in Uxbridge on a bright sunny day and pressed play on a podcast where Sims spoke about participating in the marathon. She took off with no set goal and wound up running farther than she ever had — 12 miles — giddily waving to moms pushing strollers during the final stretch.
“I had this feeling that I felt so immensely proud of her when she crossed the finish line, that I started to be like, maybe that’s something I want to feel for myself, too,” she said. “It was cathartic for me to start realizing that all of these pieces of this puzzle were starting to come into place.”
Sims sent Michele a text that day, calling her “the woman who does it all.” Michele responded with a screenshot of her mileage and replied, “Thank you, just thank you. The gift you gave me, it’s the gift that keeps on giving in so many ways.”
That was a turning point. By October, Michele decided she would be keeping the complimentary invitation the Boston Athletic Association gives to survivors of the bombing for herself.
Sims said she lost her “[expletive]” in excitement.
“It’s her mindset that has blown me away since day one. She never saw herself as a victim,” Sims said. “She learned a lot about herself in the last 10 years, and so when she crosses the finish line, it’s going to be this celebration of all the hard work that [she has] done in silence.”
After the bombing, Michele shied away from the spotlight. She recovered methodically, on her own time, as she coped with survivor’s guilt.
“I took a step forward and that saved my legs, but there were so many other people who didn’t have that same experience,” Michele said. “Confronting that survivor’s guilt, for me, was huge.”
Through it all, her husband, Jim, 36, was by her side.
Michele and Jim had just begun dating when the explosions went off. He knew she was at the finish line that day, and as he watched the news that night, his heart sank. When Michele got out of surgery at midnight, she stayed up all night, her eyes glued to the news. At 5 a.m., the time she knew Jim woke up, she called him.
He said, “When you’re settled and when you have some time with your family, I would love to come see you,” Michele recalled. “I literally just said, ‘Can you come today?’”
Jim picked up some flowers and headed to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, arriving right before her next surgery. From that moment on, their love grew.
“It became clear very quickly that Michele was probably one of the strongest people that I knew. She was so positive, such a strong person — and to this day, is that same way in everything that she does,” he said. “I was overtaken by that. As long as she would have me, I knew that this was somebody that I wanted to be with.”
They were engaged the year after the marathon, and today have two children, Evie, 6, and James, 4. Training has become a family affair. On Michele’s long runs on Sunday, the family drives to a doughnut shop three towns over. While Jim and the kids have breakfast, she charts her way back home. On a recent Sunday, she ran 18 miles — her longest distance yet.
The marathon is “one of those deep-down things that once she accomplishes it, it’ll be not only a goal that she’s accomplished, but I feel like it’ll help put some of that day in the past for her,” he said.
The family will be at the finish line, cheering her on and holding homemade signs with her name.
So will Eliopoulos, 36, who is eager to have the finish line celebration she was denied a decade ago.
“She understands the repercussions of not just that day and the trauma, but the slow climb sometimes on your hands and knees, getting back to a point where you feel like that’s not your whole life,” Eliopoulos said.
Since 2013, 73 members of the One Fund Community, which includes anyone who was directly affected by the attacks, have run the Boston Marathon, said Chris Lotsbom, a spokesperson for the BAA. Twenty-two have registered to run this year thus far.
Michele’s training has come with highs and lows. She runs four times a week and does strength training on two other days. Working with a physical therapist has helped her manage the swelling and pain. Each run has allowed her to process the trauma of that day and the long recovery that followed.
“You’ve been through so much in your life. You’re training for this. You can do this,” she repeats to herself as she runs along her route.
The race is a daunting challenge that presents a chance to prove her injuries “don’t matter,” she said.
“That’s weight that I don’t want to carry around anymore,” she said. “This will be a really great opportunity to replace all of that.”