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'I came back to Boston to prove America will not give up'

Justin Walker after the Boston Marathon 2014. (click for larger version)
April 23, 2014 - When Justin Walker lined up at the starting line of the 2014 Boston Marathon on Monday, it wasn't an entirely new experience. He was about to mark his fifth running of the world's most famous race, and his 61st open marathon overall.

But while he had been here before, this marathon was different from all the others. A year ago, terrorists detonated two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people, injuring approximately 264 more, and stopping the race for thousands.

Walker, a 1999 Brandon High School graduate, had not run in a Boston Marathon in more than six years, but when he heard the news of the devastating events of April 15, 2013, from his wife Sarah, also a BHS graduate, he knew where he would be on April 21, 2014.

"I was angry," said Walker of the attacks. "Not surprised, since I always figured large events like New Year's Eve in Times Square and marathons are easy targets (due to) large amounts of people in a confined area. But I hated them for what they did. They took lives. They also took away that moment of accomplishment— that feeling of overcoming all that is tough in the world, and replaced it with fear and doubt... I run to accomplish— to push myself past the limits of my mind, and when I see that robbed from others, I get angry."

Walker, 33, did not change his training to run Boston— he runs 10-12 marathons per year and typically runs between 60-70 miles per week. However, he did have to travel nearly 8,000 miles in order to run 26.2 miles.

He and Sarah reside in Johannesburg, South Africa with their two daughters, Taelyn, 5, and Kaelia, 3. Walker is a middle school counselor at an international school and the family has made South Africa their home for the past four years. Previously, the Walkers lived in China for two years, during which time Justin raced and won the Great Wall Marathon.

As an expatriate, running the Boston Marathon this year was also an opportunity to show loyalty to his native country. He has no Memorial Day or Fourth of July celebration to be part of in South Africa. The closest he gets to showing patriotism is the Parade of Nations in which he and his children dress in red, white, and blue and walk in an annual celebration of all nations.

So on April 17, Walker boarded a plane for the long flight back to the U.S., arriving in Boston on April 18. Sarah and their girls remained in South Africa to celebrate Easter and save the family roughly $10,000. He attended the marathon expo, did a Samuel Adams brewery tour, and walked around the finish line and bombing areas, but mostly he waited for Monday morning and what he had come for— racing the Boston Marathon.

"Boston was amazing this year," Walker said. "Everywhere you went there were banners for the city, and the energy was vibrating through the air. I was feeling proud to be here and ready to commit myself to a day on the road in honor of all that this city and its race stand for. It is America's oldest marathon and technically the world's most continuous marathon and is always a great experience— be it a PR or terrible winds, or blazing heat. Boston is a bucket list race, an experience every time. I just wanted to really give it my all that day. My pre-race Facebook post was: 'Some people are mentally strong. Some people are physically strong. But to run today, you need to be 'Boston Strong.'"

He had no concerns about safety or fear of more bombings, noting he doesn't spend his life worrying about such things.

"Hell, there are enough times where I am lucky to survive a regular run on the roads. Statistically, I am about 1 billion times more likely to die in the car ride to the airport or even on the plane than I am at Boston. At any point in life, a car can hop a curb, debris can fall from the sky, or healthy hearts just stop. Why worry about these things? Live life. And isn't that the point of terrorism— to disrupt the general flow of those left behind after the attack? They want us to live in fear, to be too scared to go on with our daily lives. That is why I came back to Boston - to prove to them that America will not give up, that we will not cower in fear. The race will go on. We will run again."

And he, along with more than 35,000 others, did just that.

On Monday, Walker awakened at 4 a.m., dressed and packed a bag, then rode a bike three miles from the hotel to the buses that take runners to the starting line. The one-hour bus ride is actually the "cruelest" part of the Boston Marathon, he said. Upon getting off the bus, runners sit for approximately two hours in Athlete's Village, a school. For security reasons, runners could bring only what they wanted to discard, with no bags allowed for clothing. In normal years, the Athlete's Village look like a refugee camp, said Walker, with "a bunch of skinny people laying on cardboard boxes on the ground, wrapped in trash bags, waiting." This year, he said they looked even more homely, with "throw away" clothes.

The runners leave the village to walk nearly a mile to the start line, then wait there for 45 minutes.

Finally, he crossed the start line, calm even though with lots of runners at the beginning and narrow roads, the first couple miles were slow. He recalls passing Dick and Rick Hoyt. The father and son duo are famous for racing marathons with Dick pushing his son Rick, who has cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair. Walker also eventually passed Joan Benoit Samuelson, an American and the first women's Olympic marathon champion in 1984.

All along the course, he noted the crowds were amazing, with their energy carrying the runners through. At the 10-mile mark, Walker was on pace for his goal time of 2 hours, 48 minutes. He had not been doing speedwork in training, as his goal race this year is the Comrades Marathon, an ultra marathon of 56.1 miles in South Africa, to be held June 1. He had trained for distance and hills. Still, when he rolled into the "scream tunnel," the halfway point near Wellesley College, he decided he was going to go for his secret desire— a finish time of 2:45, which would be an automatic qualifier for the New York City and London marathons.

"I kept asking myself, 'How deep do you want to dig?'" said Walker. "I pushed from 13-16 miles which left me a bit tired going into the Newton hills. By the time I crested Heartbreak Hill, I was definitely feeling it. The hills themselves are not hard, but after the pounding and the pace, I relented a bit."

He tried to push from 21 miles on, thinking if he was behind about a minute, he could make it up, but every time he pushed, he started to "blow out and slow." His stomach soured and he had to decide whether to maintain pace or fall apart. He ran as hard as he could without pushing to where he would slow.

"It got very hard from 23 to 25 miles," he said. "I was at my limit and had not done any speed work to prepare me for running 6:20 a mile. I held on as best as I could, stumbling to the line. My last 2 miles were more than a minute per mile slower than my overall average! I was absolutely done."

Still, he finished in 2:47:23, a personal record by 3 minutes over a best he had set four years ago when he won a marathon in Canada.

When Walker crossed the finish line, he stumbled and weaved. Marathon volunteers grabbed him and helped him keep moving. He was in more pain than any other marathon he had finished, even ones that he had considered disasters. His stomach was a mess, his legs hurt "a lot." The volunteers kept congratulating him and he joked back that it wasn't a reward.

As if the 26.2 miles he had just finished weren't enough, he had to walk another mile to the subway, then walk again to the hotel and hustle to the airport for the 20-plus hour flight back to South Africa.

"I was dying," Walker said. "(But) the number of people telling me how great it was that I ran today was amazing. Nods, smiles, horn honks, cheers, thumbs up from every person from the race end til I boarded the plane. Boston lives for this race and it is special."

Walker's stay in Boston was brief, but unforgettable. Soon, he and his family will be on the move again. In August, they plan to move to Doha, Qatar in the Middle East, for new life and job opportunities. Walker will be a student services coordinator there. He notes that he and Sarah will probably never return to the U.S. to work, as they are both in the education field, one that is difficult to be in right now in this country.

"We live a good life and see the world," he said. "Our jobs here are different than they would be in the U.S. We get to work closer with children and with more current practices. We are fortunate enough to be able to travel the world, show our children different cultures, and save for the future. This is the life we have chosen and it will be one we stick with for the foreseeable future."

In Qatar, Walker said he will get back to playing ice hockey and perhaps training for his ultimate goal— climbing Mt. Everest. But no matter where he goes, Boston will always have a place in his heart.

"This was the most meaningful of all my Bostons and all my marathons," he said. "I really wanted to go there and be a part of the revitalization and prove that we can all do great things when tested."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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