From left: Track Club LA runners Hoss Dubash, Sharon Yamato, Bert Whitson, and Dave Ash at the finish line one day before the 2013 Boston Marathon.

By SHARON YAMATO, Rafu Contributor

Running the Boston Marathon is not just about the runners. It’s about an entire city that wakes up on Boston’s own Patriot’s Day holiday to celebrate and party in the streets. It’s about the thousands of spectators who fill every inch of sidewalk to shout, “You can do it”; the kids who reach out to hand everyone high-fives; the volunteers who line up mile after mile to pass out water and Gatorade; the medical personnel who give up a day off to treat the sick and injured; and the race staff members who work years in advance to make sure everything goes off without a hitch.

So when I was stopped at mile 25.8 of the Boston Marathon last Monday, I was overcome with grief.  How could this happen here — at a marathon — at the iconic Boston Marathon?

At the Hopkington start line for the 117th Boston Marathon.

At the crack of dawn earlier that day, five of us anxiously headed out to Boston Commons to catch buses to the start. We felt as ready as we were going to be after training for months to prepare for this day. Good omens were in the air, something that every marathoner clings to before slugging through those tough 26.2 miles. The weather had just the right amount of cool briskness, and there wasn’t a puff of wind. A friendly Boston bus driver stopped midway between bus stops to wave us on without asking for a single fare, and we landed upon a Starbucks to caffeine-load and get that last clean bathroom stop before heading out to Hopkington.

As we hugged each other goodbye, my parting words were “Don’t wait for me at the finish.”

Since I was the slowest in our group, I was in the third and last wave of runners and scheduled to start nearly 40 minutes behind. Even if I ran my projected time of a little over 4 hours, the others would have to wait more than 2 hours in shivering conditions for me to finish. Still, I was feeling speedy when at Mile 16 excruciating cramps hit me. Just then I saw three friends from another L.A. running group go by. They were sticking together with a fellow LA Leggers group member who was running the race despite a recent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He looked strong as they waved and told me to “take it easy.”

They were definitely on course to run that 4-hour time that was quickly passing me by — a time that, had I achieved it, would have placed me squarely in front of the first explosion.

As the miles painfully dragged on, my goal now was to drink as much Gatorade as I could to avoid the crippling pain that swept over me like electrical shock waves. Several times, concerned police officers and marathon officials told me to pull over to the nearest medical tent, but I was carried along by cheers that were becoming more deafening as I passed Boston College nearing the finish line.

Suddenly, the unthinkable happened. The 117th Boston Marathon came to a dead halt. The message that there had been an explosion at the finish line flowed through the crowd to stunned faces and silence. A few minutes later as sirens blared past us, we knew it was beyond horrible. A runner beside me burst into tears, while a bystander put her arms around her and lent her cell phone to try to reach her husband who was waiting at the finish line. 

In this crowd of 27,000 runners, countless spectators and volunteers, cell service was immediately shut off, and there was no way to reach one another except by text message and social media. Instantly, Twitter and Facebook messages flooded airwaves to try to locate families and friends feared dead or gravely injured. I thought of my friends who had just passed me, knowing they had to be dangerously close to the explosions, and later discovered, thanks to Facebook, that they were unhurt despite being moments from the finish line.

A kind woman in the crowd offered me her cell phone, referring to me only as “the Asian lady” when messaged back by my anxious mate at home.

When I finally managed to get back to our Boston house, thankfully only six miles away, I panicked to find nobody there. Though my friends had undoubtedly finished hours in advance of the first explosion, I knew then that they had waited for me and had gotten caught up in the explosions. I rushed to grab my cell phone only to find more than 100 text, voicemail and Facebook messages from and between our small but tight running community as they desperately searched for missing runners. I was relieved to see that they had located the five members of our group, and I called one of them to let them know I was safe.

I spent the next few hours hearing countless stories of shock, fear and strength among the myriad of runners, spectators, medical personnel, and even people back home in L.A. A Boston doctor friend told me that eight hospitals were immediately mobilized. A runner friend in the medical tent at the time of the explosions explained how all runners were swiftly and silently cleared to make way for the injured. Friends at the finish line recounted the thunderous sound of the explosions, followed by their urgent search to locate the rest of us, a search that involved innumerable others on the Internet from L.A. And of course, there were those heroic bystanders in the crowd who ran directly into the fray to help the bloodied.

Since returning to L.A., I’ve been overwhelmed by all the good wishes from friends, family, and acquaintances — and especially from fellow runners. The continuing news reports from Boston have kept me immersed in the story, and I have had trouble sleeping, which I’ve heard is a sign of post-traumatic stress. Still, I am grateful that those who were around me that day came out of it safely.

Running any marathon is about endurance and camaraderie, but running the Boston Marathon means much more. It involves history, tradition, pride, super strength and passion. This year, add to that grace under pressure. Tragedies such as these can bring the best out in people. I will forever be grateful to those who came together that cold Boston day — both strangers and friends — to epitomize what running a marathon is all about. 

Every runner I know is more determined than ever to be running Boston next year. I know I’m not going to miss it for anything.

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  1. I am a native Bostonian. Marathon Monday is also a state holiday, Patriot’s Day, commemorating the battles of Concord and Lexington that began the American Revolution in 1775. The bombers killed and maimed people who were celebrating the kind of determination and commitment to seeing something to its successful end as the Minute Men had over two hundred years ago.

    We in Massachusetts look forward to cheering you on in 2014.