Boston Strong by
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Memorial a few days after the 2013 bombing.


I have never been an athlete – no hand-to-eye coordination; never enjoyed participating, always enjoyed watching. Lately I’ve become a gym rat and workout six days a week, staying fit with Pilates and other forms of working out.

My husband always was a sports enthusiast, on intramural football and softball teams in college, but got into running in a serious way in the late 70s. He ran his first marathon in 1977, qualified for the grueling Boston Marathon many times and I became a race groupie. All our friends were runners and they competed in various events: the Falmouth Road Race, The Charles River 5K, and of course the Boston Marathon; always needing to run a marathon earlier in the season to qualify. His best time was 2:44! We lived in the Back Bay, near the finish line, so I would wait for the guys there. I saw Rosie Ruiz, the cheater, come across the line on a hot day in 1980 and snapped her photo, seeing the first woman’s number. Dan never came across. He had “hit the wall” at the 21 mile mark, “Heartbreak Hill”. At the time, we had friends living there, who threw a big party. I drove out there to find him lying on the grass, recovering.

When those friends moved away, we took over with the big party. For 29 years, we’ve lived in Newton at the crest of Heartbreak Hill, where we always watch the Marathon. I had friends running it three years ago and was out on the course waiting for mother and daughter in the afternoon. Helene’s daughter had gone by, but I waited and waited for my friend. At about 3pm, a young woman came out of the pack to speak to me on the sideline. She asked if I’d heard any news. She had gotten a text from her brother, a firefighter at the finish line. He informed her that two bombs had gone off. She looked to me for confirmation or more information, but I had none. I had been standing there for a long time with no phone, no link to the outside world. I told her I was sorry, I could not provide more information. It was the first bit of news I had and I ran home to turn on the TV. Coverage is supposed to end at 3pm, but this was turning into a huge news story. I stood, stunned, watching it unfold, real time. Texts and phone calls started pouring in from across the country; all knew that I watched the Marathon on the course and wanted reassurance that I was unhurt. Eventually I posted an account on Facebook, thanking people for their concern.

We received a robocall from the City of Newton to “shelter in place” early on Friday morning of that week. Newton is next to Watertown, where the shootout between the two terrorist brothers and the police took place overnight. One died, one escaped. As the day wore on, my husband grew bored and decided we should go outside the designated area, go to a movie and out to dinner. News alerts came across my phone that the surviving brother had been captured once the “shelter in place” order was lifted. A homeowner in Watertown went outside to check on his boat and noticed blood on the side of the tarp, covering it. He called in the police immediately and the bomber was captured. The next week I was in the area of the finish line, walked over to the bombing sites and thought of all that had happened there. Three young people lost their lives, countless others seriously injured. The unthinkable. I had lived in that neighborhood for seven years and loved it. Now it was the site of an act of terrorism. The motto of the city became Boston Strong. The sports teams rallied. David “Big Papi” Ortiz, famously said at the next Red Sox game, “This is our fuckin’ town!” and perfectly captured the sentiment around the region.

The 120th Boston Marathon is happening as I write this. I have just returned from Heartbreak Hill. Everything has changed. There were always various forms of barriers, as the race became larger and larger, but it was a festive atmosphere. Awakening from the New England winter, this rite of spring was a place to see your neighbors, run across the road and see people on the other side of Commonwealth Avenue, buy fried dough on the mall, have a great time. Now serious barricades block access to the mall and the other side of the street. National Guardsmen jog the entire course. The feeling is one of caution and restraint. Granted, I was there to see the leaders go by, (a relatively slow day). The crowds will swell as people come to see their relatives running. 4,000 qualified runners did not get numbers. Now the emphasis is on the large hordes of charity runners; most are not qualified to run this event. While they are raising huge sums of money for great causes, the race is not necessarily an elite event, except at the very front of the pack. The road is now closed from 8am until 6pm, hours longer than just a few years ago.

It is still the Boston Marathon, the greatest marathon of them all, but it has irrevocably changed.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: Boston Marathon, bombing, running
Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written


  1. Mike Repucci says:

    Great story of a grand tradition but a sad commentary on today’s environment.

  2. Suzy says:

    Very moving story, Betsy. Love your picture from the 1980 marathon! Why is it that 4,000 qualified runners did not get numbers this year?

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      The race has gotten too big and 2,400 charity runners get numbers, leaving lots of qualified runners without race bibs. The streets along the course just can’t handle any more runners. And it is why they have different start times for wheel chair runners, women, elite runners and two waves of other runners, which is why the race now takes SO long. And so many of the charity runners come in, having run the race in about 8 hours, or even longer. Very different than the winners, who run it in about 2:14 (on a slow day, like yesterday), or faster. During the 11pm news, the last runners were still coming in. The coverage in the paper today was about healing for the bombing victims (some ran yesterday, including some amputees), the grit of the charity runners, and of course, the winners.

      Suzy, my husband commented to me, and asked me to share with you, his feeling that with this event, unlike any other, if he worked and trained really hard, he could run along side world-class athletes as peers. We could actually get close to Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar. Those days are long gone, and missed by those who competed more than 30 years ago. For some time it has morphed into a big-money event, and now it is also about security.

  3. John Zussman says:

    Illuminating portrait of how the Marathon has changed over the years, relating the events, some of which we know, through your own eyes and experience. It’s a sad (but not surprising) commentary that sports has been affected so significantly by both economics and world politics, but that’s the world we live in.

  4. Lutz Braum says:

    Hopefully time will heal the scars left by the bombing and the event will return to being a normal athletic event eventually. Thanks for sharing such a personal perspective of something that most of us just watched on the news.

  5. Beautiful account of a momentous day and its aftermath, Betsy! I was particularly moved by your account of this horrifyingly different Boston Marathon after so many years of participation. And loved Big Papi’s claim, one so many of us feel so authentically. Boston IS our fuckin’ town, honest ta god!

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