Marathon Monday Through Joe’s Eyes (and Legs)

A quick note from Kiley: When I heard that my 18 year-old cousin, Joe, was running the Boston Marathon, I was blown away by his courage, motivation, and athletic competence. On that terrible day, I was shocked, saddened, angered, confused, and full of fear. Fear for my cousin, my family at home in MA, as well as every single runner, spectator, and resident of Boston. I felt light-years away here in New York, so I asked Joey to fill me on his experience during what I can only assume was the longest day of his life. Joe was a senior in high school when he ran his first marathon in 2013. Thanks to his story below, we’re all able to understand a bit better the twists and tragedies of the most remembered Marathon Monday Boston has ever seen.


On April 15, 2013, I woke up at 5am to run my first-ever marathon. After months of training, weeks of rolling out my muscles, and days of eating to make up for the calories I was going to be burning, I was ready for the epic challenge that is the Boston Marathon.  Shortly after I woke up, I ate breakfast – a three-egg omelet with cheese and an English muffin. I was used to eating about 40 minutes before my long runs and the fact that I had breakfast at 5am this particular day would hit me like a brick wall ten miles into the race. (Running Tip #1: Train like it’s raceday, don’t change your routine if you can help it.)

I was a bandit runner, (running unofficially) so when I arrived, I just tried not to step on anybody’s feet and to act like I belonged.  I befriended a tree and began my multiple hour wait to run. Dressed in crappy pants, a sweatshirt, and a hat, I curled up against the tree until the sun came out and warmed me up. At the start of the mens elite race, I realized I was already hungry and I ate the two granola bars I had packed.  What was I thinking – 90 calorie bars could get me through a marathon?!  While eating, I felt a slap in the face (literally) and looked up to learn it was a sweaty t-shirt from the mens starting line, everyone was getting pelted by flying clothing.

At 10:53 am, 53 minutes after the start, (almost five and a half hours after eating real food) came the moment I’d been waiting for for over four years. I started the marathon. Just moments before I started, my mom texted me to see what side of the course I wanted her and my dad to stand on at the finish line. I wasn’t really sure, but since I normally run on the right side of the road, I told her the right, not knowing how much of a difference this would make later on.

Like most other marathon virgins, I started out way too fast and for my first ten miles, I was at least 30 seconds ahead per mile than my expected time.  (Runner’s Tip #2: Do not go too fast, it will mess you up and ruin the experience, trust me.)  For me and the unforseen circumstances, I’m so thankful that I messed up my speed and timing.  Had I continued around that pace, I would have crossed the finish line a minute or so before the explosions.

At mile nine, I realized that my omelet, English muffin, and granola bars were long gone and I was starving. I pushed another mile out until I felt like my hips were going to explode, my stomach was empty, and a bathroom break was much-needed. (Runner’s Tip #3: Without getting too graphic, check the unit before you use it, I learned that the hard way.)

After using the bathroom, I decided I needed the energy beans I tossed in my pocket. It sucks trying to eat ‘on the run,’ so I decided to walk for a quarter-mile while I ate. Some guy who looked like he’d had a few beers, yelled to get going because the Wellesley girls were coming up. I really didn’t want to be that guy walking the marathon in front of a whole group of college of girls, so I got to it.  All their signs read, “KISS ME!” I hope they enjoyed my enthusiastic high-fives instead.  They were a little old for me…plus, I was kind of in the middle of a marathon. (Runner’s Tip #4: High-fives help. They get your mind off of your legs and the crowd gives off A LOT of energy.)

Due to my poor planning and growing appetite, after I passed the girls, I had to walk about a mile before hitting the half-marathon mark. Halfway there and just over two hours, not my worst run. A few minutes later cued bathroom break #2. I checked the unit before I used it and it was up to par. Woohoo. I ran and walked until about mile 20, where Poland Springs cups became the new pavement.  (Runner’s Tip #5:  avoid the Gatorade stations, your shoes will become sticky and will make you work twice as hard to take a step. Learned that the hard way too.)

At mile 21, I passed by Boston College and I noticed two NYPD running beside me. They overheard two BPD using their radios to receive the message, “we are now trying to get out the victims.” It appeared that they were just as confused as I was. I heard a woman mention something to her friend about the finish line, so I asked her what she was talking about.  She told me that two bombs went off at the finish line. My parents were at the finish line. My heart dropped to the pavement and then some.

I checked my phone, (runner’s tip #6: always bring a phone) I had one missed call from my mom, another missed call from my dad, and had a voicemail, which I wouldn’t listen to until that night. I called my dad as fast as lightning. The phone didn’t even ring once. I tried my mom, same thing. I tried my sister, same thing. I tried three more people, same thing. The failed calls seriously made me want to drop to the ground and give up the run. A few minutes later, after the most labored texting and calling I have ever done, it was apparent that nobody around me could make calls, not just me. I started running as fast as I physically could and ran into another woman with an iPhone. She knew nothing more than the first. I told her I had missed calls from my parents, that they were at the finish line but I didn’t know if they were okay. She then said something that hadn’t even occur to me: “if they called, they must be fine, or otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to dial.” I walked with her for another few minutes in silence when I then took off again, just a little bit less panicked after her words of wisdom. I never saw her again but remember exactly what she looked like and what she said to me, and I’ll never forget that. (Runner’s Tip #7: Make friends on the course, you never know what may happen along the way.)

