April 16, 2013 10:08:25 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
It had been a perfect day. That's what Columbus resident and avid runner Brad Atkins couldn't wrap his head around Monday night. Everything was good, everyone was happy, everything was fine, he kept saying. Everything had seemed fine.
He and his wife, Melissa, were safely in their Boston hotel, watching the remainder of the marathon on television, when tragedy marred a day in which it had seemed nothing could go wrong.
If he had crossed the finish line an hour or so later, he said, if they had decided to go with their original plan -- to hang around and watch some of the other runners cross the finish line -- they would have been standing in nearly the exact spot where the explosions ripped through the crowd, killing at least three people and injuring more than 170.
But he was tired after logging the marathon's 26.2 miles in three hours, 11 minutes. By the time he made it from the finish line to Melissa Atkins' side, he was wiped out, ready to walk the three blocks back to their hotel on Stewart and Tremont streets, shower, relax and celebrate the completion of his second Boston Marathon.
"It was a great day, a beautiful day," he said. "The (Boston) Red Sox were playing right down the road, and we hung out there (at the finish line) for a little bit. Thank God we left before the explosions happened."
The couple began running together in 2005, signing up for a local race as little more than a lark with some of their friends. They enjoyed it so much, they decided to do it again. And again. They began with 5Ks and 10Ks, then progressed to half marathons, marathons, triathlons and Iron Man competitions.
They ran in the New York City Marathon in 2009, and he completed his first Boston Marathon in 2010.
Last year, with the support of the Golden Triangle Running and Cycling Club, the couple launched the inaugural Possum Town Triathlon in Columbus.
But there's something special about Boston's esteemed event, he said. With its origins tracing back to 1897, it is the world's oldest annual marathon, drawing more than half a million spectators and more than 20,000 of the top athletes from around the globe.
It is unique in both quality and atmosphere. Runners must qualify, and the competition is fierce. Because the race is held on Patriots' Day, a Massachusetts state holiday commemorating the American Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord, children are out of school and most residents are off work. It's not uncommon to see entire families lining the sidewalks, waving flags and cheering the runners across the finish line.
"To a true marathoner, it's just one of those things you definitely want to run," Atkins said. "You have a lot of people that come out to volunteer. You'll see kids giving out bananas, oranges, water, Gatorade. It's very much a family event."
It was hard to reconcile the scene he had just left with the one unfolding on television. Hungry, and trying to understand what had happened, he and his wife wandered across the street to Panera Bread, where people were saying the explosions had sounded like cannons.
"They were starting to close businesses all around us, and (Melissa) started to get a little freaked out," Atkins said. "We were seeing armored cars with lights flashing, ambulances, fire engines, the FBI, swat teams -- all racing to the scene."
Atkins said the couples' cellphones "blew up."
"Oh, man, I can't tell you how many calls we got. We couldn't answer text messages fast enough," he said. "Melissa and I posted a Facebook message just to let everybody know we were OK."
By nightfall Monday, the streets were mostly empty. Not exactly a ghost town, but so deserted as to be surreal. On a normal marathon night, the restaurants and bars would have been packed with runners celebrating and watching the hockey match-up between the Boston Bruins and the visiting Ottawa Senators,.
Instead, the city was on lockdown, the hockey game canceled.
"Normally after a marathon, you'd be talking about your times, your race, your experience -- it's a fun time," Atkins said. "A marathon's a tough event and you're happy to be done. It's a journey you trained for and completed, but nobody's talking about their times (this year). It's very much a tragedy, a horrible moment. It's sad somebody would do this, because it ruined a good event."
As a parent, he is particularly troubled by the news that one of the fatalities was an eight-year-old boy. His middle son, Colin, is also 8. His daughter, Madison, is 11, and he has a two-year-old son, John Cole.
Though he and Melissa are looking forward to returning to Columbus, they have decided to stick with their original plan and stay in Boston until Wednesday, partially because flights out of the city are jam-packed right now, and partially because they traveled so far that they refuse to be deterred, even by the senselessness of violence. While Melissa is uncertain whether she ever wants to be a spectator again, he said he will race in future Boston Marathons if he has the chance.
"I don't believe you can live in a cave just because these terrorists do this kind of stuff," he said.
Mississippians in the marathon
According to the Boston Marathon, the following 59 Mississippians had registered for Monday's Boston Marathon. Hometowns were not listed, but three of the participants are known to be area residents. There were no reports of injuries to any of the people on this list as of press time Tuesday.
Brad Atkins of Columbus
Donna Bruce of West Point
Gunnar Olson Starkville
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.