Stephen Kovacev
Stephen Kovacev
April 15, 2013. That morning was a typical New England Boston Marathon morning in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. The sun was rising and the cool early spring fresh air had its perennial chill. I had met up with my fellow Achilles Athletes, an organization for athletes with disabilities, who had come from New York. It was race time and I would see many of them several times throughout the long run and festive atmosphere that day. It was my 20th marathon.

With only a half a mile left to the finish line, I had just passed the 25th mile marker. I was on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston and preparing to go down into the underpass tunnel beneath Massachusetts Avenue when I suddenly heard fellow runners saying, "The marathon has been stopped." I could not believe what I was hearing. But it became clear that no one was allowed any further. The police officers were just calmly standing there, not informing us of anything. At that moment, I was aware of police cars and unmarked cars and a cacophony of ambulance sirens.

I, like many runners, do not carry a cell phone during marathons. I can always borrow one. I noticed a young man with a female friend who had her bicycle with her among the crowd on the sidewalk. The young man had a cell phone. I walked over and asked, "What’s going on?" He said there was a bomb, maybe two, or that it may have been an explosion. He seemed stunned. My thought was, "God, please, not a bomb!"

It turned out he was near the explosion. He was wearing shorts. I saw his right leg was splattered with blood. I realized he was in shock. I asked the young man if I could borrow his cell phone. "I can’t get any service," he said. Someone next to him said, "I can’t get any either." I looked around and saw no one was getting any cell service. I looked back at the young man and then he told me, "I came from the blast."

People were on cell phones trying to get information. A young female runner next to me said text is working and said, "My mother is watching the TV. They’re reporting that two bombs went off near the finish line." Another young female next to me, holding a cell phone in her hand, started crying hysterically, "My family is at the family waiting area. I can’t get through to them." My gut reaction was to comfort her. I grabbed her in my arms, hugged her and kept saying, "They’re okay. They’re okay. Trust me, they’re okay." Could I really be sure?

Stephen Kovacev and Dick Traum
Stephen Kovacev (left) and Dick Traum, president and founder of Achilles International
I would later learn cell phone service had been turned off in case they were linked to more bombs. Runners were shivering. No one could get to his or her bag at the finish line. It seemed like an eternity until the police eventually rerouted us around the finish line bomb area. People along the way trickled out of their buildings with water and boxes of plastic trash bags for us to drape ourselves in. As we solemnly walked along the alternative route, I looked up at the gleaming windows of the John Hancock Tower thankful that buildings were not coming down as in 9/11. We reached the hastily rearranged baggage pick-up area. As we crossed Boylston Street I looked down towards the finish line. It was surreal. It looked like a war zone.

I saw a Boston Marathon volunteer directing people and asked her where the buses back to Hopkinton were. She was not sure and asked a senior volunteer. That volunteer did not know and used her walkie-talkie to find out. Suddenly the police started yelling, "Clear the area. There are more bombs!" I looked up and down the street at the volunteers. None of them were leaving! It was strange, not even the runners were leaving. How brave these volunteers were in the face of terror to stay and continue helping us. Much more than just kindness.

At that moment, cell service was restored. I was lent a cell phone and called my partner Rick at work. Then it struck me how we had made the right decision the night before. He had gone to work instead of meeting me at the finish line. I got through to Rick and told him I would walk to his place of work and catch a ride with him out of the city.

What began as a beautiful annual event turned into a day of terror. As an AIDS survivor, the Boston Marathon has been the mechanism for my physical and spiritual survival. Will I be ready to run the Boston Marathon again next year? I believe I will.

Stephen Kovacev was diagnosed with AIDS in 1992. The Massachusetts resident thought he was on his deathbed in 1996, but he eventually recovered. To honor his dead friends and to prove there is life after an AIDS diagnosis, Kovacev ran the Boston Marathon in 1997 and he has done so regularly ever since. He is currently writing a book titled Soul of the Phoenix, which is expected to be published in 2014.