NORTH LIBERTY– A runner for 13 years, none of the races previously undertaken by Iowa City pharmacist Stacy Sommers ended quite like the one on April 15, the most prestigious of America’s footraces, the Boston Marathon.
Moreover, this was Sommer’s very first Boston Marathon.
It was a rather remarkable accomplishment, considering she had only run half-marathons until her very first full marathon in the Quad Cities last September. Her time in that race qualified her to run the Boston Marathon, not an easy feat, and becoming increasingly more rigorous as race organizers try to keep the race at manageable numbers.
“I was kind of shocked,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to qualify, and I didn’t even know I qualified until I looked online afterward. I was kind of shocked.”
But Sommers seized the opportunity and made plans to join the 27,000-plus who don bib numbers and head down 26.2 miles of Massachusetts roads that are part of the oldest annual marathon in the world. It’s a traditional event with an international luster that was blackened this year in a matter of seconds by two terrorist-planted bombs that killed three people and left more than 200 injured.
But the thrill of being part of the event was the only thing on her mind that sunny morning less than three weeks ago.
“It was awesome,” Sommers said in a telephone interview last week. “I was kind of nervous, because they load you on buses at six in the morning, and the race doesn’t start until 10 a.m. But once I got into athletes’ village, where there are probably 30,000 runners, I ended up meeting three new people and talking to them before the run, so time went by fast,” she said.
And once her flight began, at around 10:20 a.m., Sommers was caught up in the race.
“I was so full of adrenaline,” she said. “It was perfect weather. The first thing that impressed me was all the people on the sidelines. There were people all along the course; there was literally not one place along the 26 miles there weren’t people everywhere, cheering you on.”
Among those spectators, standing at around mile 21, were Sommers’ fiancé and former Solon resident Byson Croy, her sister and brother-in-law, and her mother.
“They were waiting around the Boston College area, and their plan was to meet me later on at the finish line,” she said.
But she passed mile 21 and didn’t get to see her family members, as they were on the opposite side of the road she had expected, and the crowd was so large. However, they were able to get a glimpse of Sommers as she passed by.
With a final time of 3:34:10, Sommers had already been in the family meeting area for about 45 minutes when chaos erupted at the finish line about a block away.
“We heard the first one. It was really loud, but it got kind of quiet. Everybody was thinking maybe it was a celebratory firework, or maybe a generator going off. But the second one happened, and at that moment I think everybody knew something wasn’t right,” she said.
A man sitting near her declared that he suddenly saw people running away from the location of the sound, toward Sommers and the others in the family meeting area.
“Then we heard sirens, and cops started coming through on golf carts,” she said. At that point, a volunteer began urging everyone to clear the area because the police officers were saying it was unsafe. Sommers still hadn’t reconnected with her family members.
“I was nervous because I knew the train they were taking was coming from the same place the sound had come from,” Sommers said. “I wasn’t sure if they were okay.”
About 30 seconds later, she heard her brother call her name.
“I felt so relieved,” she said. But after hugging her fiancé, she learned none of them had heard the noise and were still unaware of anything out of the ordinary.
“I was crying at that point,” Sommers said. “They all thought it was because I was sore from the race, but I told him there was an explosion. Byson looked around and said yes, let’s get out of here. Shortly after that, Byson got a text from a co-worker asking if he was okay, and we realized clearly something wasn’t right.”
Internet information pulled up on their cell phones immediately confirmed there had been a suspected bombing.
“We walked about a good hour or so before we were able to get a cab, but we got back to the hotel more easily than I think a lot of people did, because we reacted right away,” she said.
And their reaction upon learning the details while watching the news at their hotel was, like most people’s, was one of shock.
“You hear of these things happening, but you’re not usually part of it,” Sommers said. “And there was some general fear, wondering if we were safe.”
She and her party were scheduled to stay until Wednesday, and those fears were allayed.
“We went back downtown Tuesday, and honestly, we didn’t feel unsafe at all,” Sommers said. “There were police everywhere, military people everywhere.” Their time in downtown Boston seemed almost routine, Sommers said.
“It didn’t seem any different,” she said. Even in their visit to the landmark bar Cheers, made famous by the long-running television sitcom of the same name, people seemed to act comfortable, although her brother-in-law said in his previous visits there, the place was packed. There were not as many people this time.
However, the bombing was first on everybody’s minds.
“It was the topic of pretty much every conversation,” she said.
The group departed Boston on Wednesday as planned, and the only flight delay they encountered was the leg from Moline to Cedar Rapids, because of extensive rains here in Iowa.
After returning home safely, Sommers said, the experience has certainly given her a new perspective.
“It kind of gave everyone a sense that, obviously other things like this have happened elsewhere, but it just further goes to show, you just never know. This could happen anywhere,” she said.
But to keep from satisfying the intent of the malicious terrorism inflicted upon Boston and the thousands of runners and spectators, to demonstrate the new spirit the world now knows as “Boston strong,” Sommers said she will continue to participate in marathons.
“I honestly don’t think it will color my racing,” she said. “There could be someone crazy anywhere, not just at races. It’s not going to change the way I live my life, anyway.”
And she believes that the tragic bombings, if they changed Bostonians or her fellow runners in any way, it was in a positive way.
“If anything, it brought them closer. I think it strengthened them as a city,” she said. “I wasn’t there very long, but I got a sense that people were coming together and were on the same page.”
And if the opportunity comes again, Sommers said she will return to Boston in the future.
“Boston is a town probably one of the coolest places, at least one of the best cities, I’ve ever gone to. People were so nice, and we had a great experience,” she said. “I would go back there in a heartbeat.”
And in the wake of death and tragedy, it’s a heartbeat that keeps on, the sound of pounding feet heard ‘round the world, a cadence that will forever be Boston strong.