Marathon mayhem

The McDonalds didn't just witness the Boston Marathon explosions. They lived it.

By on April 24, 2013
Brian (L) and Jim McDonald, two of Jack McDonald's four sons, ran the Boston Marathon on April 15.

Jack McDonald sat at a meeting last Wednesday afternoon up in the TD Bank Sports Center’s University Club. Around the table surrounded several other administrators within the athletic department. The topics at the tables included discussions of the university getting new scoreboards for the ice hockey rink and the basketball court.

But at the meeting, the Quinnipiac director of athletics and recreation was unusually quiet. Normally talkative, he was pensive. His mind was elsewhere, filled with sorrow. He was still shaken up from the events that transpired on April 15, when two men set off explosions at the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding more than 170.

McDonald, who says the Boston Marathon is part of who he is, didn’t just watch it on TV, though. He and his family lived it.

“I’m 62 years old and I’ve never seen anything like that in my life,” McDonald said. “I’m extremely saddened that one of the world’s most famous events was attacked by terrorism.”

Photo courtesy of Jack McDonald

Brian (L) and Jim McDonald, two of Jack McDonald’s four sons, ran the Boston Marathon on April 15.

McDonald has four sons: Brian, Jim, Jack (Jr.) and David. The four all ran the Boston Marathon last year in 80-degree heat, a race in which more than 100 runners were taken to local hospitals due to the temperature, according to the Huffington Post. Jim and Brian, both Quinnipiac graduates, ran it again this year in what McDonald described as “normal” conditions.

“Even after the finish last year, I was like, ‘I wanted to do it again,’” Jim said. “I thought it was fun, there are so many people there. It’s hard not to do it again. It’s a good experience.”

Whether watching it on TV at his home in Cheshire, Conn., or going to it, the Boston Marathon is one of the hallowed days for Jack. He ranks it as one of the most iconic sporting events in the world, among the likes of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and Augusta National.

The first race took place in 1897 and was called the “B.A.A. Road Race.” Only 15 people ran it back then, 10 of whom finished it. Back then, the course was only 24.5 miles in length and went from Metcalf’s Mill in Ashland, Mass., to the finish line at the Oval of Irvington Street in downtown Boston, according to the Boston Athletic Association. Last year, more than 22,500 people ran the Boston Marathon.

“For me,” Jack said, “the Boston Marathon is a national holiday.”

Jack’s first marathon experience came when he was just 8 years old. As a native of Braintree, Mass., he asked his mother if he could take the subway and head to the Boston Marathon. She said no, but he went anyway.

From that point on, there was no stopping his love for the sport. He ran and coached track at Boston College and graduated in 1973. As a runner, he once ran a mile in 4:00.9. He was inducted into the Boston College Varsity Club Athletic Hall of Fame in 1982.

“He was an outstanding miler,” said Tom Meagher, who coached Jack at Boston College for two years starting in 1971 and works as an official at the Boston Marathon. “It was a great thrill coaching Jack.”

When Jack coached, he took his team to watch the marathon by Heartbreak Hill, known as the make-or-break point in the Boston Marathon. Heartbreak Hill is the final uphill climb in the race, rising a half-mile to Hammond Street. The incline itself is difficult, but after 20 1/2 miles later, it makes it even tougher.

“My whole team used to go out and monitor the crowds by Boston College, Heartbreak Hill,” McDonald said. “Now it goes way beyond the wrecking fences and all that.”

Jack, his wife Linda and Jim’s fiancee Nicole all traveled to Boston to watch them run the 26.2-mile course across Boston. They did not expect two bombs to go off, nor did anyone else. They did not expect to be panicked by the day’s events.

“The first bomb was one of shock, the second bomb was one of terror,” Jack said.

“It might be three that passed away and 170 hurt, but there are millions of people affected by this,” Jack said.

At the beginning of the day, they took the trolley and headed out near the Newton-Wellesley Hospital, which is in-between the 16th and 17th mile marks.

“[We] saw them go by, they looked good, we took a picture,” Jack said. “It was really good.”

They then took the trolley back to Kenmore Square in Boston, which is a little more than a mile away from the finish line. The three of them decided to walk that area of the marathon course to get a feel for the marathon experience. With some free time before, they decided to shop at the Apple Store, which is less than a half mile away from the finish line.

Jim and Brian started running at 10:45 a.m. and ran with each other for most of the race. Brian didn’t finish the marathon last year and said he wanted to run and finish this year, to which Jim replied, “Of course I’ll do it again.” Thirty kilometers in, the two were one second apart. Afterward, however, Jim took off.

Jim finished the marathon at 2:34:20 p.m., with an official time of 3:48:23. Brian finished with an official time of 4:03:39. He crossed the finish line at 2:49:36 p.m.

As Jack, Linda and Nicole were in the second floor of the Apple Store, they saw Jim run past them, so Nicole left to find him. Several minutes later, they saw Brian, so they left the Apple Store to find him.

Jack and Linda walked out of the store and down Boylston Street. They walked toward the finish line and were 50 yards away when they saw first bomb explode. Less than 20 seconds later, the second bomb exploded near the Apple Store.

“The first bomb was one of shock, the second bomb was one of terror,” Jack said.

Jack grabbed his wife’s hand and walked immediately toward Newbury Street, which is parallel to Boylston Street. They stood in the middle of the road with everything going on. They saw people running away from the scene, people crying, people screaming. It was more hectic than any other Boston Marathon.

