BOSTON — Yellow plastic bags lean on each other like fallen dominos — row after row, stretching as far as the eye can see.
After the dust of a disaster settles — after the first responders are released and press conferences are held — this is what’s left. A pile of abandoned mile markers, shoved underneath a portable metal gate. Streets stained with Gatorade and lined with snack wrappers. And hundreds of yellow plastic bags, each containing another bag filled with the personal belongings of Boston Marathon runners: coats and cameras and changes of clothes. Some of these bags were left with designated officials before the race; others were abandoned when the two explosions shook Copley Square, killing three and injuring 130, according to the latest totals.
Now, several hours later and two blocks from where the bombs went off, these bags — close to 4,000 of them, one marathon volunteer estimates — are waiting to be reclaimed. After the tearful reunions and hurried phone calls back home, runners are picking up their stuff.
“You come to something like this because it’s supposed to be thrilling, and this is what happens. It’s a shame,” said Mary Diel, a 55-year-old nurse and seven-marathon veteran from Anchorage, Alaska. She returned to claim her bag at 9 p.m.
Diel was less than a mile away from the bombs when they went off around 2:50 p.m — she didn’t immediately see or hear them, but her husband, Bill Diel, was just blocks away.
“It was more confusion than fear,” said Bill, describing the scene after the two cannon-like blasts. “All I knew was that whatever happened, it wasn’t good.”
On the marathon route west of the explosions, spectators began sticking out their cell phones for the runners to use. Mary called Bill to let him know she was OK, but they still couldn’t find each other. Their hotel was on lockdown, so Mary found a park bench where she could wait out the chaos. She was sitting there, shivering, when a young couple approached her, offering a warmer place to wait back at their apartment. One cup of tea later, Mary was able to go back to her hotel and reunite with her husband.
“The people who did this don’t realize that marathon runners are tough,” Diel said.
This isn’t her first disastrous race. In 2007, Diel ran the marathon in Chicago, where unseasonal heat abruptly ended the event with one death and hundreds of illnesses. Last year, she was supposed to run the Boston Marathon, but deferred her admission because of excessive heat — she didn’t want another experience like Chicago.
“Everyone has been asking, ‘Will you ever do this again?’” Diel said. “Of course we will. This is what we do, and today shouldn’t change anything.”
Many of the runners BuzzFeed spoke with Monday night had mixed emotions about the marathon. But fear wasn’t among them.
“It’s surreal,” said Sarah Hunt, a 31-year-old Bostonite and first-time marathoner. “You’re happy about what you accomplished, but you feel like you should be more upset about the people who were hurt.”
Hunt was two to three miles back from the explosion, unable to see or even hear it. She wasn’t afraid for her life then, and she’s not afraid for Boston’s safety now. But she’s deeply upset that she never got to cross the finish line.
“The culmination of all your work, just gone,” said Hunt, clutching her yellow bag.
It comes as no surprise that marathon runners are tenacious. These are the same people who orchestrated a massive, last-minute volunteer cleanup campaign on Staten Island when the New York City Marathon was cancelled after Superstorm Sandy. (And then still found time to run a race.) They travel from city to city, wearing their exhaustion with pride.
Robin St. Claire, a 63-year-old nurse from Chico, California, had completed five marathons — including the NYC Marathon and the D.C. Marine Corps Marathon — before making it across the Boston finish line Monday. She was back at her hotel when she heard the explosions. The bellman told her it was probably thunder.
“I’ve definitely thought about marathons being terrorist targets before, because there’s so many people,” she said. “But it didn’t cross my mind this time. It didn’t seem real.”
St. Claire’s running partner Judy Jennings was 15 minutes away from the finish line when the bombs went off. Like Diel and Hunt, she didn’t even hear them.
“When you’re in that last mile, you’re almost delirious. People are ringing bells and screaming,” she said.
Jennings realized something was wrong when the runners in front of her began slowing down, then stopping in their tracks as smoke rose far ahead of them. Some collapsed into tears. But even now, Jennings isn’t totally convinced her fellow runners were crying about the attack.
Perhaps, like Hunt, they mourned the the finish line that was never crossed. Perhaps, like Diel, they worried this would stigmatize all the other marathons they held so dear.
“I think some of the crying was just from pure exhaustion and defeat,” Jennings said. “They were crying for all of it.”
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