By Jacob Luecke
More than 20 miles into the Boston Marathon, Jennifer Anderson was feeling fatigued. Her biggest challenge stood right in front of her — Heartbreak Hill.
This hill of agony, perhaps the most famous gradient in all of running, stands near Boston College and was lined with hundreds of rowdy young spectators.
To make it up the hill, Jennifer fed off their energy.
“I veered over to high-five the people along the road and that just gave me a little more energy,” said Jennifer, Boone Hospital’s diabetes coordinator. “I was like, ‘these people are excited. I can do this.’”
Atop the hill, a giant inflatable arch encourages runners as they reach the summit. Jennifer read it as she passed: “The Heartbreak is Over.”
But that wasn’t the case this year.
Jennifer, 38, had fed off the crowd’s energy all day long. She’d run seven marathons before, but nothing could compare to the excitement of Boston.
There were cheering people everywhere. She loved running by children and slapping their outreached hands.
“It’s such a big marathon and there’s just so many people. It’s just crazy how much fun it is,” she said. “You’re running 26 miles but it doesn’t really feel like it because there are people everywhere and there are so many things to see.”
After conquering Heartbreak Hill, Jennifer felt a little surprised she hadn’t seen her family members yet. She knew her husband, eight-year-old daughter, sister, sister-in-law, cousin and cousin’s husband where somewhere along the course. But even as she crossed 25 miles, there was no sign of them.
“I was really needing to see them to get me motivated,” she said.
Finally, there they were, just before the finish line. Jennifer stopped briefly to hug them, and then finished the race at 3:53:59. It wasn’t her best time, but just to finish was a triumph.
“It was awesome to finish the race,” Jennifer said. “Just to be there and be done, it was an amazing feeling.”
After crossing the line, volunteers gave her a reflective blanket and a medal. She posed for a picture and called her husband, who said they’d left the finish line and were waiting in the family meet-up area.
As Jennifer went to collect her jacket at the coat check, she heard two loud explosions. She looked back to the finish line and saw smoke.
“Honestly, my mind didn’t immediately go to that’s a bomb,” she said. “It was just, ‘What was that?’”
Over the next few minutes, panic slowly built around her as security rushed in to set up barricades, keeping people from going back toward finish line.
Soon, Jennifer had reached her family. They were concerned, but figured the explosions were just a typical noise in the big city — or maybe a problem with the subway.
As they walked away from the race, they stopped in at a nearby bagel shop so Jennifer could get something to eat. Suddenly, their phones were bombarded with text messages, “Are you OK? We heard there was a bomb.”
They suddenly realized what had happened.
They texted back that they were fine and then quickly found their car so they could retreat to their hotel. “It was like, ‘we need to get out of here right now,’” Jennifer said.
Her family spent the rest of the day glued to the television learning details of the attacks.
The most startling revelation was the location of the second bomb. It was directly across the street from where Jennifer’s family had stood all morning. They left the area just minutes before it exploded.
That thought brings tears to Jennifer’s eyes.
“If I was just a few minutes behind time, my family would have been right there,” she said.
The days after the bombing were an emotional time for Jennifer. It was confusing to both feel joyful in finishing the race and sadness for what happened next.
Her biggest physical achievement will forever be tied to tragedy.
“There’s just a damper on it,” she said. “It was still cool, but there is something taken away from it because of all the sadness.”
Despite the heartbreak, Jennifer said the experience won’t stop her from coming back if she has another opportunity.
She hopes the crowds of spectators — some of whom became victims — keep coming as well. They inspired her to keep going and reach the finish line. They are what make marathons special.