Boston Marathon bombings left Goucher with emotional scars

Kara Goucher had finished running the Boston Marathon a couple of hours earlier and was eating lunch with her family in their room at the Fairmont Copley Hotel last April 15 when a loud sound shook the hotel windows, followed by another blast 12 seconds later.

The two-time Olympic distance runner and Duluth East graduate immediately suspected the worst.

"I felt it in my chest," the 35-year-old recalled last week in a phone conversation from her home in Boulder, Colo. "This was my third time at the Boston Marathon and they've never set off a cannon. I just knew something was wrong.

"My mom and my husband went over to open up the window to see what had happened and I started crying. I said, 'Shut the window, there could be gas out there.' (The second blast) sent me over the edge. I basically had a panic attack. It was the definition of terrorism -- I was terrified."

The homemade pressure-cooker bombs set at the feet of spectators by brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev killed three and injured an estimated 264 -- crippling more than a dozen in the process.

Others, such as Goucher, while uninjured, were emotionally scarred.

"I've never been so truly terrified in my life," said Goucher, who refused to speak about the incident to reporters at the time. "It was hard for me, my son (Colt) and my husband (Adam Goucher). It took me a long time to talk about it."

Kara's mother, Patty Wheeler of Duluth, sister Kelly Grgas-Wheeler and an aunt were babysitting Kara's 3-year-old son during the elite race, in which Goucher finished a disappointing sixth. They watched and took pictures from the grandstand across Boylston Street from where the bombs exploded later in the day. Colt had lost a fire truck in the stands so they went to look for a replacement at a shop along the same stretch of stores where the brothers laid their explosive-laden backpacks approximately 90 minutes later.

"Had we stalled a little longer, we would have been out there when it had happened," said Grgas-Wheeler, a Minnesota Duluth assistant soccer coach and sports information assistant.

Moments after the explosions, Grgas-Wheeler received a call from her sister's agent telling them that the hotel, located about two blocks from the blast site, was in lockdown mode and not to leave the room.

Before cell phone communication went down, Kara and Kelly's youngest sister, Kendall Schoolmeester of Portland, Ore., called from the West Coast and repeated erroneous information being broadcast on TV that a bomb had been found at their hotel.

"I had to put her on speaker phone and have my mom and Kara basically talk her off a ledge because she was so hysterical," Grgas-Wheeler said.

The group huddled around the TV and watched the drama unfold, a vigil that didn't stop until a manhunt for the perpetrators ended with one brother dead and the other arrested four days later.

They only needed to peer out windows to see real-time drama unfolding as armored trucks pulled up in front of the hotel.

"The staging area was right outside our window, where (law enforcement officers) were putting on bullet-proof vests and loading machine guns," Goucher said.

"They were rolling out AK-47s and big guns that I've never seen," Grgas-Wheeler said.
Thoughts of Goucher's running performance soon were forgotten, replaced by hard-to-forget images of blood-stained sidewalks and cries for help.

"To this day, I don't even remember Kara running," her sister said. "I know she was disappointed about her run, and then it was gone in an instant. No one could care less about the race; it's like the race never even happened."

The Gouchers left Boston the next day for Duluth as Adam was scheduled to speak to schoolchildren, but Kara found it impossible to resist the nonstop media coverage.

"I couldn't tear myself away from the TV," she said. "My whole family was so roped in and I felt like the world couldn't go on. I couldn't imagine running or do anything but sit in front of the TV. I had headphones on my son the whole time and wouldn't let him watch. I was crazy; it was very unhealthy. I was super-obsessed with it, and it wasn't until they caught the brothers that I could finally sleep."

Goucher, who is spending this weekend in Duluth, will be back in Boston on April 21 for the 118th annual running of the United States' oldest and most renowned marathon -- but only as a spectator. Though sidelined by a stress fracture, Goucher still expects her visit to be a tear-jerker for herself and others.

"It's going to be something special and a healing moment for the running community," she said. "I'll be emotional when I go, but it will be healing for me in a sense. I'm glad to support such an awesome race and event. For all the people who will forever be affected, the least I can do is to support this race."

Some year soon, she says, she plans to go back and run the race no American woman has won since 1985.

"It's broken my heart a bunch of times so I have a relationship with it where I love it and then it depresses me because I want to win it so bad," Goucher said. "It's a difficult race as an American elite because there's so much pressure and expectation. I will go back to Boston -- I don't know when -- but I love the race and love the atmosphere so at some point it will be time for me to go back and give it one more shot."

Grgas-Wheeler also says she will go back and watch her sister run a future race, but she is glad it's not this year.

"To be honest, I'm not ready to be anywhere near Boston," she said. "I love Boston and loved her running there, but I'm not ready to be there again."

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