As I passed by a police officer at mile 23, he yelled that the course would end in two miles. I kept going, hoping that my parents were walking along the course and would randomly find me. A mile later, a medical tent was handing out heat blankets. This would be the only thing that would keep me warm for the next two hours. A group of college students had set up their TV in the courtyard and had the news on. I watched the replay of the explosions and noticed they were on the left side of the course. My parents were on the right side, according to our plan. This last minute decision had unintentionally paid off big time, and always will. When the second explosion went off in the background, that’s when it became real to me. (I’ve grown up in a post-9/11 America. I was always so fascinated by what happened in 2001 because it defined how I aged and went through my daily life. Analysts always said that the second attack was spaced out enough so that everybody would be watching and it would become clear that it was not an accident.) When I realized that the explosions were intentional, I had to walk away, I didn’t want to see anything that might scare me even more. I came to mile 25 and the course abruptly ended. I found myself at a BU dorm and finally found someone with an iPhone using wifi to connect. (My parents now think having iPhones isn’t such a bad idea after all.) I tried to dial my mom’s number but my mind went blank. I was so shaken up, I couldn’t remember her simple number that I memorized when I was ten years old.  I had to take out my phone and dial it in. She was so happy to hear my voice, and vice versa. I gave her my address and she said she’d somehow find me. I hung up the phone, relieved.  Little did I know I still had hours ahead of me until we’d be reunited.

Moments later, I realized I was getting a million texts from my friends asking if I was okay, but I couldn’t respond to them. I was getting texts from people I haven’t talked to in years. When my friend Dan somehow got through to my phone, I told him that I was fine and to post on Facebook that I was safe. The post he made said, “hey guys just wanted to post on Joe Sabatino’s behalf that he’s a-ok… No one’s blowing up my best bud today” That post got 33 likes. It’s good to know people care.

My sister finally got through to me and we talked for a little while. She could tell my voice was really shaky. I told her I was just cold when I was actually trying to not cry. I hung up with her and I went inside the dorm with some of the BU students to get some water, and then turned around because it reeked of beer. My mom called me to ask which town I was in, Brookline or Boston. At the end of the block, there was a Brookline police car so I told her Brookline. I then got a text from my sister saying “stay away from trashcans, that’s all they’re talking about on the news.” I looked around and I was standing right next to one. I moved pretty quickly.

Then this guy, who appeared to be pretty inebriated, came up to me asking if he could use my phone to ‘call his girl.’ My phone was only receiving calls, but couldn’t dial out, so I told him that it wouldn’t work. The poor guy thought I was afraid of him stealing my phone so he offered to let me hold his phone while he used mine. I kept trying to tell him it wouldn’t work when my phone rang, it was my mom. We tried to figure out where to meet. At some point during the conversation, I sat down for the first time in almost eight hours and stayed on the phone with my mom for almost 40 minutes just in case we couldn’t get another call through. While sitting there on the dirt, I put my head down, took the phone away from my mouth and finally started to cry. It had been a very long day, a long day alone.

A split second later, I realized that I had angled the red solo cup of water a little too much and spilled water all over my shorts. Just what I needed at this point. Oh wait it gets better.  Then, a man with a toy dog asked me if I needed a warm place to stay. I politely declined. I should have stayed in the beer dorm.

My parents finally found me, frozen, shivering, with not an ounce of energy left. I continued to grip that heat blanket tight.  My mom then realized I needed her jacket and traded it for the blanket. She threw away the one thing that kept me warm for two hours. I had an emotional attachment to that blanket and I plan on giving her crap for that every day for quite a while.

We finally made it to the car and I sat down in a comfortable seat for the first time in almost twelve hours. The small things made a big difference at that point. We picked up some snacks because I hadn’t eaten solid food in over twelve hours. My dad drove home like a bat outta hell, he knew I just wanted to be home. We finally got home at just after 7 pm. I responded to all the texts I got and everyone was relieved to know I was okay. I finally listened to the voicemails from my parents: “there were two large explosions at the finish line”, “call us, call us, call us”, “we need to find you immediately, Joe” and some from friends. They made me realize that the day was over and that I was safe. I fell asleep on the couch  soon after.  It was the longest, most stressful and terrifying day of my life.

Despite Marathon Monday being the worst day of my life, I will be running next year no matter what. I sit at home now listening to the news, I keep trying to get things done but I just simply can’t focus on anything for an extended amount of time. These kinds of things really stick with you for a long time and I really hope I can get back to normalcy soon, although I know Monday was a day I’ll never forget.

One Healthy Breakdown: That’s one brave high school senior. Thanks for putting things in perspective, Joe, and for reminding us not to take our own safety and wellbeing for granted.