Running on Resilience

Tufts marathoners find triumph in their special bond, their achievement and the support of others

When members of the Tufts Marathon Team started training last fall, some had never run 26.2 miles. At least one had been told, following childhood surgeries on her ankles, that she’d never be able to accomplish such a grueling feat. Others had a marathon or two under their belts, but not the venerable Boston course. A few had conquered Boston several times over.

What they all had in common was a cradle of support, camaraderie and a sense of purpose. They shared a coach, Don Megerle, legendary for his devotion to his runners. And when their triumphs on a breezy April day were cut short by an unexpected and horrific turn of events, they were embraced by a city that reached out to strangers with a wide and generous heart.

For the past 11 years, the university has fielded a team that runs the Boston Marathon to raise money to support nutrition, medical and fitness programs at Tufts, including research on childhood obesity at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Most of this year’s team had either finished the 26.2-mile trek, or was within striking distance of the end, when the marathon was halted by two explosions near the finish line on Boylston Street, killing three people and injuring more than 180 runners and spectators.

Four Tufts students who had been watching the race were among those who were treated for non-life-threatening injuries, either at Boston hospitals or at Health Services on the Medford/Somerville campus. In the confusion surrounding the sudden end of the race, many runners initially were unable to make contact with their friends and loved ones awaiting them at the finish line, and university personnel scrambled to provide for runners who were left stranded without warm clothes, food or transportation back to Tufts. But after the fear and panic of those few hours had subsided, the prevailing emotion among the Tufts marathoners, whether they finished the race or not, was gratitude—for their safety and for the support of each other and the Tufts community.

“Each time I see a person who I trained with, we both break down and must repeat over and over again how thankful we are that they are safe,” said Jessie Pearl, A13, who had just passed the 26-mile mark when the first bomb exploded and found herself caught in the “no-man’s land” between the spot where the runners were stopped by police and the finish line.

‘Hang In There’

Following tradition, the team gathered the day after the marathon for a reception hosted by the university president on the Medford/Somerville campus. In some ways, the reception was much like it is every year, with people moving a bit slowly from sore limbs, and photos of runners displayed on easels. Some runners still had faded ink on their arms that showed their name or bib number.

“Each time I see a person who I trained with, we both break down and must repeat over and over again how thankful we are that they are safe.” —Jessie Pearl

There were smiles, and there was laughter. Marathon Coach Megerle jokingly lamented that he had had few takers for the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches he tried to hand out at mile 9, in Natick, where scores of Tufts volunteers gather each year to pass out water, oranges and encouragement to the runners.

But the hugs seemed to last a little longer, and fewer runners had the medals—which the Boston Athletic Association awards to every runner who crosses the finish line—hanging around their necks. And even when the runners became emotional, it was clear they weren’t going to let the tragedy take away from their pride in what they had accomplished. Resilience remained the theme.

Kara Iskenderian, A15, of Long Island, N.Y., shared that she had lost her father on 9/11.

“It gets better,” she told her teammates tearfully. “Hang in there, you will be OK.

“It’s so hard to process you just ran 25, 26 miles; you have that numb feeling,” she said. “And then you are in that crisis mode where you can’t think, you just do what you have to do and make sure everyone else is OK before you worry about yourself. I spent half an hour by myself, and then I said, ‘I need people now.’ You can’t wallow in it too much.”

Iskenderian later said she plans to run the marathon again next year—a pledge made by many who were foiled in their attempts to complete it this year. And, she said, she doesn’t feel like she didn’t finish the race: “We knew that we could. There was no doubt.”

That sentiment was echoed by Coach Megerle, who has led the marathon team for the past nine years.

“I don’t think anybody here who was not allowed to finish should say, ‘I didn’t finish the marathon,’ ” he told the group gathered at the president’s reception. “I think it is something psychologically that is devastating to you. If you are in a big road race in cycling, and you crash a mile before the finish, you are counted as finishing. I think we have to reckon with that, and understand that. And feel real good about that. Because when you put on that [runner’s] singlet, it’s a proud moment; it gives you a sense of courage, a sense of belonging and a sense of something that is very, very special. That is even bigger than you as an individual.”

Coach and Friend

Megerle said he is particularly proud of the 2013 Tufts Marathon Team. “Our training was magical,” he said. He recalled the group’s traditional pre-marathon dinner on Sunday as being exceptionally upbeat and spirited. “All the runners wore their team yellow singlets and blue team hat. We left Cousens Gymnasium on wings of enthusiasm.”

Because the race ended prematurely, Megerle was unable to greet each runner at the finish line, as is his custom—the sight of “Coach Don” getting an emotional hug from each Tufts runner has become a Tufts tradition on Marathon Monday. The role that Megerle has played in inspiring Tufts runners, and cementing university spirit during this event, cannot be underestimated—for many, the coach has become synonymous with the marathon.

“My biggest contribution to the day was letting people know that Don was OK,” said Tufts President Anthony Monaco during the runners’ reception, a comment that elicited appreciative laughter from the crowd.

