Nurseryman Runs Boston Marathon — Again ‘Boston Strong’
Editor’s Note: While reading a story last week about the previous day’s Boston Marathon in the Modesto (CA) Bee newspaper, we were surprised to see that a local man, Tom Burchell of Oakdale, had finished with a most respectable 3:33. We wondered if he could be the Burchell from Burchell Nursery, so we texted him, and sure enough, he was one and the same. We asked for a report on the race, but Tom asked if he could wait a week because he had something else to do. Little did we know that he was about to fly across country, back to California, but rather than return home, Burchell was in for a rare, and from the outside, sadomasochistic double dip — another marathon. The following is the report Burchell wrote just before running the Big Sur Marathon this past Sunday, a report that begins with a look back at his 2013 experience when the bombs went off.
I bet you were surprised to see a local farmer (nursery owner) running in the Boston Marathon. I have always enjoyed running. For me it is a way to recharge and refocus on what’s important. I run almost every day and I am blessed to be mostly injury-free since 2004 when I started running marathons (I only suffered a torn calf muscle in 2012 and have completed 8 marathons since 2004).
Boston is the ultimate, the goal of many distance runners. The qualifying times are tough enough and the course is one that pushes you to your limit. When I decided to try and qualify for the 2013 Boston marathon, I figured I would do it once then be done. There were other marathons I wanted to do as well. I qualified in August 2012 at the Santa Rosa Marathon, running a 3:22:06 (I needed to run a 3:25:00 to qualify). That was five months after I tore my calf muscle in the Modesto marathon in March 2012. I set the date in my calendar: April 15, 2013, I was headed to Boston!
In 2013 there were about 24,000 runners who qualified. I had never seen or been in such a big race. It was very well organized and everything ran very smoothly. I was able to experience it all with my wife who accompanied me on my journey. She is the dedicated, supportive force in my life that allows me to pursue my goals. She is always there for me and I appreciate her support through the 24 years of marriage.
When the gun goes off in Hopkinton 26.2 miles away from Boston the adrenaline and excitement lets loose like an excited dog released from its leash. Right from the start people are lining the road and cheering me on as I run by. Spectators offer orange slices, ice pops, water, wet wipes, and beer all along the way. All the kids wave and hold out their hands, hoping a passing runner will give them a high five and they can touch just a few of the wave of runners moving in front of them.
There is so much to take in I found I had to focus on my personal race. I had to let myself go and just become a part of the Boston Marathon experience. There are the Wellesley College girls at the halfway point and their “tunnel of scream,” the hills in Newton about 20 miles into the race that make your thighs burn, then there is the downhill into Boston when the crowds go crazy and the noise reaches a new level. It seemed like the whole state of Massachusetts came out to celebrate Patriots’ Day and cheer on perfect strangers in a show of support as we all run Boston.
Rounding the final turn onto Boylston street and just 400 yards to the finish the crowd is 10 deep and reality sets in that I have not only qualified for Boston, run Boston, but I will finish Boston. The months of training have paid off as I finish in 3:31:15, good for 8,784th place! I cross the finish line and receive my medal, water and food. I make my way to the family meeting area about one block past the finish line where I meet up with my wife. We sit on the curb as I slowly regain my awareness of what I had just accomplished.
Then it happens. There is a blast like a cannon and the ground shakes. We look around thinking to see a celebratory canon or fireworks, but it is almost 3:00 in the afternoon, what could be happening? Then another blast and the ground shakes again. Now we realize something is going on. People start moving, sirens start blaring, emergency vehicles start racing toward the finish line. All of us finishers in the meeting area start moving away from the finish line toward Boston Common. No one knows what is going on. “A building collapsed, there is a bomb in the subway!” people start guessing at what has just happened.
When we finally find refuge in a Dunkin’ Donuts, the reality of what has just happened sets in. A bomb at the finish line, amongst the spectators. The same spectators who were just cheering me on. I can’t believe it. Who would do such a thing? The best part of the marathon is the people and the support, love and dedication to this race where once a year they come out to cheer on perfect strangers. It is not fair. I break down and weep for the innocent people who pass out oranges, hold out hands to slap and scream to support me and 25,000 others.
I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation until we returned to our hotel room and watched the events unfold on CNN. Like a Hollywood movie, the days after the race didn’t seem real. The chase, gun fight, and capture in Watertown of the suspect, even though successful, still couldn’t replace the loss of the four dead victims and the hundreds of other wounded spectators whose lives would be forever changed. Including mine.
I had a sense that I wanted to do something to show support for Boston and the people who were there for me in the race when I needed them. I decided to go back and run again this time as Boston strong and Boston stands as one. In June of 2013, two months after Boston I ran my fastest marathon to qualify again (3:18:03). I was going back to Boston to show my support of the spectators and fans of the marathon.
This year my whole family accompanied my wife and I including my two kids, Leah (17) and Jake (15), and my parents. It was great to share with them what I had experienced a year earlier. The organization of 36,000 qualified runners (the second largest field), the dedication of law enforcement all along the course, and the attention to detail that made this marathon special for runners and fans alike. It felt very safe and full of positive energy that this was our marathon and the city was ready to take it back and move forward from last year.
The excitement leading up to the start of the race on Monday the 21st was matched by many who were doing it for the first time, as they felt as I did to run as one for Boston. The start was one big “Yahoo!” I felt the surge of runners and moved along with them effortlessly as the collective energy led us along. There were the Wellesley College girls again, the hills in Newton still made my legs burn, and the crowd into Boston was bigger than ever. My start and first 20 miles were faster than last year, but after the hills my legs were spent. I walked by a few refreshment tables as I drank the provided water and Gatorade. They say 10,000 volunteers come out to support the runners and I believe it. They were great and I was once again humbled by their support and generosity.
I finished the race in 3:33:23, two minutes slower than last year. I had allowed myself to be caught up in the emotion of the start with the collective energy that pushed me 30 kilometers (18.64 miles) in 2:21:31. My legs were dead but I had finished the marathon again for the people of Boston, showing them the support they had showed me. I don’t know if I will run it again. Perhaps in the future. For now I am proud of my accomplishment and my support of Boston even if it is just a small token to the huge benefits of love and support I had received along the way. Boston will forever be a part of me.
Now it’s on to the next challenge as I run another marathon on Sunday, April 27 in Big Sur along the California coast to complete the Boston to Big Sur challenge of two marathons six days apart. Call me crazy but once you have experienced the pain and endurance of completing a marathon it gets in your blood. At the time you swear it will be your last as your legs burn and you gasp for air. You press on knowing that you can push your body to do great things and there are people supporting you every step of the way. All to finish, just to do it again.
Why do I run? For clarity of thinking and recharging of batteries, yes, but also to prove to others that you can accomplish great things and overcome tragedies if you put your mind to it and dedicate yourself to run as one!