Updated Fri, Apr 19, 2013 11:20 am
For former Ohio University student track athlete Craig Leon and thousands of runners like him, the morning of April 15 was the perfect day to compete in a world-renowned race.
"You couldn’t really ask for much better conditions as a runner," Leon said. "The sun’s out, there’s very little wind, the temperatures are good and it’s the Boston Marathon, you know. It’s kind of like our sport’s Super Bowl."
Leon crossed the finish line in two hours 14 minutes and 38 seconds, placing 10th overall and third among American runners.
"He was so calm. He was eating lunch [after the race] and I was like 'Dude, you just got 10th. How does it feel?' and he just smiled and said, 'It was pretty fun,'" said Aadam Soorma, a former teammate of Leon’s who supported him throughout the race.
But a day that started off as celebration of one of the biggest achievements in Leon’s athletic and professional career dramatically switched gears just a few hours later when two large explosions shook the finish line, killing three and sending at least 176 others to the hospital with injuries.
Reporters were interviewing Leon at his hotel about the outcome of the race when he learned of the explosions.
"It was just an emotional roller coaster from the highest of highs," said Leon. "That was my first Boston Marathon and it was everything you would hope it would be and then some, and you go from this incredible high, achieving something that I had always kind of dreamed about to having this incredible low. Just kind of this empty feeling inside."
Leon spent the remainder of the day with his friends inside the lobby of the Fairmont Copely Plaza on lockdown, as police and investigators searched the marathon route and surrounding area for clues.
"It’s hard to celebrate when you know that people were killed. It could have been the same people who were cheering me on to finish," he said.
A day filled with achievement, now overshadowed by a traumatic event for the nation.
"I don’t think I'll ever be able to separate the two," he said. "The Boston Marathon will always be the marathon that basically changed not only my sport, but probably sporting events in general."
THE DAY THAT CHANGED THE SPORT
As Darris Blackford was unwinding in his hotel room after completing the Boston Marathon in three hours and 13 minutes, he heard and felt a large explosion.
He ran toward his hotel window, which overlooked the finish line of the race.
"There was a second explosion and I could see the smoke from both explosion sights still billowing literally maybe 15 or 20 feet in the air," he said. "The runners were being diverted off the course before they reached that point and the spectators and the public were just rushing down streets and side streets and alleyways all around the area."
As race director of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon for the past four years, Blackford instantly thought of the safety of his own race, which takes place in downtown Columbus in October each year.
"First thing I said as I watched it happening is 'I can't believe they did this.' I looked at it from a different perspective because my concern pretty much all the time when it comes to the marathon and half marathon is the safety of our event," said Blackford.
In the immediate hours and days following the bombings, race directors across the country were having similar thoughts, prompting meetings with security officials about the reevaluation of their race’s safety procedures.
Many marathon directors have attempted to reassure the running community after the attack by sending letters to those registered for their events.
"Rest assured that we are reviewing our current security plans and processes with all applicable city safety officials," wrote Capital City Half Marathon director Dave Babner in a letter to race participants Tuesday. “The running and walking community is strong, tough and resilient."
The Capital City Half Marathon is scheduled for May 4, leaving Babner just more than two weeks to make security adjustments for the race.
"A lot of what we’re doing on the race side is to really give the participants more assurance of safety and that we recognize that there was an incident in Boston,” he said. “We understand the concern, we’ve addressed the concern and we want to make sure that they see that."
Babner said his security team is focusing on the start and finish lines of the race because those areas are heavily concentrated with people.
"We’re making sure that our start line corrals are set up in such a way that they’re not accessible to anyone except a person with a bib number or the proper credentials,” he said. “We’re also discouraging anybody from bringing any bags to the start line. We want them to go to our secure gear check area with their bags."
Babner said the race organizers are now requiring all participants to mark their bags with their name and cell phone number in addition to the cell phone number of a family member or friend. He’s also added another layer of credentials for volunteers handing out food and water past the finish line.
