Remembering the 2013 Boston Marathon
It was less than half an hour, enough time for Katie (Loosvelt) Collignon and Erin (Miller) Whitney to navigate their way through the cool-down area, take some pictures with friends at the finish line and make it back up Boylston Street to the nearby Boston Park Plaza hotel where they were staying. The former Ferris State basketball teammates had sat down to have lunch, relax and revel in their completion of the city's 117th marathon on April 15, 2013. "You're on top of the world, like, oh my God, I actually did it," Collignon said. "The race is wonderful. There are so many fans and people. It was a gorgeous day, just beautiful running weather. You're in a euphoric state of mind from running. You're on the high of your life." As the two were waiting to eat, they heard a bang Collignon first thought to be fireworks. It seemed odd to be going off for the four-hour runners and they were even more confused seconds later when there was a similar sound. "There was a couple nearby, she ran it in two (hours) something, and the husband was the first one to say, 'I don't think this is good news,'" Collignon said. In a matter of minutes, initial news of an explosion in the subway turned out to be a pair of explosions near the finish line. "You go from feeling so wonderful to thinking, what is going on?" Collignon said. "I couldn't wrap my head around it." The tenor of the hotel lobby quickly changed to panic, exacerbated by spotty cell phone service. People on the street, including runners who had their own races halted, were shuttled inside. No one could leave as the building was basically put on lock-down. The scene on the street was straight out of a movie, filled with streams of heavily-armed SWAT teams and police personnel. "It was like a war zone, it was surreal," said Collignon, who was 23 at the time. "You don't know what happened, who did it, if you're under attack. It just got more scary. It's all just a few blocks away from where we are, and we're watching it on TV." Eventually, Collignon and Whitney were able to get to their hotel room and contact anxious family who had heard about the explosions but couldn't reach either of the women to find out if they were OK. "My mom still taught school at the time and this is the middle of the day," Collignon said. "She tried my cell but couldn't get through." Soon, Collignon began to replay portions of the race in her mind, speculating on how if it had unfolded just a little differently that she could have been crossing the finish line at fateful four-hour mark, the busiest point of the marathon's end, rather than three hours, 35 minutes. The explosions, caused by pressure cooker bombs made by Afghani terrorists Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed three people and injured 280 others, including 16 victims who lost limbs. "Boston's different than other marathons," Collignon said. "They bus you out at 6 a.m. and you don't run until 9:30. You're sitting outside in a school yard, waiting. I drank a whole Gatorade, which I never do. I was out of my routine. I was very nervous. I got to mile 18 and I wasn't feeling good. Erin and I planned to run the whole thing together. I almost said, go on without me, but she said no, we're going to keep where we're at and finish it." Each April, as the running of the Boston Marathon comes around -- this year's race was scheduled for April 20 before the COVID-19 pandemic caused it to be pushed back to September -- Collignon reflects on what she calls a life-changing experience. With Wednesday's race anniversary, a memory reminder from her April 15, 2013 Facebook posts, images and a couple hundred well-wishes, appeared on Collignon's home page. "It all comes flooding back," she said. "(Whitney and I) always talk this time of year, can you believe it was that long ago? I look back at that moment, if it wasn't for her sticking with me, saying, you've got this, I would've been awful. There were times I thought I wasn't going to finish, my body wants to walk. If I had run by myself, it would've probably taken me another 25, 30 minutes." While she was an elite high school athlete and a college basketball player, Collignon did not have a background in running. She'd never done more than three, four miles at one time. But the year prior, a friend urged her to try a 26.2-miler. Never one to shrink from a challenge, she did the New Jersey Marathon as a bucket list item of sorts, and she wasn't far off the Boston qualifying time. "I'm not even a real runner, but anyone who knows me knows if I do something, I go all in," she said. "I'm going to have a plan and a goal." Collignon returned to run New Jersey the following year with four teammates. At the 20-mile mark, she heard the magical words, 'You're on Boston pace,' and kicked it in to beat the cutoff by three minutes. Collignon submitted her entry for Boston and quickly received her confirmation. "Boston's like the Super Bowl of marathons," she said. "I was going to just run my best and be done with it." In the days and weeks after the race, Collignon's feelings turned to anger over the tragic aftermath and how thousands of finishers were deprived of the satisfaction of the achievement. "I heard wonderful stories of how runners could wear their medals out around the city and they'd treat you like royalty," she said. "You don't expect to run a marathon and lose your life. It's such a wonderful thing and someone robbed us all of a great experience. It's so sad for people to have a great moment tainted that way." Collignon and Whitney used the 'Boston Strong' mantra as incentive to return to run the race again in 2015. "We've got to come back and do it right, show that we're stronger than this, like a 'you're not going to scare us' type of thing," Collignon said. She qualified out of the 2014 Bayshore Marathon in Traverse City, Michigan and returned to Boston the following April, knocking four minutes off her prior time with a 3:31 and change. Steady rains made race conditions miserable and cancelled post-race festivities at Fenway Park, but the weather couldn't dampen her spirits. "It felt great to go back there and support Boston and the running community," Collignon said. "It was the most patriotic, American thing I've ever felt. I can't describe the feeling of accomplishment." Collignon subsequently married her husband Brad and took the positions of girls basketball coach and athletic director at Marquette Catholic in 2016. While she's still a fitness fanatic, the constraints of time and the aches and pains that don't go away so quickly anymore have scaled back her marathon endeavors. She did her last one in Chicago in 2017 and plans to eventually do others, possibly even internationally. "I want to do another one," Collignon said. "I'd like to do Detroit. It's the closest to home and it's pretty cool because it crosses into Canada during the race. Running is such a different sport. You learn so much about yourself. It's you versus you. That's the beauty of the sport."
Marquette Catholic Athletic Director and girls basketball coach Katie Collignon (right) ran with Ferris State teammate Erin (Miller) Whitney in the 2013 Boston Marathon that was marred by the terrorist bombing near the finish line roughly 25 minutes after the pair had completed the race. They returned to run it again two years later. (Photos provided)