That bad day in Boston

That bad day in Boston

Like me and many other runners around the country, Hal Higdon followed the 2013 Boston Marathon online — watching the elite racers and tracking the progress of friends who were running the race. And then sitting glued to the computer or the TV, watching coverage of the bombings at last year's race and desparately waiting to hear of the whereabouts of those friends there.

Even though Higdon was 935 miles away, at his home in Indiana, during the race, he tells the story of the 2013 Boston Marathon through the eyes of runners on the course.

Higdon's new book "4:09:43" — the title is the time on the race clock when the first bomb exploded — was released recently. It was published by Human Kinetics of Champaign. Higdon describes it as the first book about a major sporting event researched through social media.

Higdon is a runner, author and contributing editor for Runner's World magazine, and he has a large online presence through his Facebook page, Twitter account and website. The book begins with Higdon posting a comment on Facebook the day before the marathon, wishing Boston runners good luck. The first to respond with a comment was Neil Gottlieb of Philadelphia, followed by many others.

Higdon weaves their stories through the book that is organized like the race, starting at Boston Common, where runners board buses to the race start; to the Athlete's Village at Hopkinton, where they wait until race time; and through the various towns runners pass by — Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline — on their way to Boylston Street.

Higdon knows the course well, having run Boston 18 times. He's covered the race as a journalist at least that many times.

At first, he thought not being in Boston in 2013 might be a disadvantage in writing about the race. But he learned most journalists at the race were locked down in the media room at a hotel near the finish line once the bombs exploded. They were watching the situation develop in the same way he was in Indiana, via TV and Internet coverage.

In the days following the bombings, other messages started to trickle in, with runners sending Higdon links to stories they'd posted online about their experiences at Boston. By the end of the week, Higdon had decided to write a book, to share those stories with a larger audience and tell the story of the 2013 Boston through the runners, as well as others at the race — from race director Dave McGillivray to volunteer Elizabeth Bunce (who gave race finishers their medals) to spectators.

One of the things that struck Higdon the most in hearing the runners' stories was the coincidences or small decisions that led to a runner "to be right at ground zero or having missed it."

For example, Michele Keane — a woman Higdon had become acquainted with online some time before — stopped to kiss her mother, who was in Natick at the spot where the two of them watched the race when Keane was a child. She stopped later to hug her daughter, who was watching near Fenway Park, and chat for a minute before continuing her race. She fell behind the friend she had been running with. As a result, Keane was not yet to Boylston Street when the bombs exploded, while her friend, Vivian Adkins of Potomac, Md., was nearly at the finish line, the first bomb exploding just behind her. Adkins described crouching in a fetal position near the grandstands, then getting up and running across the finish line after the second bomb exploded, fearing she might get hit next.

"Everybody realizes that, with a little bit of bad luck, it could have been them," Higdon said.

The perspective offered by the bombings also struck him. A runner in the book, Heather Lee-Callaghan, developed some nasty blisters during her marathon. She was treated for them in the medical tent after she finished, and she described not wanting to watch while the medical staff looked at her foot because she was sure she was going to lose a toenail and she didn't want to see the blood. Just after she left the medical tent, the first bomb exploded and the doctors began treating people with far more serious injuries.

"We as runners sometimes focus on the small hurts," Higdon said. "Sometimes there are much larger hurts, so we have to put things in perspective."

Higdon feels he has come to know the 75 people whose points of view he used in writing the book. And all of them will be able to meet in person at this year's Boston Marathon. One of the runners is organizing a gathering on the Saturday night before the marathon.

"In a sense, it's like each one of the 75 has become almost a special friend of mine," Higdon said.

The marathon organizers have announced some changes for this year's race, which will be run on April 21. They will not allow runners to carry bags onto the buses that will take them to the Athlete's Village in Hopkinton, and runners will go through a security check before boarding the buses. CamelBaks and costumes are among the prohibited items. And while bandits, or unofficial participants, have long been tolerated at Boston, the marathon organizers say this year they won't be allowed on the course.

But, Higdon said, "it's probably going to be a lot more of the same than it will be different."

He noted that while there will be tighter security, that is something that has been happening over time anyway.

"We've seen a massive change in running in the last 10 to 20 years anyway, forced on us by the fact that ... marathon running has turned into a mass participation sport," he said. "Boston particularly is an iconic event. This is our event, our sport. I think it's going to be just as great as ever.

"It really is going to be a gathering of runners. They want to stand up to the terrorists and say, 'You are not going to be able to take our roads away from us.' They are going to return to the Boston Marathon and it will be bigger and better than before," Higdon said.

Long after completing the book, Higdon went back and interviewed some of those people again, for a story that will be included in this year's Boston Marathon program.

"People went away from Boston shocked and in tears, and claiming they'd never come back," he said.

But time helped heal their wounds and change their minds. On the book's last page, Higdon tells of John Munro of Scotland. Several days after the marathon, Munro was at Logan Airport, wearing his Boston Marathon jacket and getting ready to board his flight home. He handed his passport to a security officer. The officer asked if he would come back.

Yes, answered Munro. "I will be back."

Fast Facts:

1) Hal Hidgon

Hal Higdon ran the Boston Marathon 18 times, including a fifth place finish (first American finisher) in 1964, with his personal best of 2:21:55. He has run in the Olympic Trials eight times, and he's won four world master's championships. In addition to writing for Runner's World magazine, Higdon has written for many non-running magazines and published more than three dozen books, including a bestseller on marathon training, now in its fourth edition.

2) Illinois Marathon speakers

Higdon is one of the featured speakers at this year's Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon, along with Jacqueline Hansen, who won the Boston Marathon in 1973 and who worked for equality for women in long-distance running in the 1970s and '80s. Higdon and Hansen will speak at the Marathon Expo (Higdon at 1 p.m., Hansen at 2 p.m.) and the pasta dinner (Hansen at the 5 p.m. seating, Higdon at the 6:30 p.m. seating) at the University of Illinois Activities and Recreation Center on Friday, April 25.

Jodi Heckel, News-Gazette magazine editor, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at or follow her at Her blog is at

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