The Slow Shock Wave: A Marathon Finisher Remembers How It All Sank In

For those not in the immediate vicinity of the bombs, the realization that something bad had happened was a slow motion horror

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Runners react near Kenmore Square after two bombs exploded during the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 in Boston, Mass.

For people who were near the finish line, the effect of the Boston Marathon bombings was immediate, chaotic and horrific. For runners who had finished the race only minutes earlier, the experience was more of low-level confusion—and tragedy that took its time to become apparent.

I was one of those finishers. After hobbling across the Boylston Street finish line around 2:30 p.m., I went through the post-race routine familiar to anyone who has run a marathon: Get wrapped up in a heat blanket, receive my finisher’s medal, pick up water and post-race snacks, and walk shivering down Boylston Street to the school bus holding my gear. I was sitting on the ground, putting on my sweatpants and a fresh pair of socks, when I heard a boom, and then another one.

A New Yorker unfamiliar with Patriots’ Day rituals, I thought maybe what I’d heard was some sort of ceremonial cannon fire. There was no panic around me; people were just trying to figure out what those noises were. We looked back toward the finish line. Was it an explosion? A building collapse? There was a trace of smoke in the distance.

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Soon afterward, I heard someone—it might have been a race volunteer, or maybe another runner—suggest we should walk slowly in the opposite direction of the noise. That was what I was going to do anyway, since that was where I could exit the marathon area to meet up with my family—and I was in no condition to move at any speed other than slowly.

I hung around the intersection of Boylston and Arlington, crowded with runners, their friends and their family, waiting for my wife and two sons. People still didn’t know exactly what had happened, but it slowly became clear that it was something bad. One of the officers directing traffic had his radio turned up loud; I could hear a lot of yelling but couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. The police at the corner starting directing traffic with more urgency, impatiently waving at drivers to make a left at Boylston. We started to hear sirens. Emergency vehicles were directed straight ahead. A woman was crying. Was she overcome with emotion upon finishing the marathon? Or was she reacting to what we now knew were explosions?

My wife and children found me. I said we should walk to the Park Street station—right where the buses taking runners to the marathon start had lined up in the morning—and take the Red Line on the T to our hotel in Cambridge, across the Charles River. We started walking. Someone said that the T had shut down, so we decided to walk to Cambridge instead. My son Eric, looking at a live blog on his smart phone, asked me if I wanted to see a picture of the explosion. I said no, then yes. He showed me a picture of a storefront with its windows blowing out. It didn’t seem like a lot of people were in the photo.

(MORE:  Explosions at the Finish Line: Two Eyewitness Accounts of Boston’s Marathon Attack)

We stopped in a pastry shop so I could get another post-race snack. A television set on the wall showed video from the finish line at the moment of the explosion. I saw more people this time, including a runner knocked over by what seemed like a shock wave. We tried calling family members to say we were okay, but calls and even texts were not going through. I called my mother to say I was fine, but the call cut off after hello. She called my wife, Margot, back, but the same thing happened. I managed to get on Facebook long enough to post “I’m okay.”

Back at the hotel, after walking over the Longfellow Bridge, I saw more of the finish-line footage, plus an injury count that was higher than what we heard at the pastry shop.

It was only on the ride home, as we listened to nonstop coverage on the Boston radio station WBZ, that we realized how awful the impact of the bombings was. Two people were reported dead by that time, and the injury count kept rising. Eyewitnesses to the carnage talked about limbs in the street and multiple amputations. My teenage son Nathan asked me to turn off the radio. I did not protest.

Mannes is a senior editor at Money magazine.

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