What was supposed to be an avenue for Newtown runners to help in the healing process following the tragic events of 12/14, their participation in the Boston Marathon on April 15 turned out to open up even more wounds. At the same time, however, just as Newtown community members have come together to make something positive out of a negative circumstance before, they plan to do it again.
Two explosions near the finish line on Monday afternoon, which resulted in three deaths and injured more than 180 people, cast a dark cloud over what was an otherwise fulfilling day of not only running a renowned race, but also representing victims of 12/14, for some men and women from Newtown.
Among those who participated in the 117th Boston Marathon were several with ties to town, including a group of eight runners who formed the Newtown Strong team. The team had been organized to raise money for, and awareness of, Vision Design’s scholarship fund for siblings of victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Vision Designs, of Danbury, created and donated Newtown Strong T-shirts honoring the 26 students and administrators whose lives were taken, and is raising money to support siblings of the victims.
What began as great day ended with a terrible tragedy and left those from Newtown feeling that their attempts to honor Sandy Hook were incomplete.
“It was a horrific thing,” Newtown Strong team member David Oelberg said of the explosions, the cause of which continued to be investigated. “I just never expected something like this to happen at such a feel-good event. Why would anybody target that?”
One of Oelberg’s running teammates, Dr Laura Nowacki, was representing Newtown as a Sandy Hook mother; her daughter is a fourth grade student at Sandy Hook School.
“I really wanted to honor each of them and I did,” said Nowacki, explaining that she had every victim in her thoughts throughout the race. “I attacked those hills like I never attacked hills before,” added Nowacki, running her fifth marathon and first in Boston.
She had tried to run the Boston Marathon before but it just didn’t work out because of other commitments. This time, she said, it was meant to be. The signups for the race took place back in September. The Sandy Hook shootings, a few months later, gave those who registered a new purpose for running the race. A 26-second moment of silence was held in honor of the Sandy Hook victims.
Nowacki has such great appreciation for Boston Marathon officials dedicating the 26.2-mile course to the 26 school victims that she came up with the idea to reciprocate by helping organize a 5K race, fittingly 3.1 miles, in honor of the three lives that were lost in Boston. Nowacki hopes Newtown can host the 5K sometime this summer.
Nowacki finished the Boston Marathon in a time of 3:28.55. On her way to the finish she heard cheers of support for Newtown from the spectators.
“It was overwhelmingly good at that point,” Nowacki said. She had gotten back to the hotel by the time she heard sirens and began to realize something bad had happened.
The sights and sounds surrounding the event were all too eerily familiar to those of 12/14, Nowacki added.
Oelberg completed the race in a time of 3:16.58, had collected his bag and medal, and was also far from the finish line by the time the explosions happened.
“People are crying — going this way, going that way,” he said, recalling the scene as runners and spectators caught wind of what had just happened back near the finish line. Everybody in the area was trying to place calls and text, Oelberg said. He was attempting to reach friends whom he was supposed to meet following the Red Sox game, but couldn’t get through.
The news that there had been explosions started to travel, he added. Among those lost was an 8-year-old boy. Others were seriously hurt.
"It’s just absolutely heartbreaking to hear what happened to them,” Oelberg said.
Judy Toussaint, another Newtown Strong representative, finished in 3:44.32. Toussaint said she was still in the chute that runners have to make their way through upon completion, and spotted her family members who made the trip to support her.
“We did hear both explosions. It was one of those things that was like ‘What was that?’ It didn’t seem right,” Toussaint recalls.
Her daughter, Tess, is a fourth grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and was affected by the explosions at the marathon.
“It was upsetting,” Toussaint said.
With the subway system shut down, Toussaint had to walk a couple of miles to her hotel. Oelberg was stuck in gridlock traffic for a few hours before finally making his way back to Newtown the night of the race.
Oelberg said he’s run 15 marathons before and that this was his fourth in Boston, and possibly his last major city marathon.
“I never thought that running a marathon would put my life in harm’s way,” said Oelberg, adding that he always figured the only danger would be in possible injury from the long race.
“On one hand, you don’t want to give in to terrorist acts and shy away from stuff, but on the other hand I am a father and husband,” said Oelberg, who added that he will think twice before participating in a major marathon again.
Tom Abrams, another Newtown Strong runner, didn’t get to complete his fifth Boston Marathon. He was among the runners who came close but were diverted off the course at about the 22-mile mark. After an unmarked sport utility vehicle and four police on motorcycles zipped past the runners, Abrams knew something was wrong.
“Is it disappointing that I didn’t get my hardware? Sure, but it’s insignificant,” said Abrams, adding that any sense of personal accomplishment is muted by the circumstances. He pointed out that one can’t be upset about not finishing the race given that lives were lost, and some spectators lost limbs.
Abrams said the runners forced off the course were taken to a church at Boston College where they were well taken care of with beverages. Students were supportive and came out to offer cellphones so the runners could call their families and friends.
Newtown’s Tierney Carey, who ran the marathon to support Boston Children’s Hospital, said she was already past the finish line at the time of the tragedy.
“I was a few blocks away and heard the explosions, but I was quite disoriented to begin with from running hard at the end of the race and no idea what was happening. No one around knew what was happening,” said Carey, who finished in 3:51.47.
Abrams and his teammates were appreciative of the efforts of the Boston Athletic Association, which puts on the marathon, as well as those of the emergency responders.
The Newtown Strong runners said the way in which the Boston Marathon ended left them with a feeling their efforts to honor Sandy Hook’s victims were incomplete.
“We want to do something. We don’t want it to fizzle out,” Oelberg said.
Perhaps they’ll have that chance at the 5K Nowacki was thinking about.
For information on the Newtown Strong fundraising efforts, and to make a donation, visit www.newtownstrongfund.com.