Through the spring, NPR will be telling the stories eight runners competing in the 2014 Boston Marathon. Amelia Nelson is running her first marathon.
Amelia Nelson is a reluctant runner.
As she walks out of her Cambridge apartment one day in February, there is snow still piled on the sidewalks. Big mounds of it — already blackened by the traffic — spill onto the road.
She jokes she once saw a cartoon online. It was of two guys running mid-winter. One guy asks the other, “Why did we sign up for a spring marathon?” The other answers, “We were drunk.”
At this point, Amelia has no choice. She’s facing 26.2 miles in a few weeks and that means she to has run through the ice and snow and frigid gusts of winter.
The 27-year-old is an emergency room nurse with a sense of humor. The path that brought her here wasn’t a drunken bet. It was fate.
Last April, Amelia wasn’t running. She was a volunteer nurse on the sweep team just past the finish line in Boston’s city center. Essentially, she and her team were tasked with the job of not letting any runners hit the ground.
Marathon organizers had been hoping for a good race. The 2012 running of the Boston Marathon was blazing hot — the high made it into the 90s — so the medical teams along the course were busy.
Last year, it was perfect: A clear blue sky coupled with chilly temperatures. Lelisa Desisa from Ethiopia won the men’s race in 2:10:22; Rita Jeptoo, of Kenya, won the women’s race in 2:26:25.
As the everyday runners were crossing the finish, Amelia looked at her friend Kristy and told her how great this had been, how “uneventful.”
That’s when the first bomb went off.
“There is a moment when that happens that seems like minutes, where no one moves and all I can see is the backs of people’s heads, as far as I can see. And then the silence is broken and people start screaming and running.”
Amelia started running toward the finish line and made it to the site of the first blast. She saw the blood, smelled the smoke, felt the panic.
She saw Jeff Bauman, a young, slim man, being wheeled off by a man in a cowboy hat. Both of Bauman’s legs had been ripped off by the bomb.
“I remember seeing that. But, as opposed to being horrified, it really sort of solidified to me that it was time to go,” she says. “And so you pick up the pace and your training kicks in.”
She found herself performing chest compressions on a young woman.
“There were tons of people there,” she says.
At one point, one of the paramedics yelled in her direction. “This is disaster triage,” he said. “If she doesn’t have a pulse, you have to move on.”
“I couldn’t do that,” Amelia says. “And I said ‘no.'”
Amelia told me her story as we ran from her apartment to the Boston University Bridge. It’s a picturesque route that winds through the bustle of Harvard Square and then descends along the banks of the Charles River.
That day last April, she ended up at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, where she works. By the time she got there, most of the patients had been stabilized.
Still, she was a assigned to care for a young military man who was “rucking” the race route in uniform and with a 40-pound backpack. It’s a tradition that dates back about a decade.
The soldier, she says, noticed she had blood on her shoes. He asked her about the bombing then told her: “I’m sorry to say this to you, but welcome to the club. This is something that no one should ever have to see but you’re one of the few that has and it’s gonna be hard for a long time. But it’ll get better.”
Amelia makes a right turn onto the bridge. It looks old but solid, with an arch of green steel holding it up above the frozen river.
“There you go, this is the best view of Boston,” Amelia says. She smiles and laughs and points toward the skyline. Right in front is the famous Citgo sign and beyond it is the Prudential tower, gleaming and golden from the setting sun.
“When I first started running, this was kind of my goal to get to,” she says. “You get here and you just feel part of it. No matter where I run … I try to run by here at some point, because I feel like it solidifies that commitment to what I’m doing.”
After the twin blasts last year, Amelia took up running. The Zone 1 Warriors — as the medical volunteers at the finish line have come to be known — have run a few races together. As spring turned to summer, they decided to apply for a chance to run the Boston Marathon. Amelia wanted to “reclaim our city.” The Boston Athletic Association gave them a bib and Amelia’s fate was sealed.
“I really don’t enjoy this,” she says about the hundreds of solitary miles she’s logged during training. “But it does allow me to get away from everything else.”
She begins to run again, down the bridge and along the Charles. The sun is now almost hidden behind the horizon and the gold has turned into a vibrant pink. Running, she says, also makes you slow down and appreciate your surroundings: the sound of geese wading through the water; the trees filling up with buds, and the daffodils peeking from the ground.
There’s a point on a long run, she says, perhaps at mile 8 or 9 or 10, when physical exhaustion clears your head and, despite the physical pain, things seem OK.
Weeks after our run, I send her a note asking her a question I didn’t think to ask at the time: Did the girl you were giving CPR to make it?
She said she wasn’t sure. It’s something she’s struggled to figure out, but she has no memory of her face.
“I’m pretty sure she didn’t,” she said.