Boston Marathon 2014 provides participants unique challenges

Always a physical and mental test, the 2014 Boston Marathon adds news dimensions to what the mind will face.

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(In the coming weeks, you’ll see in our series at what the Boston bombing means to more than two dozen people directly affected at last year’s marathon. So 2014 is the comeback, because 2013 was the knockdown. This is the latest installment. Read their stories.)

For all of the physical pain endured in the tragic bombings near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, there are also untold amounts of emotional suffering that continue to affect those connected with the race — whether participants, family members, spectators, volunteers or even viewers at home scarred by what they witnessed.

And as this year’s race approaches, many are taking comfort in returning to the course — the spot — where unspeakable horror marred an event that’s so synonymous with both city and national pride.

But not everyone heals the same way in the aftermath of a tragedy, and according to Dr. Will Mayer, a Connecticut-based clinical and sports psychologist, there are several ways entrants in the 2014 field might mentally approach the first running of the event since the attacks that killed three spectators and injured more than 250 others.

“I think it depends on who the runner is,” Mayer told “It all depends on what your own makeup is and where you were (at the time of the attacks) at last year’s race.”

There’s no single or right answer to how to best heal after an incident like this, but Mayer said that most runners in 2014 will generally fall into one of three categories. The first includes those who did not compete in last year’s event and are either returning to the field after an absence or participating for the first time.

“I think that they will band together with a sense of pride and support to honor those who (were there in 2013),” Mayer said. “I think they’re going to run with a passion and a joy and a resilience, and I think many of the participants from last year will share in that, too. The phrase ‘Boston Strong’ has become synonymous (with the marathon) and I think that will be … an overriding theme, that support and strength and not showing fear will be the majority.”

Boston Marathon Tribute

Others who did run in the 2013 race and were deeply impacted either directly or indirectly, however, might express more trepidation in the face of the 2014 course.

“Many of them, if they’re running again, may start out thinking everything is strong, and as they get to a certain point in the course, they might not be ready for what’s going to hit them psychologically,” Mayer said. “Others are going to power right through it, and some aren’t going to participate at all because, even if they’re physically in shape to and they’ve qualified or been let back in, they just, psychologically, cannot handle that again.”

Such a reaction is common, Mayer said, in patients suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or depression — two symptoms often found in patients shaken by the 2013 bombings.

“There’s a type of individual — and runners tend to be that type of individual — that have that resilience in them and would say, ‘Nuh-uh, unfinished business, I’m going back and doing that when I’m ready to do it,’” Mayer said. “But not everyone is capable of doing that.

“So if you’re a runner and you experience (PTSD), it depends on how much you’ve worked on this — and I don’t mean physically training for the marathon, I mean the therapy piece of this — and whether you’re ready to go back and face that this year. Sometimes 12 months is not enough time to heal.”

And Mayer knows of what he speaks. In addition to treating patients who suffer from PTSD, Mayer is a former marathoner himself and has run the Boston Marathon twice, in 2009 and 2011, with a top time of 3:15:44 in the 2009 race.

Many of them, if they’re running again, may start out thinking everything is strong, and as they get to a certain point in the course, they might not be ready for what’s going to hit them psychologically.

Sports psychologist Dr. Will Mayer

“When I ran New York, which is an awesome experience in its own right, it’s a huge event, I almost call it borough pride, because you go through all the boroughs and as you hit each one, everyone gets excited,” Mayer said. “But when you run Boston, it’s Boston pride, and it’s only been increased because of the events of last year.”

The third group that Mayer describes would include the more than 5,000 athletes who started the 2013 race but were unable to finish as a direct result of the attacks. The majority of those runners, each of whom were invited back for the 2014 marathon, will likely compete with a renewed enthusiasm the second time around.

“If you’re going to stop me at (mile) 20 or 22 or wherever it was, at that moment, I can’t even imagine what that would have been like,” Mayer said.

“Your brain is starting to lose it somewhere around 20 — most people say that if the devil is going to talk to you, it’ll be around 20 — and if they’re just going to stop you and start putting you on buses? That must have been extremely difficult and I’m sure they got tons of resistance from runners until they found out what was going on.

“Those people are likely to join that group that says, ‘We’re going to finish this, and we’re going to finish it strong.’”

As for Mayer, himself, he says that had he been in this year’s field, he’d likely be part of that group of runners who will take to the course with an extra intensity in the wake of the attacks — a feeling that will likely be common among the 36,000 expected entrants in the race, on April 21.

“I’d be running with a lot of joy and pride, and I would not be running with fear,” Mayer said.

“I would want to honor those (impacted last year), I think that’s the theme the marathon is trying to push, and I think that’s generally the theme that we as human beings — particularly those in the United States — tend to do when there’s a national tragedy. We try to push together and say, ‘We’re not going to show fear; we’re not going to let those terrorists scare us, because then they win.’”