BY MARCY SHORTUSE - A mis-scheduled SCUBA class might be one of the best things that ever happened to Gary Allen.
He and his family come to Gasparilla Island every winter to train for the Boston Marathon, and because he enjoys running in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Gary is somewhat of a running phenom. Having competed in more than 85 career marathons, he has made it a tradition to run the Boston Marathon course for fun every New Year’s morning, and he has competed in the famous race itself 21 times, as of this week.
So it was no surprise when he, his wife, Lisa, and his daughter, Matilda, were sitting in Boston prior to the race, having a discussion. To SCUBA, or not to SCUBA, was the question. Matilda was supposed to be back in Maine for a SCUBA class, a class they had forgotten about until just prior to the race.
SCUBA won. Gary said he wouldn’t be running well this year anyway, due to a hamstring injury from earlier this year.
It was the first time in 11 years that his wife and daughter weren’t sitting in those stands.
“They felt really bad about leaving, but I told them to go on and do the SCUBA course,” Gary said. “So they didn’t go to the grandstands to spectate the race. Had Matilda not signed up for that class, they would have probably been sitting near where the first bomb went off, where they usually sat. I’m so grateful they were at home.”
He is also thankful that he pushed himself to the limit, and finished the race about an hour earlier than he had anticipated. His official time was 3:13:56. Had he hit that four-hour mark that he had set for himself, it would have put him at the finish line at a really, really bad time.
“I was in Boca Grande recently to just try to get my body moving again after a hamstring injury,” he explained. I only had a few weeks to prepare for Boston. I wanted to give it a go anyway. I thought my finish time would be closer to four hours. Had it been, I would have been right there when those bombs went off. As it turned out, I was faster than I thought I would be. I also hug the left side of the road, and that’s where the bombs were.
“I was out of harm’s way, many others weren’t.”View More images >>
After finishing the race, Gary said he went into the VIP tent, right at the finish line. He hung out there for quite a while, then moved into the media center in Fairmont Copley Hotel. It was a huge ballroom that had been converted for use for the race and was equipped with massive television screens that were broadcasting, in high definition, street-level race footage.
Gary was there for no more than 10 minutes when the first explosion went off and made the building shudder.
“It was big, powerful, violent, angry-sounding,” he said. “People in the room had a puzzled look on their faces. When the second bomb went off a few seconds later, I watched the blood drain from all of those faces. Then we all realized they were bombs.”
A very long minute passed, then officials came into the room and told everyone the center was on lockdown. They confirmed there had been a bombing at the finish line. And they were at ground zero.
“And in those few minutes, everyone, all the press people from newspapers, radio, television, magazines – from all over the world – stopped writing about the race and started writing about a tragedy. It became a different kind of reporting. There were tears, hugs ... it was a pretty sad place.”
Everyone in the room was glued to the giant television monitors, displaying graphic real-time race official footage of what was happening in the street. It was disturbing. It was awful. At the same time, they received reports of municipalities surrounding Boston sending public safety workers and law enforcement in to help. They didn’t know how many people were hurt, how many people had died ... or how many more bombs might go off.
In the hours that followed the explosions, Gary sat with everyone else who was locked in the building with him. The Fairmont Copley Plaza is “the” hotel for the Boston Marathon. It’s where the awards are supposed to happen, where champions are crowned and trophies are handed out. It is where the elite runners from all over the world stay, in a melting pot of languages and interpreters, universal comradery and a celebration of their one common denominator – a love of running.
After the bombs went off in Boston, it was the antithesis of normality.
“There was no life in anything, in anyone,” Gary said. “People like zombies, not sure what to do or think. There was a group of African runners sitting at a table together, all very quiet and respectful, with a look of bewilderment on their faces. They looked shaken, and lost. In that group, I believe I was looking at the winner of the race. But there was no one wearing medals, no one talking about their times.
“This event means everything to these runners. It is their Olympics. And then this happened ... everyone was aghast at the carnage,” Gary said. “This wasn’t footage from a news media feed, this was feed from the race officials. I entered that building in a jubilant race mood, in the midst of people that were excited to have finished the marathon. At about 8 p.m. last night we were released from lockdown.
“When I left the building it was a crime scene. There were bomb dogs, helicopters, flood lights, ATF agents, secret service-type vehicles with blacked-out windows and sirens. It was a disaster.”
On Tuesday morning, Gary was going stir crazy. He decided to take one last run around Boston’s Back Bay area before getting on the plane home. Other runners were out on the streets as well. Some reached out to touch his hand or high-five him as he passed. One woman stopped and hugged him.
He had tears in his eyes as he ran. He ran past military vehicles in intersections, past subway systems that were shut down and silent. Past National Guard troops handing out the yellow bags that so many racers weren’t allowed to pick up on Monday. Bags with cell phones, clothing, personal affects that most of the runners would have considered indispensable just 24 hours before.
But things sometimes happen that make those things seem a little less important.
Gary’s plane touched down in Maine on Tuesday afternoon. He was happy to be there.
“Everyone tries to figure out who did this, whether it’s a ‘homegrown’ or international threat,” he said. “Who cares? It’s people trying to hurt us. I live in a beautiful place, I always feel safe here, just like you feel safe in Boca Grande. Is it really to the point you can’t send your kids to school, or run a race, or go to the movies without the fear of being shot or blown up?
“I run for solitude and the joy of it, and the comradery of all of it. On Monday I was glad I ran faster than I should have, I’m glad I’m stubborn. I could have very easily been in the midst of that. I think back to running past spots, past that snow fencing, where I now know there were bombs. If things had been slightly different ... ”
Gary said he believes that while it isn’t right to let terrorism win, sporting events that draw huge crowds of people are going to be looked at differently.
“I think our sports have changed,” he said. “It’s palpable in Boston. I’ve run it 21 times now, and after that time you get used to how people act, you get used to the crowds of people cheering. This was different. But I will absolutely run it again. All we can do is keep running.
“Will I let Lisa and Matilda come and watch? I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
To read more about Gary Allen in his recent Boca Beacon profile, go to bocabeacon.com/news/featured-news/5236-profile-gary-allen. The profile ran in the March 22 edition.
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