On April 15, 2013, Colin Wilkins, 34, could feel his body physically breaking down. Having run no more than seven miles in his life before he started training that fall for Team Brookline, leading up to race day Wilkins started to doubt whether he could finish. But here he was. Wilkins had just passed the 25 mile marker of the Boston Marathon in Kenmore Square, heading toward what looked like a bottleneck of runners at the Massachusetts Avenue overpass, where race officials had stopped runners from continuing.
Wilkins began to overhear people chattering vaguely about an explosion at the finish line. He stood there, exhausted, piecing together what might have happened, and terrified that his family, who had hopped on the MBTA Green Line train after hugging him at the 24 mile stretch, had made it to Copley Square in time to congratulate him at the finish line.
“It was devastating, honestly,” said Wilkins, a librarian at The Public Library of Brookline, who was running that day as a charity runner for the Brookline Library Foundation. “It was surreal for a long time. I would say for several hours I couldn’t comprehend what was going on, so that was disorienting.” When it finally did sink in as to what happened, an array of emotions hit Wilkins. “I felt profoundly lucky, but guilty that other people had been hurt and I wasn’t. I was also terrified my family could’ve been at the finish line, but it turns out they weren’t, so when I found out they were safe it was overwhelming relief immediately afterwards.”
A month later, Wilkins was still dealing with physical and emotional recovery. In May, he revisited the spot where he stopped and finished his race. He wrote about the experience on his fundraising page for the 2014 Boston Marathon, where he describes running the final stretch with a biker cheering alongside him. Wilkins leaned heavily on his wife, family, and friends for support, but ultimately he said it was through running, and his training team, that he found his emotional footing again.
Last year on Team Brookline, out of the 30 runners on the team, many had to stop their races short around mile 25. Ten of 2013’s runners are back this year: eight who had to stop and two who finished the race. This year, Team Brookline has had a higher turnout than ever, fielding 42 runners for the race and providing the emotional support that is so important for recovery after a traumatic event.
“First of all in training for the marathon, I don’t think I would’ve made it without others struggling along beside me,” said Wilkins. “But in aftermath, there’s something really powerful about the shared experience of trauma and recovering from trauma with other people who went through that with you.”
At the anniversary of a traumatic event, people can suffer from an increase in emotional distress known as an “anniversary reaction” that can manifest itself in feelings such as irritability, anger, grief, or anxiety. Dr. Larry Abrams, psychologist and Director of Psychology Training at the Brookline Community Mental Health Center, said these emotions are likely to affect a range of people, but it’s important to be cognizant and reach out to others when these emotions begin to surface.
“From people participating in the marathon, planning to attend the marathon, or frankly anyone in Boston this year, we are all going to have reactions based on the trauma from last year,” said Dr. Abrams, who had his own experience at the marathon last year. He and his wife Tracey attended to watch their son, Jake, run for the first time. Jake passed his parents at the 23 mile mark, and while Larry and Tracey waited to hear from their son at the finish line, their daughter called them from Philadelphia with the news about the explosions. It was a very scary 45 minutes until they heard from him.
“What trauma does is it really disrupts your sense of a continuous safety, as well as the predictability in your life,” he said. “When something like this happens, all of those things you think of as a bubble of protection, it gets blown, and it takes time rebuilding that bubble or feeling that you live in a safe, generous, predictable world.”
According to Dr. Abrams, the emotions of trauma impact concentric circles of people, like a ripple effect through the community around those at the center who were most directly impacted.
While most people are able to rebuild their sense of security, Dr. Abrams said for others that have been more affected, their memories from April 15, 2013 might come back in a more acute ways with lingering feelings of anxiety, grief, and even anger.
“The best way to process trauma is by talking to people. Trauma doesn’t get attached as well to language,” said Dr. Abrams. “The bodily sensations are often representations of trauma that aren’t very well processed. Talking to a therapist and others who have gone through something similar can be enormously therapeutic.”
Everyone on Team Brookline is emotionally connected to the events last year, said Nancy F. Vineberg, Vice President for Development at Brookline Community Mental Health Center, who coordinates and runs Team Brookline. Vineberg remembers how horrified she was when she received a call about the first explosion at one of the cheering stations along the route from a team manager at the finish line. “It was a very powerful experience for people and everyone is really cognizant of that as we go through this training season.”
Members of Team Brookline are running to raise money for the Brookline Community Mental Health Center, which aims to raise awareness of the importance of good mental health and de-stigmatize mental health challenges in the community, along with the Brookline Education Foundation, Brookline Library Foundation, and Brookline Teen Center. The Brookline Community Mental Center has begun to hear patients refer to their feelings about their experiences as the anniversary of the marathon approaches. Their message this year is one of encouragement and community.
“I would advise people very clearly to manage their boundaries well,” said Dr. Abrams. “If something is unpleasant, turn it off. There’s no reason for them to expose themselves to that stimulus at this point. There’s enough of that in their own heads. So be mindful of your own boundaries, and of what you’re being exposed to on TV or the Internet.”
But this year, there are two emotional events. The anniversary of last year’s Boston Marathon, on April 15, and making new memories on Patriot’s Day on April 21.
“It’s hard to anticipate what it’s going to feel like,” said Wilkins about running the race this year, who feels much more physically ready to race this time and is looking forward to pushing himself physically. “I know there’s going to be a flood of emotions, but I think my primary focus will be on the race while also taking in the crowd and the emotions of the day. But mostly I would like to make this day about the race and finishing strong.”
On April 15, Wilkins said he plans to have a routine day, but take a moment of silence at 2:50 p.m. to reflect. He says the two days will have very different emotions, but part of training with a team is mentally training together to be in that moment as well.
“Sometimes it’s not even necessary to talk, and really healing for me is just continuing to run with these people, with the resolve to run and the commitment to finishing with those who were also not able to,” he said.