Triumph marred by tragedy
ALBION – Kevin Pawlak was euphoric crossing the finish line on Monday, completing the grueling Boston Marathon in less than 3 hours.
But that mood changed about two hours later when two bombs went off near the finish line.
Pawlak, his brother, father and two coaches from high school were back in a hotel in Boston when they saw the news reports about an explosion on the course.
Initially, people at the hotel speculated it might have been an overloaded generator. But the media then reported bombs were placed near the finish line, designed to hurt and kill a big crowd of people.
“It is shocking,” said Pawlak, 20, of Albion. “We were right there. We were standing right there.”
Pawlak was at the hotel getting ready to ride to the Logan International Airport in Boston to catch a flight to Baltimore. He is a junior majoring in history at Shepherd University in West Virginia.
But Kevin’s father, Jerome, wouldn’t let him get on the plane.
“My fatherly instincts took over,” the elder Pawlak said this morning at the family’s home in Albion. “I didn’t have a good feeling about it.”
All flights would be cancelled anyway. The group of five just wanted to get back home and drove back to Albion. Along the way they stopped at rest areas, and other Boston Marathon runners were wearing bright yellow shirts from the race. They expressed their disbelief about an attack that killed three people and injured 130 others.
“Runners have such a bond, especially marathon runners,” Kevin Pawlak said. “They’re essentially your brothers in arms. You feel bad for the people who couldn’t finish or who were injured.”
‘You look back and realize we were very lucky.’ -Kevin Pawlak, Boston Marathon finisher from Albion
One woman at a rest stop told the runners she was near the finish line when the second bomb went off. She had a video running, wanting to capture herself approaching and then crossing the line. She showed Pawlak the footage from the second explosion. She wasn’t able to finish the race.
For months Pawlak was up at the crack of dawn, training in the hills of West Virginia. He ran 40 miles a week about four months ago and increased that mileage to about 70, building his strength and endurance for the race on Monday.
He wanted to break 3 hours, a blistering pace. On Monday, the temperature was ideal for a runner, about 50 to 55 degrees. There was a faint wind and the sky was overcast, so Pawlak and the other 23,000 runners wouldn’t have to battle the sun and other elements.
A huge and boisterous crowd lined the course.
“It was wall-to-wall people for nearly the entire 26.2 miles,” Pawlak said. “It was fantastic. The runners fed off the crowd.”
A group of five from the Albion area were in Boston over the weekend. It was a festival atmosphere with Massachusetts celebrating Patriots Day on Monday. Pawlak said people were dressed for the occasion, wearing colonial garb. He spotted a runner dressed as the Statue of Liberty.
“It was a wonderful experience being in Boston,” Jerome Pawlak said. “The whole thing revolved around patriotism.”
Kevin’s brother Joe and two cross country coaches from Notre Dame High School in Batavia – Eric Geiter and Aaron Sherman – joined Kevin and his father for the experience.
The group received automated text messages during the race, giving updates on Kevin’s pace. He was “right on target,” including a 1:28:05 time for the first half of the course, Jerome said this morning.
Kevin still had to get past three hills between miles 16 and 21, including “Heartbreak Hill,” the last hill near the 21-mile mark. Kevin had been nursing a sore right knee leading up to the race, but it wasn’t any trouble on Monday. He climbed and descended the hills, pushing himself to the end.
He crossed the finish with a time of 2:57:11, nearly 3 minutes to spare from 3 hours. He grabbed a water bottle, a blanket and connected with his family and coaches.
“I was so excited,” he said. “I was sore, but I was so pumped up on adrenaline.”
The group then spent about a half hour getting back to the hotel. Pawlak’s phone was soon inundated with calls and text messages. His friends wanted to make sure he was OK, that he wasn’t hurt in the bombings.
Pawlak was unable to make any outgoing calls. He knew people were worried about him. He posted this message on Facebook:
“Just wanted to let everyone know that I am safe and heading out of Boston back home to New York. Not sure when I’ll be back at Shepherd. Please keep everyone in Boston in your thoughts and prayers.”
This afternoon he is taking a flight from Buffalo to Baltimore. He said he has a lot of studying to do with finals next week.
Right now, his mind can’t focus on school work.
“You look back and realize we were very lucky,” he said.