A Marathon Reflection (Julie Balasalle Guest Post)

Posted: May 2, 2013 in Uncategorized

Julie Balasalle

Julie is pictured here with 1984 Olympic Marathon Gold Medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson.

I have never thought of myself as a runner. I didn’t grow up running track and the words “I’m just going for a run” never came out of my mouth.  Running was something that athletes and people in shape did effortlessly, not me. That changed on January 3, 2012 when I stepped on a treadmill and began an incredible journey that has taken me far beyond anything I ever imagined. I began to run. Slowly, at first, alternating between walking for 90 seconds and running for 60 seconds until I was able to run continuously for 30minutes. I completed a sprint triathlon that August. Running became a part of my life.

In November, I was invited to join the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts 2013 Boston Marathon team. Putting aside my self-doubt, I accepted the invitation and began training with the Marathon Coalition, an incredible group of charity runners. Under the guidance of our Coach Rick Muhr, we trained through the cruel New England winter to prepare ourselves for Marathon Monday. After 4 and half months of intense training that included running different parts of the course from Hopkinton to Boston, the day had finally arrived to do it for real.

The morning of April 15th was absolutely gorgeous. I arrived at Park Street station to meet the rest of my team and join the thousands of other runners who were waiting to board busses to Hopkinton. There was excitement in the air that stayed with us in the Athlete’s Village and only grew stronger as we approached the starting line in the last wave of runners.  My heart was racing with pure joy and excitement as the starting gun signaled that we were off!

The next 21 miles were nothing short of incredible. It was truly awe inspiring to run with my team and so many charity runners that were running to support such important causes. My favorite part was hearing the cheers of all the spectators who screamed our names that were written down the sides of our arms to keep our spirits up. As I ran through Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, and Newton, I was floored by the support we received.

Near mile 17, I was starting to feel severe pain in my hip and I slowed down significantly. For the past 4 months, our coach had talked to us about the tremendous feeling of crossing the Boston Marathon finish line and I knew that I wasn’t going to stop running. I kept imagining seeing my parents and brother and sister in law as I took that step on Boylston Street and it kept me going through the pain.

As I made my way up the infamous Heartbreak Hill, I was told by a Boston Athletic Association volunteer that the race was over because of an incident at the finish line. After running 21 miles and hearing that, I was confused and couldn’t believe that he was actually serious. He told me that there were people injured and dead at the finish line. I immediately put my hands on my thighs and felt lightheaded. My family was waiting for me there.

I was herded with other bewildered runners into a medical tent. The phenomenal medical staff took my blood pressure and attempted to calm me down as I frantically tried to call my family. Panic was coursing through me because all the cell phones seemed to be jammed. As a social worker, I knew it was important for me to stay grounded, but when I learned that there were two explosions, probably bombs, and that the scene in Copley was gruesome, my state of panic continued to grow.

During my long training runs in the past months, I had dreamed of crossing the finish line, receiving my Boston Athletic Association medal, and getting wrapped in a Mylar blanket before hugging my family. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be sitting in a medical tent 5 miles from the finish line wrapped in a Mylar blanket, trying to find out if my family had survived a bombing. Up until this point, the day had been a pure example of friendship and unwavering support from runners and spectators alike. I remember thinking that it was strange that a day that began so beautifully and with the hope of accomplishing something great could end in such terrible tragedy and despair.  It all felt so surreal.

Although I was trained in crisis response during my MSW schooling, I was at a loss for being able to keep that in perspective. That day, however,  I was reminded of how important it is to have  first responders around you like social workers and helping professionals who can keep that perspective for you.  I was lucky enough to have a good friend with me who was able to help keep me in the moment and respond to text messages and Facebook posts from friends who were concerned for my safety. The doctor kindly insisted that I take deep breaths and drink Gatorade to replenish the electrolytes that I had lost in the past 4 hours of running. It felt strange to be on the receiving end of help, rather than giving it. I am forever indebted to my friend, the medical staff, and volunteers who helped me that day. Later, I would look back at that time as a shining example of how much more good there is in the world than bad.

Thankfully, my friend’s husband was able to reach my parents on their cell phone from the landline in his office. They were less than a block away from the second bomb, but they were safe. My brother and sister in law had been underground on the green line on their way to see me in Brookline and they were safe as well. It felt like I was only able to breathe again once I was reunited with them later that night.

Amid the swirling of the many complex emotions I felt that day, knew I needed to complete 26.2 miles. I wanted to prove to myself that I could actually finish a marathon, but also I wanted to cross the finish line for those who would never be able to, and to take back the sense of accomplishment that these events had taken from me. So on the evening of April 15th, I signed up for the Cox Sports Marathon in Providence on May 12th, less than a month after the Boston Marathon.

I wanted to run every mile for Boston, the city I was born and raised in, for those who lost their lives, and for those who will continue to recover from physical and emotional wounds. When I lace up my sneakers that morning, I will do so with a strong and grateful heart. And I will proudly call myself a runner.

  1. Ginger Hoffman says:

    Julie-This was beautiful. I’m glad you are safe and so proud of you for accomplishing your goal.

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