Sisters set to run Boston Marathon 20 years after surviving 1999 Columbine shooting

After years of struggling with the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine shooting, Laura Hall and Sarah Bush have used running as a method to overcome the anxiety. Courtesy of Laura Green Hall

It was a regular school day. Laura Green, a 14-year-old freshman, threw on a powder-blue tank top, a matching cardigan, a khaki skirt and a pair of Doc Martens. She had two weeks left in the school year at Columbine High. After months of cold days, the sun was finally out. Her town, Littleton, Colorado, looked bright and majestic. As she sat down in the passenger seat of the car her older sister, Sarah Green, 16, was driving on April 20, 1999, Laura thought to herself, "It's going to be a good day."

Three hours after they left their house. That's all it took for their lives to change forever when one of the school's janitors yelled, "Run, somebody is shooting." Laura dropped her pizza and sprinted up the stairs from the cafeteria. She stood shoulder to shoulder with 40 other kids in the choir office. She fixed her eyes on the ceiling, hoping the space above them might help her breathe through the intense claustrophobia. They had barricaded the door with two desks and a cabinet.

During the same time, Sarah was taking a math test. She dropped her pen in fear when baseball coach Robin Ortiz slammed the door open and told them to "get the hell out; somebody is shooting." She ran out the main entrance and stopped only when she found some classmates in the field across from the school. She watched as the SWAT team members arrived 47 minutes later and positioned themselves behind their vehicle just as bullets began to fly toward them.

Chaos ensued, and it wasn't until four hours later that the SWAT team kicked down the door of the choir office and ordered the kids to place their hands on their heads and walk out in a single file. They were taken out through the back entrance, the glass windows shot in, the doors unhinged. With her hands on her head, Laura had to step over the dead body of a classmate she had grown up with since second grade. She was hyperventilating, and tears poured down her face.

That was 20 years ago. The 1999 Columbine High School shooting, in which 12 students and one teacher were killed, changed the Green sisters' lives forever, robbing them of a normal high school experience, of being able to sleep in their own rooms at night, of feeling safe at school. But through the uncertainty of it all, they found one thing -- one common thing -- that saved them. Running.

Running gave them a sense of purpose and focus -- it gave them a chance to slowly heal. On Monday, Laura and Sarah will tackle their ultimate goal and compete in the Boston Marathon.

Laura Hall and Sarah Bush, now 34 and 36, live a mile from each other, in Eagle Mountain, Utah, a rolling, rugged town ideal for mountain and trail running. But their paths into the running world were quite different. Laura had run cross country during high school but didn't take it seriously. Matter of fact, she hated it. But in retrospect, she concedes her aversion to running was largely because she wasn't ready to let anything help her heal after that tragic day in 1999.

Sarah also ran cross country in high school and fell in love with the mountains and greenery surrounding her. She remembers the feeling of unclenching and the weight lifting from her heart during a good run. She hasn't stopped since.

"If nothing else goes right in my day, and if I have gone for a run, and I have tackled that, that means that I can tackle that day," Sarah said. "Running has the same effect for me as a lot of the medication people are on for depression. I have realized the relief you get from running is the same as the relief you get from a medication."

Slowly, Laura began to understand how running made her sister feel, and getting out there, one foot in front of another, became a tonic of sorts, a way to escape from the demons that had been with her since the shooting. She eventually signed up for her first marathon. Then another. Running gave them a chance to finally recover. For Laura, it gave her a chance to free her mind and release the emotions she had harbored for too long.

She would eventually compete in a couple of marathons, in Utah and Las Vegas, and two years ago, Laura, now a mother of four, said she aspired to run the Boston Marathon because that was the pinnacle. Last year, she qualified for Boston at the Ogden Marathon.

Sarah, who has five children, had already run the 2018 Boston Marathon and, despite the freezing temperatures, loved it. She wanted to run it again, but with her sister by her side. Sarah had held Laura on nights when the horrific images of the mass shooting were too much for her mind to handle. Laura had slept in Sarah's bed when she couldn't fall asleep alone. They were already incredibly close, but running helped them release their emotions. They were each other's therapists, up and running often by 5 a.m.

Running offered the sisters moments of levity, even if only for a couple of minutes every day. One of them would say something funny, the other would start giggling, and they'd slow down, hands on their knees, howling with laughter.

The sisters have been each other's rocks through every one of those years since Columbine, like the time seven years after the shooting when Laura was on a church mission trip but had to cut it short because of her PTSD-induced attacks. This was nothing new. The trauma of that day often felt as if it would not relent.

Sarah struggled sending her kids to school. Several times during the year, she would request access to her son's classroom so she could check whether the exit doors and the safety measures were in place. During the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012, Sarah pulled up outside her son's school, half a country away, and instead of waiting for him like she usually did, she ran across the field and pulled him into a bear hug as he walked out of the school. She went for a run later that day to help channel some positive energy. "He was home and he was safe," she thought to herself.

Training together for Boston has been special for Sarah and Laura. They ran the Orcas Island 32-miler together in February, finishing hand-in-hand. When Laura needed a water break, Sarah waited for her, and when Sarah needed to catch a breath, Laura held her hand as they slowed down. They found an emotional release, a sense of accomplishment, especially after a long race.

"I love doing a marathon because it's hard and it proves to me that I can conquer hard things and we as people can conquer hard things," Laura said. "There is no person that can tell me that running a marathon is easy."

Laura and Sarah can now say "I am from Littleton" after, for a long time, referencing "Denver" to avoid further questions about Columbine. After the shooting, and for many years after, they didn't talk about what happened that day. Laura had spent two years in high school wondering how other kids could laugh and joke with each other. They didn't understand others might be suffering, too, but dealing with it differently.

Two years ago, Laura and Sarah decided to share their experiences with children, faculty and administrators in Utah with the aim to destigmatize mental illness, depression and therapy. It took 18 years for them to finally get to a point in which they could talk about their experience without enduring nightmares or anxiety attacks. They spoke about the importance of sharing their thoughts and stressed that whatever they're going through, they're not alone.

"I feel a deep obligation as a survivor to share my experience," Laura said. "Because as we know in this country and this world, these kinds of horrible things happen all the time, and if people who have experienced something similar can look to somebody who is still alive and who has lived 20 years past something horrible and see that I am happy, grab on to a little bit of hope from me, I am happy I experienced it.

"I am at a point in my life where I am actually grateful for that experience because I want to be able to give people hope."

Finishing the Boston Marathon together a few days before the 20th anniversary of the April 20, 1999, shooting would be their way of showing the world that it's possible for survivors to move forward and find a sense of serenity after a life-altering event. Not to mention tackling one of the toughest and most prestigious marathons in the world.

"When we see the famous Citgo sign, we know we will only have 1 mile left," said Laura, referring to the iconic image near the end of the Boston Marathon. "And I asked Sarah, 'How am I supposed to keep it together?' She said, 'You won't, you just have to allow yourself to cry.'"