Being on the right side of the street instead of the left side on Monday may have saved Sue Gruner's life.
Gruner, a west Elgin resident, was just getting ready to cross the finish line of her first Boston Marathon when the first bomb of the inexplicable terrorist attack went off. The time on the official clock when the first bomb exploded was 4:09.44. Gruner's official finishing time was 4:09.45.
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Back home on Wednesday, Gruner shared her experience and the emotions that came with it.
"I can't exactly remember where I was, whether I had crossed the finish line or not, but after I heard the explosion I turned to the left and saw the building go up in smoke," she said. "I just didn't know. I was really confused. I just didn't know what was happening. I thought 'Oh my God, what is that?'
"I just kept running forward. I was so exhausted and my legs were hurting so bad. I didn't even know if I crossed the finish line or not."
As security and police converged on the scene, Gruner (nee Soldat), a 1983 Glenbard North graduate who competed in gymnastics for the Panthers, said she ran around them and was fortunate to see a familiar face, another runner from her club "The Slackers", a group of about 13 runners who formed a running club out of friendships made while working out together at X-Sport Fitness in St. Charles.
"I was lucky enough to find one of my friends and we were running through the chute together to get our medals when the second explosion went off," said Gruner, whose oldest daughter Stephanie is a graduate student at Eastern Illinois, middle child Samantha a junior at Eastern, and son Steven a junior at Burlington Central High School.
"We knew then something was very wrong. Security and police just kept telling us to keep running. It's very hard after you stop to start running again, your legs are just so tired. But everything was so chaotic and we were trying so hard to run away and we didn't know where to run. We were just hovering and holding onto each other. We just kept wondering if there was another one that was going to go off.
"The way security and the police were telling us to run I thought there was an attack. No one was saying for sure but in my head I knew it. When the second one went off I put two and two together and everyone just kept telling us to run and get to a safe place."
Sue Gruner has been an athlete her whole life. She earned a gymnastics scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, where she competed for the Badgers and graduated with a physical education degree in 1987. While in Madison she ran in the annual Crazy Legs race and has pretty much been a runner ever since. Boston was her seventh marathon. She qualified through the Chicago Marathon in 2011, her third try at qualifying for Boston, but the Chicago race was too late to enter the 2012 Boston race. The qualification was good for this year though, and after rehabbing from knee surgery in February, Gruner ran the Fox Valley Marathon and then an indoor marathon in Milwaukee to train for Boston.
"The knee was fine after Milwaukee and I was so thankful and so happy," she said. "(Boston) was a course I had always wanted to run and I finally got to experience it. I'm happy I got to run it but I'm so sad for the families and the terrible tragedy. How people could be like that; to do something so horrific. I think about the little boy who died and his sister and mom are still in the hospital. There's no reason for this. I don't understand. It's just so sad.
"Coming up to the finish line I was so happy. It was the hardest marathon I've ever run in my life. I finally get to the finish line and I had a smile on my face. I heard the explosion and my emotions just changed."
Gruner's gear was all on the shuttle bus, including her cellphone. Her husband, Steve, was in the crowd. Another reason Gruner was grateful to have found her friend and running partner, Cindy Pedregal-Bosh, a 1985 Glenbard North grad.
"I don't run with my cellphone but Cindy had hers and she called Steve," said Gruner, who estimated it was 15 minutes before she was able to let Steve know she was OK. "Then Steve was able to let the kids know I was OK.
"We got our gear and they took us to a waiting area where they brought the families. We were just very scared. At first people were saying it was some kind of explosion from a gas leak. Then we couldn't get back to our hotel, which was only a block and a half from the finish line. They wouldn't let us walk through certain streets and we saw all the ambulances driving on the course and they were veering runners different directions."
Finally safe in her hotel room, Gruner began contacting family and close friends. She put a post on her Facebook page to let everyone know she was safe. And she and Steve watched the news accounts of the indescribable day.
"I had so many messages," she said. "I was just overwhelmed."
Their first visit to Beantown, the Gruners were scheduled to stay in Boston until Friday. "We were going to sightsee and take in the history," she said. But they decided to change their flight and come home early.
"I'm just so grateful I'm home safe and I'd love to celebrate my accomplishment, but I'm more celebrating that a lot of people I know are also home safe," she said. "The kids wanted us to come home and now that I'm home I'm glad we changed our flight. It was a very emotional time with a lot of feelings. I'm just so saddened for what took place. I'm so happy to be home. It's a relief."
The harrowing experience will not deter Gruner, 47, from continuing to run competitively.
"I will continue to run and compete," she said. "It's my passion and I love it. It's the most rewarding experience and it's not just the running. It's a social thing. I have many great friends I run with and I enjoy time with socially. I love the adrenaline and the anticipation before a race and I love the challenge. I love competing and I'm very competitive with myself. As long as my knee holds out I'll continue to run."
And, hopefully, never again have a finish to a race like she did on Monday.