What can we do?
Chau Smith didn't have an answer Monday afternoon, as she stood just over half a mile from the finish line she had long dreamed of crossing. The whole week before, a joyful mist had filled her eyes every time she thought about it. At 67, she still carries shrapnel in her right leg from a bombing at her childhood home outside Saigon. Qualifying for the Boston Marathon had reaffirmed that this tiny grandmother let nothing stop her.
But now she was stopped, by police trying to separate her and thousands of other runners from the scene of another bombing. She started shaking from the cold and the devastating disappointment. Then came the guilt when she learned what those two bombs at the finish line had cost others. She went to bed that night feeling helpless, scared and certain she would never return to Boston. What else could she do?
Whitney Jarvis ran in pain, often in tears, for much of the day. The 32-year-old had injured her knee two months before, shutting down most of her training. She showed up at the starting line in Hopkinton fairly certain that she would not make it past the five-mile mark. She shouldn't have come at all, but this was her first Boston Marathon. She had worked so hard to qualify, and no one could dissuade her from trying. Boston meant too much.
Her fiancée, Matt Huerter, had run the course before, and he accompanied her like a watchdog. He saw her tears and wanted to pull her out, but it wasn't until Mile 18, when she took a restroom break and her knee locked up, that Jarvis finally gave up on running. They planned to walk to the finish. Four miles later, they learned even that would be impossible. When they discovered the extent of the carnage -- three dead and more than 100 injured -- Jarvis realized that her normal speed might have placed her in the danger zone at the time of the explosions. She decided to be grateful for her injury. It seemed like all she could do.
Marathon directors around the world, from London to Roanoke to Carmel, had to figure out what to do at the races going off this weekend. Security became the first concern. But they also had to decide how to express solidarity with the people of Boston, home to the Everest of their sport, without crossing into the tasteless or exploitive. Moments of silence were an easy choice. A few committees debated attaching something special to each entrant's bib.
In Olathe, Kan., as organizers of the Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz mulled over ideas, they heard from a local coach, Eladio Valdez of a Kansas City club called The Runner's Edge. Thirty of his runners had gone to Boston, including Smith, Jarvis and one other first-timer forced to stop and yield to the work of a murderer.
Valdez and his wife, Myra, have both run Boston before. They know that the finish there, especially the first time, is "the highest high." So what could they do?
"They didn't get to finish," Myra said. "They need to finish the race somewhere."
She suggested asking the Garmin organizers to let the three women run the canceled portion of their marathons on the Olathe course. Their families and friends could watch them and cheer. Marathon lovers in Kansas could acknowledge the horrible losses in Boston in a way that emphatically denied defeat.
"We want to give them back a piece of their dreams, and on top of that we want to show the terrorists, whoever did this, 'No, we can't go back, but we're going to have some good news at least in Kansas City, and you're going to have to deal with that,'" Valdez said. "We're down but not out."
First he contacted the three women. He wondered if they would be too nervous or shy to go through with it. Smith opened her email and started crying. Jarvis and Huerter did the same. The other woman could not be reached for an interview, but Valdez said she was absolutely on board.
He calculated that the runners would need to do about seven-tenths of a mile to cover the ground they lost, then contacted marathon officials. They loved the idea.
By phone Tuesday night, Jarvis said she and Huerter would both cover the seven-tenths of a mile, even though both her knees still hurt, the left one from overcompensation.
"We were both very touched by the gesture," she said as the two drove home from a marriage-prep class. "I may be walk-running that seven-tenths of a mile. But I will get there on my feet. I can promise that."
Smith and her family had just spent almost an hour on the phone explaining her background, and when Jarvis heard that, she said: "Write mostly about Chau; she has a great story."
OK, so first about the shrapnel. It doesn't cause trouble very often, Smith said, although her husband, Michael, has seen her in terrible pain on the rare occasions when the shell inside the front of her leg presses against her skin. She was 13 when the attack happened, and spent several weeks in a hospital.
She can feel it when she runs, but she ignores it, just as she ignored an allergy attack that put her on an oxygen tank after her first road race, a 5K about 25 years ago.
"So as soon as I got home I said: 'Hey, I want to do 10K, I want to do half-marathon.' My husband said: 'Chau what are you talking about? You almost died.' Three months later, I ran my first half-marathon."
Her husband introduced her to the sport. She was running a small cleaning business, working 15 to 17 hours. "It was very stressful, and I needed something to get rid of the stress," she said.
She now beats Michael, who is 70. "She's much faster than I am, and she works harder than I do,'' he said. "I just admit it. I don't even try keeping up with her anymore."
She has now run 25 marathons, and the two of them have entered races all over the world, including one on the Great Wall of China. Recently, they visited Cambodia, and when the tour bus came within a few miles of the Vietnam border, she asked if she could leave the group and run across to her native country.
"They said no," she said, laughing.
She came up with another wild idea when the Garmin Marathon agreed to simulating the Boston finish. If she could get loose enough beforehand, she said she might try the whole 26.2 miles.
"I tell my husband,'' she said. "He thinks I'm crazy."
As of Tuesday night, that option had come off the table.
Smith called Valdez a few years ago and asked if he could help her gain speed, enough to qualify for Boston. "This might be wishful thinking,'' she said when approaching him.
She had never been especially fast. Plus, she was going to have to qualify at a standard for women four years younger. Born in 1946, four months after her father died in the developing war with the French, she said she didn't get her birth certificate until her mother felt comfortable going out to arrange one. The paper reflects the day it was issued, not the day she was born, so Smith is biologically 67, but officially 63.
On Monday, she exulted when she saw a sign on the course that said she had one more mile. She soon ran into a mass of halted runners, and utter confusion. When clarity came, she couldn't accept it.
"I was selfish, thinking 'This is my dream. Let me go,'" she said. "Then I hear someone died and I started to cry. I realized: 'I didn't finish. So what?'"
Other people offered cell phones to call her husband and daughter, Thy Tran. Calls wouldn't go through, but texts could. As she waited, Smith met a young spectator, a man of Vietnamese descent going to medical school in Boston. He promised to stay with her until her family arrived and insisted she wear his hooded sweatshirt over her light running clothes, which quickly became inadequate for a stationery and exhausted 100-pound woman. (Jarvis came home with a long-sleeved T-shirt, also a gift from a man watching the race.)
It took close to two hours for the family to reunite, and the young man was still by Smith's side when it happened. Her anxiety about the explosions increased as helicopters buzzed overhead.
"That really refreshed my memory that I have from the war," she said.
Distressed, she said she would never return to Boston. But her family worked on her, and by Tuesday night, she had changed her mind.
"I'm not going to let whoever tried to hurt people stop me running," she said. "It's not safe everywhere. We have to be careful, and life continues.'"
Her coach agrees, and does not accept the theory that Monday's attack will damage a sport that draws teens and senior citizens alike.
"You normally equate running with a peaceful thing, because there's this meditative quality," Valdez said, "so to have someone take that away makes us even more determined to reclaim it."
That's why he and his wife asked for the ceremonial finish this Saturday. The medals presented at the Boston finish line are expected to arrive in time. None of that will heal the injured or bring 8-year-old Martin Richard back to his family. But it's all these people can do to counter the madness, and it's more than enough.