But Megerle’s role starts long before Patriots Day. From the minute students, staff, faculty, administrators or alumni sign up to run with the Tufts team, he becomes a constant, inspiring presence.

“Coach was amazing,” said Emily Benotti, MPH14. “He sent us daily emails, tips, stories, motivational quotes throughout the season, and was always there for us.” Benotti injured her foot during training and needed physical therapy during January and February, which she received at 7 a.m. appointments at Tufts Medical Center. “Coach would always meet me at my PT appointment, always. He was always checking up on me.”

“I’ve only known him since September, but I feel like I’ve known him forever,” said Caitlyn Doherty, A13, who ran her first marathon under Megerle’s tutelage. “He makes a sincere effort to really know each member of the team.” The night before the marathon, noted Cecilia Flores, A12, G15, word had it that Coach stayed up until 4 a.m. making peanut butter sandwiches to hand out during the race, along with making other preparations.

Days after the race ended, Coach was still, well, coaching, making sure his team was in a good place. He’s retrieved the marathon medals for those who were unable to finish and organized a special ceremony for the entire team this Sunday, April 21, at noon, when President Monaco will present the medals on the lawn behind Gifford House, the president’s home on the Medford/Somerville campus. “It’s a Jumbo finish for those who didn’t,” said Megerle, adding the entire Tufts community is invited.

“The running community is so wonderful, and having people go to the same school with you is great; everyone wants to succeed, and it’s great to be in that kind of environment,” said Flores, another newcomer to marathoning.

Team Effort

Indeed, the spirit that holds the team together appears to have been as important to the outcome as the long training runs, hill sprints and hours working out in the gym.

“What you bring out of this is not necessarily that you ran 26 miles. It’s that you realize what a community you have around you, and really who is there for support,” said Jessie Pearl, a geology and environmental science major. “I think for a lot of people it has become less about finishing the marathon and more about the community that this has brought together.”

“Coach was amazing. He sent us daily emails, tips, stories, motivational quotes throughout the season, and was always there for us.”— Emily Benotti

Jason Clemence, a graduate student in the English department, was no stranger to the sport, having run four different marathons previously. Even for someone with that experience, being on a team was an added boost as he prepared for Boston, the most prestigious marathon he had yet attempted.

“The training was great, because I usually run on my own. But it was nice to have that team spirit,” he said. And, on his own, he admitted, he never would have attempted the sort of interval training that Megerle led the runners through in the gym. “I really liked that, and it helped build strength. It was nice to have an atmosphere that was not competitive at all, where everyone could share their running experiences. It wasn’t about the perfect time, it was about goals—the perfect balance of being rigorous and still fun and inclusive.”

Even those on Tufts’ other campuses who were not able to get to Medford for many of the runs and training exercises said they valued the daily group emails and individual attention from Megerle. Jacqueline Latina, M13, was a former high school sprinter who had never run farther than 7 miles before she joined the Tufts team.

“Without his advice, I would have been tempted to overtrain,” she said. “About five weeks ago, I ran 20 miles and the week before that, 18, and I really had to rest for a couple of weeks after that, which had me worried. But Coach encouraged me to rest, which was awesome—I rested, and I got better, and when the marathon came I felt totally prepared.”

Latina said the fundraising aspect of being on the Tufts team was also a tremendous motivator. “I really wanted to do something for Tufts before I graduated. I really enjoyed my time at Tufts and saw this as a way to give back to the school.” And as a medical student who intends on practicing cardiology, Latina was particularly energized by raising money for research on childhood obesity. “Obviously, obesity affects heart health, and when you become obese as children, it’s that much more difficult to become a healthy weight when you’re older. Any research that could help kids be healthier will make my job easier as a cardiologist in the future,” she said.

The Kindness of Strangers

Latina was a half mile from the finish, approaching Massachusetts Avenue, when she spied some friends among the crowd along the course. She headed over to give them a quick hug. “They said there’d been an explosion at the finish line, so be careful,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘What, was it fireworks?’ ”

Other Tufts runners, closer to the finish, heard the explosions, but, at first, were equally perplexed.

“I thought it was a generator, maybe a celebratory thing, like the Minutemen firing musket blanks at a Patriots game,” said Clemence, who had finished the race only minutes before, hugged Megerle and gotten a bottle of water. “It sounded like thunder on steroids,” said Joe Lessard, E11, G12, who had finished about 10 minutes before and was on his way to the family meeting area to find his father and girlfriend.

When it became clear what had happened—or as clear as it could be, at that point—chaos and confusion took over for most, particularly those who had not yet reached Boylston Street and were separated from their friends and family, often with no way to make phone contact. Everyone related some version of the worry and mild panic that went with not knowing exactly what had happened, and whether their loved ones were OK.

But many of the stranded runners also had stories of bystanders and Bostonians who stepped into the void, inviting them into their homes, offering aid. “I was blown away by all the generosity,” said one runner at the president’s reception. “Come to my house; have something to drink; have some soup. Have some money; have my scarf. It blew me away.”

