Attack will test marathon community

BOSTON -- I could lie and say I heard and felt the explosions that will mark Boston and its famous road race and all of us who were here, or watching from elsewhere, forever. But I didn't. I had my noise-canceling headphones on and I was focused on finishing a story about Shalane Flanagan, who was disappointed she hadn't been able to deliver the race of her life for her hometown fans.

The writers closest to me said they felt a shiver and heard a sound that seemed, oddly, like thunder rumbling. That made no sense, because it was a sunny day.

In a few moments, nothing made sense.

Marathons, more than any other event I've covered in 20 years' worth of international sports experience, are a celebration of a range of achievement, not just the top percentile. The amateurs run in the footsteps of the elite. The pride is palpable from the front ranks all the way to the back. The massed color and movement at the start are an impressionist painting of accomplishment. Because -- honestly -- most normal folks would tell you that getting there is achievement enough. The training they invest and the self-belief they develop in the process are worth it, no matter how long it takes them to finish.

Beyond that, the Boston Marathon is a collective civic experience, a holiday with more than a century of history. Planting lethal bombs at any point on the course would have been a horrible, criminal act. The symbolism of planting them at the finish line, where so many have lifted their arms in exultation, is unbearable.

We use the phrase "shell-shocked" too often and too lightly, but that is what it was like inside the opulent Fairmont Copley hotel, where reporters like me were typing away after the elite runners' news conferences at about 2:50 p.m. ET, when the bombs went off. The moment we absorbed the scope of what had happened, we were told we were under lockdown, so we hunkered down for a few minutes, slack-jawed, watching the same images as the rest of the world.

My ESPNBoston.com colleague Jack McCluskey, covering his first Boston Marathon (as I was), was at the corner of St. James Avenue and Clarendon Street, about two blocks away from the finish line. He saw a cloud of white smoke rise above the finish line area and stared at it, confused. "It sounded like cannon fire," he said. He couldn't process it.

He walked toward the area to see what had happened. Sirens began to wail. First responders broke into a run ahead of him.

Almost immediately, McCluskey saw the wheelchairs normally used to ferry injured runners being hastily deployed for a different, deadly serious purpose. Some of the injured had arms and legs wrapped.

I sprinted into the lobby, and the first person I encountered was the great American champion Joan Benoit, who stood against a wall with her husband and two kids, sipping a hot beverage and looking gray-faced but composed. "I'd be a lot jumpier if I didn't have my family with me," she said. She didn't want to say much else. "It's a tragedy, and a shame they picked this event to exploit," she said with quiet anger.

I found Meb Keflezighi in a crowd inside the lobby bar and restaurant, trying to comprehend what had happened. Keflezighi, a three-time Olympian who won a silver medal in the 2004 Summer Games, didn't run here because of a leg injury, but he came anyway and left the finish area only minutes before the bombs went off.

"I was there for four hours," he said. "I didn't leave until the running time said about four hours. In fact, Tom [Grilk, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association] said he wanted to give me a gold medal for staying the longest."

Keflezighi couldn't tear himself away. "I have 80 pictures on my phone that I was taking of the glorious, fun moment people were having," he said, scrolling through them to show me. There was no one famous in them. "And the result is this," he added, his voice heavy.

I flashed back to the 2011 New York City Marathon, where I was following up a feature I'd done on the families of Flight 93, the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pa., after it was so bravely detoured by passengers on 9/11. A number of family members were running 10 years later to honor their lost loved ones. Some were experienced runners. Many were not. One learned to run specifically for the event and fell off a treadmill on one of her first attempts. They awed me.

When I cover marathons, I am almost always assigned to cover the elite athletes and never get to see the scene at the finish. But I needed to watch the Flight 93 families cross the line, so I waited. Like Keflezighi on this day, I was there for about four hours. And I spent much of that time in tears. People celebrated. They collapsed. They vomited. They clasped hands and accelerated. They staggered. I couldn't believe the spectacle, the beauty of the ordinary performance as opposed to the extraordinary ones I make a living chronicling.

Part of me is relieved I wasn't on the finish line to see the chaos and carnage Monday afternoon, and part of me wishes I had been, because I'm a reporter and my instinct is to convey the most powerful images and messages possible.

Wandering around the lobby again, I found Jason Hartmann, who had finished a game fourth in the men's elite race for the second year in a row. He looked slightly dazed. Like me, he'd been unaware of what happened until he got a text asking whether he was safe. When he saw the first video footage, he turned to his girlfriend, Angelina Ramos, and said, "Our entire sport is going to change."

It will in some ways. Public safety officials from the municipal to the federal -- and international -- level will caucus with race organizers and make adjustments, just as we always do after being attacked.

Hours after the explosions, when I was finally able to leave the Fairmont, I walked through an urban landscape that changed dramatically from block to block. If I didn't know better, I would have thought it was a movie set, floodlit in some places by whirling squad car and fire engine lights.

Some stretches seethed with police activity, National Guardsmen bearing automatic weapons, SWAT teams arriving in the huge, ugly vehicles that signal a man-made disaster. Yet on Commonwealth Avenue, it was so quiet I could hear the footfalls of people behind me. The crescent moon hung like a prop, and magnolia trees were showing half-open buds in front of the grand old facades.

"Protocol now is going to be even more intense," said Flanagan, whose own competitive pain was erased in an instant by Monday's events. Sitting next to younger sister Maggie -- who had run behind her in the amateur field in a show of support -- the two-time Olympian was sore and pale and had a ragged edge to her voice, but her reaction was completely logical if you know anything about distance runners.

"The marathon is symbolism for overcoming and facing challenges," she said. "This will not stop anyone. If anything, it will inspire people to persevere and show that we're better than that."

Talking to her, I had another sensory memory of the one and only other time I wrote about the regular people on the course of a major marathon. It was in November 2001, when I stood at the finish in New York City and watched runners stream across. Seeing them run for joy, rather than in mortal fear as they'd done just two months before, and seeing people bow their heads in thanks after wrapping themselves in foil blankets, deeply thankful not for the time they'd logged, but simply for being alive, was a profound experience.

I am stricken by the reversal of that image here in Boston, the fact that people were running away from something terrible seconds after running toward something good. But I also know that will turn again.

Amateur marathoners push themselves for a whole host of reasons. To test their physical and psychological limits. To raise money for worthy causes. To compete. The next time this -- or any -- marathon is run anywhere in the world, they will run for yet another. To show that the power of communal achievement can be beaten on one day, but not on most days and never indefinitely. And that is what makes sense on a senseless day.