In front of her, there was only
open road, as if she were out for a morning jog on her own. But there would be
no solitude on this long, emotional slog from the Hopkinton Common to Copley
As she went along, the crowds on
each side of the road swelled, ultimately growing into the hundreds and then
the thousands on some blocks, cheering for her alone.
For the first 15 kilometers, Juli
Windsor – who at 3-foot-9 was among the first dwarfs to run the Boston
Marathon – was leading the pack. There were no other runners in
front of her. She was the first to be handed cups at nearly all the water
stations along the first half of the course, an experience so peculiar that she
felt badly tossing them on the ground as she cruised along at a pace of nine
minutes per mile.
“Juli Windsor is winning the Boston
Marathon!” I screamed as I plodded beside her, struggling to keep up.
This was Juli’s second time running
the Boston Marathon, but this year’s race – as for many others – was a much
different experience. She was among the 5,700 runners last year who were denied
the glory of crossing the finish line. She was less than a mile away when the
I had met Juli a few months before
the 2013 race to make a documentary about her experience, which I eventually
called “25.7: In Twice the Steps.” I was standing on the finish line with a
video camera waiting for her to arrive, waiting to shoot the final scene of my
film. Instead, I captured the horror, and my footage was broadcast around the
When Juli vowed to run again, I
wanted to join her.
The experience last year took a
toll on Juli, who’s now 27. Aside from the extra effort it requires to take
roughly twice as many steps as the average runner, dwarfs often suffer from
problems in their spines and can experience greater back and joint pain after
running long distances.
In addition to a long physical
recovery from last year’s marathon, Juli had to cope with the trauma that many
of us who were near the attack experienced. Juli’s family was waiting for her
on Boylston Street, and her mother was trampled in the ensuing melee, her right
shoulder shattered and her right eye swollen shut.
As Juli trained for this year’s
race, she felt the miles more than most of us. On the weekend before the race,
she had persistent pain in a joint in her lower spine. It bothered her so much
that her right leg felt numb and it hurt even to sit. She also had trouble
In short, she worried whether she
would make it the full 26.2 miles.
But Juli scoffed at any suggestion
she skip the marathon. That was not an option, she said. Instead, she decided
it would be better to start early – her pain worsened as the day wore on – and
leave with the other runners in the so-called mobility impaired division. (I
ran as her guide, though I was probably the one more mobility impaired.)
Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
When Juli finally arrived at the
starting line, she was joined by the most impressive runners in the field.
There were two double amputees, a man with a prosthesis that connected to his
pelvis, and about a dozen others, including her friend, John Young, who had
also been stopped last year before finishing.
After a moment of silence for the
victims of last year’s attack, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick gave the
signal for the runners to start. From her first steps, Juli led the pack.
By the time she reached the first
mile marker – in less than eight minutes – none of the other runners were
visible behind her. I had to urge her to slow down. She was moving so quickly
even the initial spectators were caught by surprise when she passed.
The crowds were sparse at first,
but their numbers started to grow in Ashland. As did their reactions at seeing
Juli lope past, the words “Thank you” written in black marker on her left
“You’re amazing,” they screamed.
Others shouted: “You go, girl!”
She had a good chuckle when a
little boy pointed at her and said to his mom, “I thought children weren’t
allowed to run the marathon.”
After about five miles, however,
Juli looked concerned. She was feeling the pain. She stopped to stretch and I
rubbed her back. She shook her head, grunted, and continued on.
As she passed the train station in
Framingham, she watched four National Guard ambulance helicopters fly overhead,
a symbol of the massive security and medical preparations undertaken for this
year’s marathon. She also waved when Boston legend Bill Rodgers passed by in a
The pain increased as the miles
did. There was more stretching and groaning, and a few bathroom breaks. But
Juli fed off the crowds. The closer she got to Boston, the deeper they went
behind the barricades, and the louder they cheered for the little leader of the
It was around the 10K mark that the
first competitors in wheelchairs began passing her – they left about a half
hour later – and it wasn’t until several miles afterward that the first elite
women screamed by, many of them flashing her smiles of admiration and
Still, near the halfway mark, Juli
had the famous “scream tunnel” in Wellesley nearly all to her self. The legion
of students was louder than ever. Juli held up her hand and absorbed a
fusillade of high-fives, grinning the whole way and nearing a sprint. It was
“We love you, Boston!” she shouted.
When she passed the half marathon
mark, she pumped her fists in the air. But the hardest parts were still to
She was now feeling it in her legs
and lower back. After the elite men darted by in all but a blink, the thousands
of other runners trailed close behind. Her pace had slowed considerably and the
infamous Newton hills loomed.
The crowds – even bigger now –
still erupted when they caught sight of Juli, but it was harder to see her in
the pack. She trudged up the hills and fought through the pain. Her heart began
to race. She felt dizzy. And she worried that she wasn’t sweating enough.
But she kept going, the Boston Strong
signs everywhere and the crowds urging her on, offering her water, oranges,
Vaseline, anything that might help.
After making it over Heartbreak
Hill, she gathered strength as she crested down to Boston College. The crowds
were huge and she felt the love. The towers above Boylston Street were now
visible in the distance.
With less than five miles left, she
stopped to stretch. She looked pale and exhausted. She was so close to
completing a quest she had harbored since high school, but she was also so far.
I wondered whether she was done, whether we would be taking the train the rest
of the way
But something happened.
At the point most runners hit the
wall, at the point that most of us break down, Juli somehow got stronger – and
Bounding down into Cleveland
Circle, she began passing other runners. I was struggling to keep up, my quads
depleted and my calves tightening. Her strides were deliberate and elegant. She
was stubborn and focused, a picture of resolve.
She stopped to stretch only one
more time, and when she did, I felt my calves seize. I thought I was done. I
told her to keep going without me.
After a quick stretch, the muscles
loosened a bit and I was able to catch up with her.
Less than a mile away, Juli crossed
under Massachusetts Avenue and turned to look at me. She had tears in her eyes.
“This is where it happened – where we got stopped,” she said.
Whatever pain we both felt, there
was no stopping anymore.
The crowds were bigger than ever –
and louder. As we turned onto Hereford Street, we both felt overwhelmed. The
adrenaline was now coursing and neither of us really noticed the final hill
that usually feels more like a mountain.
Juli couldn’t hear them, but among
all the spectators who had returned to a place that felt haunted for much of
the past year, was her family, including her mom, who had struggled with what
Now, the roar of the crowd
deafening, Juli made the famous left turn on to Boylston Street and could see
the finish line in the distance. Again, she was passing other runners as she
surged toward the end.
As we approached the sites of the
bombings, we veered close to the barricades and shouted our thanks to all the
brave spectators who packed the sidewalks like they always have.
Moments later, we crossed the finish
line together, holding hands.
It was a personal record for Juli.
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter @davabel.