Clemence, who had made it through the finish but had not yet connected with his wife, parents and sister, found his legs began to cramp badly after he stopped running. “I didn’t know where my family was; I couldn’t walk. I just stayed at the Public Garden, and a very nice man helped me stand up and walk and get feeling back in my legs. And he stayed with me for about an hour and a half. He really saved me.”

Lindsey Walker, E15, was among members of the Tufts women’s lacrosse team who came to cheer their friends, and one of three teammates injured in the attack. She became separated from them after the blast, and was walking towards Cambridge when she saw blood on her jeans and felt pain in her back and realized she had been badly cut. On the bridge across the Charles River, she was aided by a woman wearing a Tufts sweatshirt, the mother of a medical student.

The woman and her husband—whose names Walker never learned—invited Walker to their apartment, where they cleaned her up, and she was able to call friends who brought her to Health Services back on campus. In addition to numerous cuts, Walker suffered damage to her ear drum.

Kali DiGate, A15, another lacrosse player, was thrown to the ground and was later diagnosed with a concussion. After the explosion, she and some others were able to find each other, and they took off toward Cambridge—she didn’t even realize she was hurt until she got back to campus.

On the trip back, “the four of us were in shambles and crying and didn’t know where the other girls were, and someone asked us if we wanted to sit on their porch, and it was really nice of them,” DiGate said.

Strangers also aided Jaymi Cohen, A16, another lacrosse player. Separated from her teammates, she began to run, but a block later “when I looked at my legs, I realized I had been hit.” She was able to reach her father, at home in Andover, Mass., on the phone, and he immediately headed to Boston. In the meantime, some bystanders tied their sweatshirts around Cohen’s legs to stop the bleeding, and found a police officer who called an ambulance that took her to Massachusetts General Hospital.

“I have no idea who [the bystanders] were,” Cohen said. “One stayed with me the whole time and went in the ambulance with me to the hospital and waited until my parents came. She kept me calm through everything.”

Coming Home

Miriam Nelson, director of the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Prevention and a professor at the Friedman School, had joined co-captain of the team Eric Johnson, vice president for University Advancement, at about the 16-mile mark. Johnson helped university President Emeritus Lawrence Bacow organize the marathon challenge 11 years ago, and has run every marathon since.

“One [bystander] stayed with me the whole time and went in the ambulance with me to the hospital and waited until my parents came. She kept me calm through everything.”— Jaymi Cohen

When Nelson, Johnson and a group of about 10 Tufts runners were stopped near Kenmore Square, “the question was, OK, what do we do?” Nelson said. “I have to say the hardest part was that everybody had family at the finish line—that was what they were all worried about.”

The group headed toward Nelson’s home in the Back Bay. “It was just a sea of people going down Marlborough [Street],” she said. “The community was incredible. People were out, they had their doors open. They were bringing out blankets; they were bringing out plastic bags to get people warm. They were inviting people in so they could go to the bathroom. People were unbelievable.

“I met a bunch of new students Monday,” Nelson said, reflecting on the fortitude of the runners, as well. “We have the greatest students. They were level-headed; they were realistic; they were compassionate.” And those who did not get to finish were “bummed.” She added: “It’s like wow, I trained all this way, and I didn’t get to finish. And that should be an emotion, too, I think.”

Tufts established a gathering point on the health sciences campus at 136 Harrison Street, and provided buses to bring stranded runners and others back to Medford. Throughout the next day, President Monaco, deans from the individual schools and other administrators offered the university community messages of reassurance and information about support services and counseling available.

One of the most important things for people to know is “there is a wide range of reactions people have to disasters and trauma, and there isn’t a right or wrong way to feel,” stressed Julie Ross, director of Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services. 

Ross suggested those who are feeling overwhelmed take a break from media coverage, especially from videos and graphic images, “as they tend to increase stress and anxiety.” She also said that getting involved in something positive, whether volunteering or listening to a friend, is helpful. “In other words, by not only taking care of yourself but doing something to help others, you will feel less overwhelmed,” she said. (To reach the counseling center on the Medford/Somerville campus, call 617.627.3369, Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; after hours, call the Tufts Police at 617.627.3030 to have an on-call counselor paged. On the Boston or Grafton campuses, call Deborah Quinn, 617.636.2700.)

The members of Team Tufts do not appear to be discouraged, and many say they are likely ready to attempt the marathon again next year.

“I would absolutely run in future marathons,” said Kate Makai, A07, who was running her first marathon with three classmates with whom she had been on the Tufts track team.

Megerle doesn’t doubt the spirit and determination of the Tufts runners.

“The events [on Monday] will never change the sense of pride one feels when they don a Tufts yellow singlet,” he said. “As a result of this tragedy, I was prevented from greeting each runner at the finish line. My faith, however, in the Boston Marathon and in the Tufts Marathon Team remains strong and unwavering.”



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