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updated: 4/21/2014 5:22 AM

Burlington runner recounts 'chaotic' Boston Marathon experience

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  • Sue Gruner of Burlington crossed the finish line in last year's Boston Marathon just seconds before the first of two terrorist bombs exploded. Injuries kept her from returning for this year's race.

       Sue Gruner of Burlington crossed the finish line in last year's Boston Marathon just seconds before the first of two terrorist bombs exploded. Injuries kept her from returning for this year's race.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Sue Gruner of Burlington crossed the finish line in last year's Boston Marathon just seconds before the first of two terrorist bombs exploded. Injuries kept her from returning for this year's race.

       Sue Gruner of Burlington crossed the finish line in last year's Boston Marathon just seconds before the first of two terrorist bombs exploded. Injuries kept her from returning for this year's race.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Sue Gruner has framed her memorabilia from the 117th Boston Marathon in 2013.

       Sue Gruner has framed her memorabilia from the 117th Boston Marathon in 2013.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Sue Gruner was crossing the finish line in the Boston Marathon last year when the first of two terrorist bombs exploded. She said she'll be thinking about the runners and others whose lives were affected during today's race.

       Sue Gruner was crossing the finish line in the Boston Marathon last year when the first of two terrorist bombs exploded. She said she'll be thinking about the runners and others whose lives were affected during today's race.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Sue Gruner of Burlington crossed the finish line in last year's Boston Marathon just seconds before the first of two terrorist bombs exploded. Injuries kept her from returning for this year's race.

       Sue Gruner of Burlington crossed the finish line in last year's Boston Marathon just seconds before the first of two terrorist bombs exploded. Injuries kept her from returning for this year's race.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

 
 

When Sue Gruner crossed the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, she had achieved a lifetime goal.

In an instant, that sense of accomplishment became secondary. Within moments of crossing, the first of two pressure cooker bombs went off on a day that some would say changed America, a day when a terrorist attack sent Boston, and the nation, into a state of tragedy.

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The reported race time of the first explosion was 4:09.43. Gruner's official time of crossing the finish line was recorded at 4:09.45.

"Coming up to the finish line I was so happy," Gruner told the Daily Herald a day after the bombing. "It was the hardest marathon I'd ever run in my life. I finally got to the finish line and I had a smile on my face. I heard the explosion and my emotions just changed. It was a very emotional time with a lot of feelings."

Gruner won't be in Boston for today's marathon, but not because she doesn't want to be there.

"It has nothing to do with the bombing," said Gruner, 48, who lives in rural Burlington, west of Elgin.

"I didn't have a qualifying time at Boston (last year), so I would have had to qualify at another marathon. I was trying to run the Fox Valley Marathon to qualify, but I had a couple injuries" and decided to focus on half marathons this year.

That doesn't mean Gruner doesn't think about her experience at Boston, where a multitude of friends are running today's race.

"If I hadn't had the injuries and had qualified, I'd be there to honor and pay tribute," Gruner said. "I'll never forget it. That city will always hold a place in my heart. The families, all the runners … it was a tragedy. I'll be thinking about them."

After hearing the blast on April 15, 2013, Gruner had to set aside the exhaustion of just completing a marathon race -- one of the toughest in the world. Unsure what had happened, she and a friend from her "Slackers" running group found each other and ran through the chute together to get their medals. Then, the second bomb went off.

"Everything was so chaotic," Gruner said. "We were trying so hard to run away, and we didn't know where to run. We just kept wondering if there was another one that was going to go off."

Gruner was able to contact her husband, Steve, from a friend's cellphone, but the runners were then ushered by police into a waiting area. Finally back in their hotel room, the Gruners decided to cut short the time they had planned to stay in Boston to sightsee.

"It was a very emotional time with a lot of feelings," Gruner said, recalling the three who were killed and many injured. "I was just so saddened for what took place."

As much as Gruner, a lifelong athlete who competed in gymnastics at Glenbard North High School in Carol Stream and then on scholarship at the University of Wisconsin, would like to be running in Boston today, it isn't something she felt she had to do.

With the injuries behind her, she's returned to competitive running. She ran in the Bunny Rock half marathon in Chicago on Saturday, where she was joined by her daughter Stephanie, who ran the 5K race.

"It was on my bucket list to run Boston," she said.

"Boston is different for all runners. I wanted to experience it one time. I did it, and I don't feel the need to go back. If everything clicked and sometime in the future I did qualify I would go back, but I don't feel like I need to prove anything.

But as runners today in Boston start the long race toward Boylston Street and the finish line, "I'll go running, and I'll be thinking of Boston."

In fact, about every time Gruner runs now she thinks of that harrowing April day just a year ago, when the lives of thousands were turned upside down.

"Every race I run now, when I get to the finish line, I think of Boston," she said.

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