For Shane O'Hara, Boston Marathon marks a return to normal
BOSTON -- Shane O'Hara was one of the initial first responders at the Boston Marathon on Apr. 15, 2013, a day when he helped people heal. On Monday, the race paid O'Hara back by helping him heal as he crossed its finish line. For 14 years, O'Hara has been the manager of Marathon Sports, the store that has been a haven for runners located on Boylston Street, close to the finish of the race. Last year, the first of two explosions went of in front of the store. O'Hara and others went into action, rushing outside to offer aid, tending to the wounded, bringing runners and spectators inside and grabbing t-shirts, sweats and jackets off the racks and turning them into tourniquets. The store and the people working inside, especially O'Hara, became symbols of courage and resolve for many in the city. In happier moments, he and his colleagues joke that he's the real-life version of Norm from the TV series Cheers, unmistakably identified with a venue, though his sells shoes instead of suds.
O'Hara ran the Boston race in 1999, but not since. Part of him wanted to run off his emotions by doing a marathon right after last year's bombing. "I wasn't ready," O'Hara says. "It was too raw." As time drew closer to this year's race, O'Hara, 43, said he felt he had to run, his first time on the course in 15 years. His goal was to finish in under four hours, so he could be back at the store before 2:49, the hour at which the bomb went off last year. Instead his finish time was a respectable 4:10:38. Marathon Sports stayed open on marathon day, but as word spread that O'Hara was approaching, his employees who were following his chip time on their portable devices asked people to leave the store. They took the benches that customers usually use to sit and try on shoes and they stood on them and waited. "One block away," a voice shouted loudly, sure not to get lost in the general mayhem along the busy thoroughfare. Employees hugged, held up signs and started yelling "Shane-O, Shane-O," with fervor reserved earlier for U.S. winner Meb Keflezighi. O'Hara knew it was coming. "I made it a point to run on the left side of the street so I would pass right by them," he said, trying to find a good sitting position on the floor in the back of the store so he could stretch out his legs soon after the race. "Those voices were very special to me."
A year earlier, O'Hara's wife, Joanne, had left the race with their two children by the time the four-hour mark hit. When she had just pieces of information, she feared the worst. "Fox news had reported that the bomb went off inside the store," Shane recalls. "She thought I was dead." Only after O'Hara and his co-workers finished attending to runners and assistant paramedics did the store employees head outside, following instructions of police as to where they could go. O'Hara's cell phone didn't work. Others couldn't get through either until finally one co-worker's phone was able to make calls. When O'Hara took the phone, his hand shook too much to be able to dial. In the traumatic rush of images in front of his eyes over the previous 90 minutes, he'd forgotten his wife's number, so a co-worker dialed it for him. "Some images from that day I see very clearly, too clearly," he says. "Other things I've managed to block out."
The store needed a facelift after the race. They changed the carpeting and covered over basement floors to mask the blood. When the store reopened, so many people stopped in that within three weeks, the carpet already looked worn. "People helped us get back to normal," O'Hara recalls, "just by doing what they would normally do."
The incident unified the city throughout the year. Days after the Red Sox won the World Series in October, the players brought the trophy to the finish line of the marathon, wrapping it in a jersey with the number 617. Jonny Gomes and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were there with O'Hara sharing support. As O'Hara teared up during the presentation, Saltalamacchia hugged him. "Everybody kind of understood some of what you felt," he said. "Everybody wanted to help." The store's running club was instrumental in raising money through the Boston One Fund, in cooperation with the city and state of Massachusetts, for victims and their families. To date the fund has raised more than $75 million.
O'Hara continued training in earnest through the Boston winter, but hurt his hamstring in January and endured some poor training days. Only once he caught himself stopping during a run and quickly started yelling at himself. In the week leading up to the race, he says he spent way too much time on his feet in the store and at the Runners' Expo held in conjunction with the marathon. During the actual race, he began cramping up and feeling stomach pains as early as the five-mile mark. He walked briefly when the race passed through Kenmore Square, a mile from the finish.
As he sat and thought through his emotions afterwards, O'Hara said he didn't know if he would run another marathon with the thoughts of the past year so fresh. An employee pointed to the medal around his neck. "You've earned it buddy," he said. More than that, O'Hara and the people of Boston have earned the right to new memories.
The Old South Church along Boylston has been a beacon for runners since the first running of the marathon. In its three homes, it has been tending to parishioners since 1669. Benjamin Franklin was baptized there. Sam Adams held his first meetings in advance of the Boston Tea Party. Then, in 2014, there were the scarves. Some of the church's members came up with the idea to knit some in blue and yellowish gold, the colors of the marathon. The aim was to make a hundred, maybe two. But this is the age of the Internet and once word got out on Facebook and the church website, people began sending in their own scarves; first a hundred, then a thousand. Early this week, the church presented nearly 7,500 scarves, from 45 states and ten countries, to runners and their families. "It's a great example of people coming together to help one another," says Bill Ghormley, a parishioner, spreading the running gospel from the church's entrance. "This is a great event that brings everyone together." On Sunday, the church held its annual blessing of the athletes. Roughly 1,200 people arrived to receive a blessing that was also open to families, friends and even pets, a few hundred more than parishioners who attended traditional Easter services.
If there were residual concerns about security before the race, you couldn't see it at the pre-race pasty party in the city's Government Center on Sunday night. Near the end of the dinner, at 8 p.m., organizers said they expected the final number of diners to be close to 12,000 people, more than the usual 8,000 to 9,000. Volunteers were shifting in and out of doorways with fresh bowls of fuel all evening. Sections of the dining area's three levels were divided by mile markers. Flags of the towns through which the race passes -- Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline and finally Boston -- lined the top floor. What does it take to feed the Boston marathoners? Well, 11,300 pounds of pasta, 146 waiters and chefs, 36,000 packs of power gel. "This is always a celebration," says Mickey Lawrence, who has run the dinner for 30 years. "Everybody always wants to share the experience of the weekend, but this one is really special."