Other Ohio marathon organizers from races like the Cincinnati’s Flying Pig Marathon in May and the Columbus Marathon have made a decision to hand out transparent goodie bags to race participants to make it easier for law enforcement officials to see what’s inside.
Investigators in Boston have speculated that homemade bombs in pressure cooker pots were transported to the Boston Marathon finish line in heavy nylon black bags.
"We’ve typically used like a backpack type of bag, like a shoe-bag of sorts with a draw string and we had considered going to clear bags this year anyway but we are for sure going to be doing that now," said Blackford.
Blackford said the most important change in the 2013 Columbus Marathon is that it will no longer begin with the launch of the antique statehouse Civil War cannon, which had traditionally been an iconic symbol that marked the start of the race.
"That type of explosion, it sounded very similar to the explosion that I heard in Boston. My first thought was, ‘Wow, somebody set off a cannon’ and then I thought 'Well, there's no cannon here.' So we’re not going to do that. We don’t need to create any fear," said Blackford.
With more than six months until the Columbus Marathon, Blackford said he will continue to adapt his security procedures by learning from other marathons around the state and large athletic programs like The Ohio State University, who must ensure the safety of more than 100,000 football fans and tailgaters inside and outside of Ohio Stadium each fall.
"We’re looked at as having a model program for our football events as far as what we do security-wise for game day," said Richard Morman, deputy police chief at OSU.
Morman said his department collaborated with the university departments following Monday’s attack to re-visit their security procedures for large-scale events.
"We looked at what events do we have coming up that may be similar and we will learn from the Boston Marathon," he said. "That information is still emerging about what exactly happened and that would be part of our continuous improvement process, exactly how that happened there and what can we do to prevent that from happening here."
Ohio University Police Chief Andrew Powers said his department is also closely monitoring the details that emerge from the Boston attack to improve or adjust their security procedures at OU’s high profile athletic events.
"We have the luxury of the summer before we have any home football games so we’ve got the opportunity for more information to come out from the investigation in Boston before we start reacting to it," said Powers. "So we’re able to make well-informed decisions that will help us to make sure the security measures are appropriate and effective."
'RUN FOR BOSTON' SWEEPS THE NATION
As race directors and security officials at athletic events across the nation step up their race and game day security presence, they’re also preparing for a noticeable increase in race registrants as a result of the Boston Marathon explosions.
Armed with the Twitter hashtag #RunForBoston, runners across the US and the world have responded to the attack with a determination to “keep on running” to show solidarity with Boston and the victims.
Marathon and half marathon race directors in Ohio are reporting a significant increase in race registration since the bombings took place.
"Our numbers in the past three days are double what they were last year in terms of registration," said Blackford, who noted a 47 percent increase in registration since the same time last year. “What happened in Boston, it’s certainly not causing people to stay away and it might be incentivizing them to want to be part of it."
Babner also has noticed an increase in registration for the Capital City Half Marathon since Monday’s incident and has decided to extend the race registration deadline as a result.
"It’s amazing how resilient, how strong and frankly how upset and angry the running community is that this happened at a running event," said Babner. "You would think the registration would slow down because of this but it’s flipped to ‘No one is going to mess with running events again.’"
A BOSTON COMEBACK
As the nation grieves and searches for answers behind the Boston tragedy, Leon and thousands of other 2013 Boston Marathon competitors are looking ahead to the future.
“What you’re hearing is people who ran Boston saying ‘Absolutely we’re coming back and we’re going to run Boston [in 2014]. It’s going to be bigger and better than ever,'” said Babner.
As Leon continues to process the traumatic events of April 15, he has already been thinking of ways to honor the victims of the 2013 tragedy at his next race in the fall.
“Certainly there’s going to be a lot of emotion around the race next year,” he said. “But despite what happened, I think Boston will figure out how to move on and make the race great."
Until then, Leon and thousands of others will continue to run for those who no longer can.