Runner, illustrator Scott Magoon draws strength five years on

Scott Magoon, illustrator of "Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship," last ran the Boston Marathon in 2013. April 16 will mark his first time back on the course since the bombing. Courtesy Scott Magoon

Scott Magoon jogged toward the Boston Marathon finish line five years ago, his goal in sight. He'd jumped into the last wave of runners that morning at the start in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, without an entry bib -- a "bandit," in distance running parlance -- and he didn't feel any qualms about that. Whom was he hurting? He was about to beat his official time from the year before.

He heard an explosion ahead of him. A debris cloud rose. Objects rained out of it. Magoon turned to the runner next to him. "That's not good," he said. They slowed to a stop. Then a second bomb detonated 50 yards behind them, and the concussive shock wave clouted Magoon in the back. He instinctively threw himself belly-down on the asphalt, calculating how far he was from the spot where his wife and two young sons were waiting to see him go by.

"It seemed so quiet," said Magoon, a 45-year-old freelance illustrator from the Boston suburb of Reading. "It just took a few seconds for people to make noise and realize, 'We gotta get the hell out of here.'" He inhaled deeply, pausing in the retelling. "I remember looking around in the direction of the bomb, finally. I didn't see a whole lot, but I saw enough."

Magoon pulled out his phone and was able to reach his wife. His kids were unscathed and mostly uncomprehending; his younger son thought a giant had attacked. As Magoon fled the course to find them, his only apparent injury a scraped knee, he already understood how fortunate he was compared to many on Boylston Street whose lives were forever altered.

But he was fine. Or was he? The day rang in his ears and his mind, lingering in a way he hadn't anticipated. Sudden loud noises would catapult him back to that moment of fear and uncertainty. His walk to the office where he worked at the time took him by the finish area, where the stone façade of the Old South Church loomed like a reproach: See what happens when you go where you're not supposed to be? It's your fault you were in the bomb zone. You don't deserve to feel bad. Other people are suffering so terribly.

Magoon wrestled with his spiraling thoughts in what he describes as a "relatively mild case" of post-traumatic stress disorder. Finally, at his wife's urging, he saw a therapist and went on medication. He pulled through but kept his journey mostly to himself. "It gave me perspective," he said. "I heard so many stories of people who went through similar things that I didn't feel like so much of a wimp or an outcast, unable to process or cope."

When people asked him if he'd run another marathon, he said "maybe."

Fast-forward to 2018. Two gravely wounded survivors of the bombings have become Magoon's friends and collaborators on a creative, restorative project: a children's book that portrays disability with candor and sensitivity. Magoon will be at the marathon start line on Monday, April 16 -- legitimately this time -- and each step he takes will be supported by pledges for a cause dear to all three of them.

"Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship," released April 3, is co-authored by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, and it features the bond between Kensky and her service dog, a 5-year-old black Labrador retriever named Rescue. Boston-area children's publishing house Candlewick Press connected Magoon with the couple.

The then-newlyweds, finish-line spectators in 2013, each lost their left leg in the bombings. Kensky later elected to have her compromised right leg amputated as well. Their odyssey has been extensively chronicled in a series by the Boston Globe's Eric Moskowitz and two films.

Through multiple setbacks, surgeries and adaptation to their new normal, one continually uplifting note for the couple was the way children gravitated to Rescue. The dog opens doors, activates switches, fetches blankets and ringing phones, and steadies Kensky when she wobbles. (Rescue was honored for his skills as ASPCA national dog of the year in 2017.) They also take walks and play.

Kensky, a former oncology nurse, and Downes, whose academic background is in child psychology, decided they had a different kind of story to tell. They chose Magoon to make it come to life visually.

Kensky is depicted in the book as a young girl, and the circumstances of her injury are not explained. The text and drawings gently illuminate her physical and psychological challenges and flesh out Rescue's personality as a dedicated companion. Jessica's prosthetics are shown in detail. One of the most striking illustrations shows Rescue snuggling with her after her second amputation.

Brightly rendered Boston landmarks flow across some pages. Others have a darker palette to reflect Kensky's rough patches. Magoon's winsome but realistic style helps make a difficult story accessible, and his own navigation through PTSD informs the mood of the book.

"Meeting Patrick and Jessica, sharing our experiences, it's all coming from this place of love and healing and giving back, setting it right," said Magoon, who is running to benefit NEADS, a Princeton, Massachusetts, nonprofit organization that trained Rescue and prepares dogs to assist children and adults with various disabilities.

Five years later, Magoon still feels somewhat chagrined about being a bandit in 2013. It helped somewhat when he found out that Kensky had once done the same thing: "She's like, 'You've gotta stop feeling guilty. Of all the people to absolve you from that, it would be me and Patrick.'"

Downes will be racing in the hand-cycle event, and Kensky has said she will be at the finish line. Throughout his training runs, Magoon has visualized what it will be like to continue past where he had to stop five years ago. He wants to try to keep his composure, but who knows? The ripples of the 2013 attack continue to fan out in unpredictable ways, sometimes swamping those they touch, sometimes buoying them.

"For so long, the obelisk of my running life has been sort of at an angle, and now we're going to kind of put it back," Magoon said. "And that's some symmetry that I never would have guessed would have happened. I am so lucky, not only to have come through that day as well as I did but to have some meaning to it. To have Patrick and Jessica and Rescue in my life now, you can't make this stuff up. It's too good."