Medals carry greater meaning today

BY Sam Gardner • April 16, 2013

In the wake of a horrific act of terror on an otherwise celebratory day at one of the world’s most storied sporting events, how, exactly, does one go about moving on with life and getting back to normal?

For some, it starts with something as simple as a medal.

At about 3 p.m. ET Monday, Dawn Balmer of Toronto was running her fifth Boston Marathon with her partner, Anthony MacIsaac, when two explosions near the finish line stopped her less than a mile from the end of the course. MacIsaac had already finished the race, but for Balmer, a recent colon cancer survivor, the simple act of securing the blue-and-yellow medal and draping it around her neck on Tuesday helped bring closure to what had been a truly dreadful 24 hours.

“I have a lot of medals, and I didn’t get this one crossing the finish line,” Balmer said Tuesday, tears dripping from behind her glasses, smearing the temporary maple leaf tattoos still coloring her cheeks. “But this one will always be the most special one to me.”

Balmer and MacIsaac were among an estimated 2,500 racers who returned to the post-race changing tent a day after the bombings, less than a quarter-mile from the site of the attacks, to retrieve personal belongings left behind in the chaos that followed the blasts.

Staying on scene to return the bags — filled with everything from cell phones and wallets to jackets and sneakers — was an obvious choice for organizers, but marathon staff initially wrestled with what to do about medals for runners whose races were cut short by the attacks.

As of Monday night, medals were not being handed out to the race’s 5,742 non-finishers, but by Tuesday, the call was made to award them to every participant who came by to claim their personal effects — if for no other reason than to boost the morale of the many who were impacted and had their experiences cut short.

“Most of these people made it through 25 miles, and it wasn’t their fault they couldn’t make it the final 1.2, so the decision was made to give them their medals,” said Rich Havens, the finish area coordinator.

“It’s about more than the race. Most of these people aren’t coming for prize money, and they want to show that they did it. Everyone has the bib number, but to show that they finished the race — or that they got as far as they could before the event had to be stopped — is important.”

Laura Monroe-Duprey and her husband, Pat, of Winter Haven, Fla., were among those who came to recover both their belongings and medals early Tuesday.

The couple had married along the Boston Marathon course 10 years ago, and though neither completed the race this year — Laura was about one-tenth of a mile from the finish line, and Pat was slightly farther back at the time of the explosions — it was significant that they leave with something to memorialize the event, tragic as it was.

This certainly wasn’t the way they expected to commemorate their anniversary, of course, and no medal can help erase the memories of what they saw, heard and smelled as they closed in on the home stretch of the race. But stepping back and reflecting upon the bigger picture helped the couple get through a rough night in a nearby hotel.

“People have told us that it must have ruined our anniversary, but I don’t know, it just added a dimension that you wouldn’t expect,” Laura said. “Part of it is just being grateful that you’re all right. It’s surreal, but we’re OK.”

In truth, the entire scene in Boston has been surreal for the past two days, particularly in the Back Bay neighborhood, closest to the explosions. A ghost town Monday night — seemingly only reporters, police and National Guard were walking the streets — the city began to bustle again Tuesday morning as many returned to their everyday lives.

For the majority of racers, Tuesday marked a bittersweet goodbye to Boston as they returned home to neighborhoods across the globe, and the question that remains for those competitors is whether they’ll ever be back after what transpired Monday. For some, that’s not necessarily an easy one to answer.

“I think you can get on with your life, but you can’t ever get over it,” MacIsaac said. “Every time I put on Boston gear or head into the race, this is the image that’s going to be in my mind.

“Really, I get two emotions: One is that I should go out, run really hard, qualify and be here next year just to say to those that did it, ‘You’re not taking this from me.’ But the other part wonders, when you’re at something like this with people you care about, if you really want to be around it anymore.”

For people like 26-year-old Mark Donnellan, however, fleeing and never looking back isn’t an option. To Donnellan and countless Bostonians like him, this is home, this is the new normal, and this guarded, post-attack reality is one they’re going to have to learn to live with, at least for now.

“It happened on a Boston holiday and a day when everyone is in the city to celebrate,” said Donnellan, one of 550 competitors who ran to raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “This coward was trying to make everyone afraid, and I refuse to allow that. I refuse to be afraid. I refuse to let them accomplish that. It’ll make us stronger, and today more than ever, I’m proud to be from Boston.”

Boston resident Juan Gonzalez, 33, was within 100 yards of the first explosion and even closer to the second bomb on Monday. He left the scene lucky, with only some cuts on his legs and a few nails in the soles of his shoes (“They smelled like firecrackers,” he said).

But when he finally retrieved his phone, Gonzalez found 108 text messages and a full voicemail box. He also had more than 250 comments and messages on Facebook asking if he was OK. The gravity of what he had lived through didn’t hit him until he got home Monday night, and it’s a harrowing memory he and his partner, Greg Faux, will carry with them every time they step out into their South Bay neighborhood from here on out.

“I got in the shower (last night), and it kind of hit me, the fact that I was running so close to those fences before I moved into the center of the road so Greg could see me finish,” Gonzalez said. “To look back and think, ‘Oh my God, I could have been right next to the second explosion,’ I just totally broke down.

“I go to the marathon store right where the explosion was,” he added. “That’s where I do my purchasing for training. And going back there will be scary, with flashbacks. It’s going to be marred for good for me, not only mentally, but physically, emotionally.”

A similar scenario will play out for virtually every Bostonian who steps foot on Boylston Avenue in the coming days, weeks and months. But for most, however, the decision to forge ahead and put the past in the past is an easy one to make.

“Today’s a new day, a bright sunny day,” Havens said. “We’ve had volunteers calling the office wanting to come back and see what they can do to help. It kind of brings everything back into perspective. It was a celebration yesterday, and that continues today, even in the aftermath. It helps continue that aura of what the Boston Marathon is and what the city of Boston is.”

Added Donnellan: “It’s very difficult, but we have to do it. Shutting the city down and staying home is helping them accomplish their goal. That is what they want. And I refuse to live my life in fear because of them. Bostonians are strong people, and we’ll continue to be, and we’ll be there for each other.”

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