On Sunday the weight of everything hit Kerri McGrath.
The next day, she would run the Boston Marathon for Colin’s Joy Project, the fund she and her husband, Brendan, started after their 2-year-old son, Colin, was killed last summer by a car that jumped a curb following a crash in the street, striking the stroller he was riding in. Their 4-year-old daughter, Sloane, was also injured, but survived.
In the weeks and months after the accident, running with the goal of completing the Boston Marathon helped her in her grief, as she and her family dedicated themselves to giving back to the South Boston community that had supported them through their loss.
But everything she and her family had done, and what she was about to do, settled on her in the days before April 15, she said.
“Sunday I had a really hard day,” she told Boston.com two days after the race. “Sunday I cried like pretty much all day. I could barely pick myself up off the ground on Sunday. And I think that’s maybe just what needed to happen so that I could run 26.2 miles on Monday.”
It was also the return of the overwhelming feeling that she didn’t want to be running the marathon in the first place, she said.
“‘Nothing about me wants to have to do this tomorrow,’ ‘The only reason why I’m doing this is because Colin is gone,’” she recalled telling her parents on Sunday. “And it was such a reminder of him being gone, that we were doing it at all. I just wanted to think about other marathoners that day, like anyone else in the city of Boston, and not be doing that because our son is dead.”
As the 39-year-old primary care doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital ran the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston on Monday with the rest of the Colin’s Joy Project team, she said she couldn’t believe how many people turned out along the course to cheer for them.
“I mean every mile, and sometimes multiple people in a mile, there was somebody in a Colin’s Joy Project shirt, cheering,” she said. “Some of them, I had no idea they were there to see us. They were so excited to see us. We felt so supported and loved as we ran through those streets.”
Seeing everyone who turned up to support the team — those she knew and those she didn’t — buoyed her.
She said it was a reminder that “the last thing” that she and her husband and daughter are is alone.
“It felt amazing to realize you’re not alone,” McGrath said. “And even though there are those days where I can barely pick myself up off the floor, there are people looking to support us. I knew that the next day there were going to be people out there looking for us. And that there were going to be people out there hoping that we were going to do it and do OK. So all I could do was just run.”
At Heartbreak Hill she stopped. It was the only place in the race where she felt she had to.
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this,’” McGrath recalled. “‘I do not want to go up this hill.’ The fact that my race is just about to get harder, I did not want to do it.”
Her sister and a close friend who were running with her stopped, too. McGrath said they told her they were with her all the way, and said she just had to tell them what she needed.
McGrath said she took a moment for herself.
“I was like, ‘You’ve felt this way so many times in the last several months. So just get up that freakin’ hill,’” she said. “And so we did. And it wasn’t pretty. It was not pretty. If you look at our times, we slowed down pretty dramatically in those hills. But I feel really pretty good about the fact that we did it.”
Groups of supporters, made up of friends and extended family, marked their places on the sidelines with green and orange balloons so the team could see them. Brendan and Sloane were at four of them, and they were there in the bleachers at the finish line when McGrath crossed with a time of 4:59:59.
“I was really proud that Sloane got to see us do that,” she said. “And for her to just be there too with all of our family. She just thrives when she’s around family, so she was so happy that day. And I think she could feel it was a big accomplishment, what we did together that day.”
At each cheering station, the 4-year-old had something to say to her mother, such as, “You’re not that sweaty yet.”
“It was so funny,” McGrath said. “And at the end she goes, ‘I’m really happy for you Mom,’ and then she said, “Does this mean you can stop training now?’”
Even with how amazing it felt for McGrath to see her family at the finish line, she said she thinks completing the race felt different for her than for a lot of the runners.
“I crossed the finish line on Monday, but there’s no finish line for us and what we’re going through,” she said. “So in some ways, I was just out there running — like I’ve done a lot of other days. And I’ve run a lot of days for Colin and for myself and for our family. And this is another day that I did that. It was a bigger day in a million ways. But crossing that finish line, I didn’t have that same relief that I think a lot of other people who ran the Boston Marathon that day felt. Because there’s so much of our journey that we still haven’t done. And it wasn’t a disappointment. It was just a realization.”
On June 1st, there will be a 5K for Colin’s Joy Project, which McGrath said is the last big event planned for fundraising. She said she and her husband are looking forward to start planning how they will give back, rather than asking for donations.
“We’re really looking forward to that, because we don’t want to be fundraising for the rest of our lives,” she said. “We promised everybody we were going to go at this hard, we were going to do it hard for two years and then we would just do the work. We’ve been way more successful than we could have ever expected. It will feel good to start to engage with our opportunity partners and do projects with them and stand alongside them as they do their work.”
They already have four projects planned, starting with two that will get underway this summer through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department at M Street Park and the community courtyard near where the accident happened.
Even while she is looking forward to have those projects underway, their approach comes at the same time as the one-year anniversary of the accident nears.
“A thing that we’ve learned actually in this experience, during this journey, that experiences can be equally happy and sad,” McGrath said. “And that’s not anything I ever knew before this. For example, seeing Sloane happy running around and playing, gives us so much joy and so much sadness, realizing that she’s doing it without him. So I think similarly these outdoor play spaces will give us a lot of joy and to realize how much we’ve done in less than a year of Colin being gone will feel really powerful and special and that his life has meant something and will continue to mean something. And it will also be devastating because our son isn’t there.”
McGrath said when Sloane asked if she could stop training, she said she could for a little while, but there would be more races. She plans to run the Boston Marathon again in 2020 and has already heard from new people who want to run next year for Colin’s Joy Project and in 2021.
The hope is that every year people will be running for Team Colin, McGrath said.
“That other people are walking this walk with us, it is special,” she said. “And we feel so supported. Feeling that, that you’re running through the city of Boston surrounded by people just wanting the best for you, it’s something that I have never experienced before. And I wish I never did. But I know it now, and I’m really grateful for that.”