Three weeks after the bombings in Boston, the Toronto Marathon was approaching, and with it, our preparations for the Psyching Team to swing into action. A colleague and friend—a non-runner—who lives 50 miles from Boston sent me a note:

“I was wondering how you were feeling about the Toronto Marathon given that marathons in general currently lack cachet.”

I responded: “Marathons lack cachet? Interesting. I expect it depends on which group you…run with. Runners I know or know of are feeling fiercely cacheted. People are joining the Psyching Team who wouldn't have, had it not been for Boston. One psychologist is making a seven hour drive so that she can experience the Team here and adapt our methods to her own city’s marathon. A colleague here who’s always over-busy, hasn't participated in years, wants to do what he can, so he’s signed up for a portion of our activities.”

Comprising psychologists, sport psychologists, and graduate students, Toronto’s Psyching Team had a new task facing it this year: Our training and participation would have an unexpected layer of complexity. The Psyching Team was, as previously, going to be available before, during, and after the Marathon to assist runners in mental skills and coping for the race. Additionally, this year we wanted to prepare to assist runners who might be experiencing negative effects in reaction to the Boston bombings.

During training, we spent some time discussing and role playing about this possibility. And we also checked how Psyching Team members ourselves were handling the aftermath of Boston. Yes, we had heard, read, and seen people rally and support—but what would it be like for runners to pin on a race bib with a “Remember Boston” logo? How would runners handle the minute of silence at race start? What thoughts might they have as they approached or were near the finish line, since that was the location for the bombs in Boston?

At the race Expo, Psyching team members engaged in interesting conversations relating to Boston. One woman felt anxious about the areas on the race course where there would be few people. What if…? She wondered. Fueling her concern was her memory that, in a prior race, she had assisted another runner who had fainted at one such location. No race officials had been there; other runners didn’t stop. Our Psyching Team member thought that this runner was now experiencing a kind of generalized anxiety and sense of vulnerability. “I suggested that those open areas were probably the last areas a terrorist would target. She readily agreed.”

For the most part, though, participants seemed ready and eager, feeling a true sense of community with runners everywhere and Boston in particular. People scooped up Boston commemorative t-shirts.

One of our Psychs-on-Bikes (members of the Psyching Team who bicycle sections of the course, assisting runners on the way) said that he’d talked with an unassuming man who had run 113 marathons, including Boston more than 10 times. “Prior to the events in Boston he felt that it was likely time to quit. After experiencing what happened, he was determined to go back, however, and run Boston again next year. He traveled half-way across the country to run in the Toronto Marathon in order to qualify for Boston.”

It’s not, though, as if Boston didn’t have any impact or only had positive impact. We humans are more nuanced than that. In the medical tent at the finish line, one of our Team members had a long conversation with “Jim.” He was dealing with a severe migraine headache, something he’d never experienced before. “What was different about this race?” the sport psychologist asked Jim. He wasn’t sure. He had prepared as always and felt fine until about the 20 mile mark when the migraine sprang on him. Inquiring further, our Team member found out that his most recent race was…Boston.

Jim shared his Boston story with her: He finished the marathon 14 minutes before the bombings began. Although he heard the blasts, he didn’t know that the sound he was hearing was bombs. He just knew that something wasn’t right and that he was scared. He was alone for the race that day; until the cell phone towers were switched back on, he couldn’t contact his family or friends.

Now, the Psyching Team member said, “whenever he hears a loud noise, whether it be a car door slamming or someone dropping something heavy, he jumps and feels scared. These feelings are especially prominent when he hears sirens or sees an ambulance.” Will this reactivity fade over time? Should he be addressing it now? Is he even recognizing the link between event and emotional/physical reaction?

“We began to talk about terrorism and about Jim’s decision to run the Toronto Marathon. We talked about how terrorism is random; it's difficult to plan for and prevent. During this conversation, Jim had a revelation: He can't stay inside all the time and live his life in fear of something that may or may not happen. Who knows what drove the bombers to do what they did? They acted out of hate and carelessness with total disregard for the lives of thousands of people. Jim said that all he can do is live his life in the way that makes him most happy. That includes being healthy and challenging himself. The bottom line, he recognized, is that you can't restrict yourself because of something that may or may not happen again.”

Prior Marathon-related post:

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