How last Boston Marathon finisher dodged tragedy
"Please, I'm in pain,'' Stacy Shaw wanted to cry out Monday to the boisterous crowd on Boylston Street. She had just turned the corner from Hereford Street, and revelers were coaxing her to sprint to the finish in the final seconds of a Boston Marathon the world will never forget.
Shaw's right leg had given out 18 miles earlier. Medics had stopped her twice along the 26.2-mile route to administer first aid and counsel her against continuing.
But Shaw, 47, a fifth-grade teacher from Nebraska corn country, was committed to delivering her students a real-life lesson in perseverance.
She would have been happy to walk the final 600 yards of Boylston Street. Even crawl, she said. She hurt that much.
But the crowd wouldn't let her.
"You can do it!'' they shouted.
"Don't give up!''
The voices of faceless strangers — some of whose lives would be forever shattered moments later — spurred her. And possibly spared her, Shaw believes, from danger.
"At that point, I had no reason to run,'' she said. "I knew I was going to finish eventually. I only pushed myself because they were yelling and screaming.''
Prodded by the crowd, Shaw managed to hobble across the finish line just seconds before the first bomb shattered the splendor of a joyful Boston holiday. She was the slowest runner to officially complete the 2013 Boston Marathon, at 4 hours, 44 minutes, 14 seconds. She also was one of the last to officially cross the finish line on the first day of a new era in the city's history.
Had the crowd not urged her on, Shaw believes, she could have been directly exposed to shrapnel and blast injuries when the bombs exploded, killing three spectators, including an 8-year-old boy, and wounding nearly 180 others.
"They saved me,'' she said Wednesday as she prepared to return home to Hastings, Neb. "There's no doubt about it.''
Officially listed as the 17,580th and slowest finisher before Marathon officials shut down operations, Shaw had just crossed the line in front of the Boston Public Library when she was shaken by an extraordinary boom. It sounded to her like a cannon.
"I began to look back, but the volunteer workers were like, 'Here, keep going, take your medal,' " she said. "They practically shoved it in my face. I literally wouldn't have thought about getting it if they hadn't done that.''
Amid the chaos, billowing smoke, and pained shrieks, some runners stood stunned and confused.
"That's when the second one went off,'' Shaw said. "At that point, we all knew.''
They were under attack.
"Then I started thinking, 'When's the next one going to go off?' '' said Shaw, a mother of four.
No runner was seriously injured in the bombings, but many suffered emotional trauma. They responded in different ways, with many heeding the instructions of rescue workers to evacuate the area.
"After the second one went off, I saw all the commotion and realized we needed to stay calm and keep moving,'' Shaw said. "My goal at that point was to get to my phone and let people know I was all right.''
Everything had changed since 6 a.m., when she had boarded a bus to the starting village in Hopkinton. She stood in the morning chill for several hours, waiting until the elite marathoners departed, before she joined the first wave of 26,838 other runners.
Soon, she realized, she would fall far short of her goal: a three-hour finish. She had run three marathons in Nebraska, posting a personal best of 3:03. But she was nagged by ankle tendinitis that quickly caused her to adjust her gait.
By Mile 9, Shaw had run herself into agony, pain throbbing from her right ankle through her knee. She tried to put on a brave face as she hobbled past Wellesley College, where the women enthusiastically entertained the field.
"The girls were wonderful, but it was so hard to have them be so inspiring and for me not to able to run,'' Shaw said. "I just tried to smile and give them high-fives.''
By Mile 13, medical workers had wrapped her injured leg. They did the same about 8 miles later near Heartbreak Hill. They also cautioned her to not risk further damaging her leg by continuing.
"I'm almost done,'' she told them.
"It's a long 6 miles,'' they warned.
So it was, the pain worsening as she worked her way downhill to Boston. Finally, she turned from Hereford onto Boylston Street, the finish line in sight, the crowd noise swelling.
"As much pain as I was in, I had to do it for them,'' she said. "How can you not give everything you have when you have all those people cheering for you?''
Now, she is cheering for Boston, grateful for all the support and hopeful for a better tomorrow.
"Everybody told me you will never experience anything like this anywhere else in your life, and they're right,'' Shaw said. "Even with the catastrophe that happened, the people of Boston are some of the kindest out there.''
Shaw's principal at Longfellow Elementary School, Cathy Cafferty, said the students and staff are eager to welcome her back Thursday. They realize that she was an eyewitness to history.
"Those kind of things don't happen much here in the middle of Nebraska,'' Cafferty said, "so it really comes to life when one of your own is there.''
Shaw, who plans to run Boston next year, said she will teach her students not only about the merits of finishing what they start, but about the human condition in a world where evil sometimes lurks in unexpected places.
"We'll talk about the importance of our freedoms, but I don't want anybody to hate,'' Shaw said. "So I'll also teach them that what we want to bring out of this is goodness.''