“It’s perfectly normal at the marathon when you can’t find anybody, but when you can’t find anybody after a bomb attack, it’s a lot different,” Jack said.

Jack’s immediate concern was about Nicole. She walked right by the Apple Store, which was not just near the site of the second explosion, but also on the same side of the street as it. Fifteen to 20 minutes later, she called Jack, telling him she was OK and nervous for Jim.

“Thank God to see someone’s name on the phone,” Jack said. “She called, very upset, but I was very happy that she was calling.”

Jim was long past the spot of the first explosion. He went to the Boston Marriott in Copley Place, roughly a third of a mile away.

Jim stood in the middle of the road, trying to find a place where he could meet up with his family. He was more than 100 yards away from the first blast when it happened. He saw cops running around the corner toward the explosion, and minutes later, heard sirens go off.

“You just knew it was bad,” Jim said.

Brian was across the street from the explosion. He crossed the finish line seconds before the bombs went off.

“I think anyone that’s seen the video knows that the other side of the street was much safer than the side closest to the bomb side,” Jack said. “It was surreal to see No. 1, Nicole safe, and No. 2, see your sons safe. … It was an amazing journey.”

Jim borrowed several people’s phones trying to get in touch with his family. After several minutes, he met up with his parents and Nicole, trying to find Brian. Brian’s phone was dead, but someone let him into his apartment to allow him to charge his phone.

“I didn’t want to panic. I’m just like, ‘All right, we’ll try to get a hold of him, and we’ll take it from there,’” Jim said. “Once you hear his voice … it was obviously just a relief.”

On the streets, though, Linda was looking for the rest of the group and went into one of the medical tents.

“The good news is that she didn’t find my sons or Nicole,” Jack said. “The bad news is she saw a lot of the tragedy, so I’m sure that shook her.”

Because of Jack’s strong relationship with the track and field officials in the area, he knew a lot of them would be at the marathon.

“I thought of them immediately. I texted a lot of them, either there or on the way home,” he said.

Among that group was Meagher. For the past 17 years, he has worked the finish line at the marathon, and on typical marathons, he works until around 5 p.m. He helps set up the finish line for each wave of the race. He has seen people so filled with emotion after races that they propose to their loved ones.

“It’s a tremendous amount of emotion from a lot of average people,” Meagher said.

Last Monday was a different kind of emotion. He was 25 yards away from the first blast when it happened. Instead of running for his safety, he instinctively ran to help others, notably a runner who fell to the ground when the first explosion went off.

“I did not do anything special,” Meagher said. “It was what I was raised by my dad: If you see someone in trouble, go help.”

Pictures of him were featured on the cover of the Boston Globe. He had gotten requests from numerous news outlets to talk about what he witnessed, including the Today Show, MSNBC, the New York Times, Fox News and CBS.

When McDonald was driving back to Boston later that night, he overheard Meagher’s name on the radio. When he initially heard Meagher’s name, he was frightened that something had happened to him. It was quite the opposite.

“I come to find out later that his name was mentioned because he was doing something heroic, not because he was a victim of the bomb, so I was very happy,” Jack said.

Meagher has been flooded with texts, emails and messages over the past few days, from people who keep thanking him and calling him a hero.

“They’re saying to me, which I have a very difficult time dealing with, is, ‘You are a true hero,’ and I don’t consider myself to be a hero,” Meagher said. “What I did, I would hope, would be what any other red-blooded American citizen to do, for us to help people who are seriously injured or hurt. That’s what I did. It never ever entered my mind that I was putting myself in harm’s way.”

On April 21, Meagher went to New Bedford, Mass., for a ceremony that honored Keith Francis, a former New Bedford High School and Boston College runner who passed away in July 2011. McDonald and Meagher attended the funeral. On Sunday, New Bedford High School honored Francis by renaming its track after him.

“I don’t consider myself to be a hero. What I did, I would hope, would be what any other red-blooded American citizen to do … It never ever entered my mind that I was putting myself in harm’s way.” – Tom Meagher

At the ceremony, several people gave speeches, including the town’s mayor, a former Boston College administrator, school committee members and Meagher. Meagher was introduced not only as one of Francis’ former coaches, but being a “hero” for risking his life at the Boston Marathon.

He had a speech prepared, but when the crowd gave him a standing ovation, he had to recollect his thoughts.

“Thank God there was a standing ovation because I was like a wreck for about a minute,” Meagher said. “I had to pull my head together, pull my thoughts together.”

While Meagher downplays his actions, he knows the experiences are now part of his life.

“He’s probably out doing what we all should be doing, and that’s getting back to our normal lives as fast as we can,” Jack said. “If I know Tommy, that’s what he’s doing.”

Jack knows the Boston Marathon is one of the great cathedrals of sport. He hopes the bombings don’t deter anyone from attending it, and also thinks that it will bring people together more than ever.

“I hope the whole world runs the Boston Marathon next year,” Jack said. “I hope there’s a million people that run the course. I think that this is going to bring more attention.”

When the McDonalds regrouped and returned home to their small cottage outside of Boston, they sat around the table and ate pizza. Still shocked at the day’s events, Jack remembers looking around the table, staring at one another in silence. They didn’t need to talk about what happened. They didn’t want to ask any questions. They knew they were right where they should be: together at home. Safely.

“We didn’t want to have anyone fall out of our sight that whole evening,” Jack said.

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