Ella Pittman: Remaining Boston Strong

interviewed by Claire Herlin '15, MHC Equestrian team member

As Marathon Monday approaches, Mount Holyoke student-athlete Ella Pittman prepares to tackle the Boston Marathon for the second year in a row.  Finishing at 2:47pm last year, roughly three minutes before the first explosion, Ella completed the race, her first marathon, in just under four hours.  I had the privilege of hearing from Ella as she recounted her experience in the Marathon and the subsequent tragedy that followed.

What does being at the race say about the drive, commitment, and resiliency of both runners and volunteers?

To me, running in or volunteering at a race the scale of Boston shows a desire to be among the elites in the sport. It's a privilege to run Boston. Even though I was a charity runner, as opposed to a qualifier, I felt proud to participate in the same race as Olympic distance runners.

Training for a marathon speaks immensely to someone's drive and commitment. Training in college has its advantages, like a slightly more flexible schedule to fit in runs, but it's also challenging to balance responsibilities. I've noticed that academic stress seriously affects my performance and ability to push. As an athlete, the art of balancing is even harder because you're asking your body to do so much while staying healthy. Running is only part of what is time-consuming.

Talk about your experience last year at the Boston Marathon.

When I think about the 2013 Boston Marathon, I think about it in two parts: everything that happened before 2:50pm and everything that happened afterward.

Nothing compares to running Boston. As I was out on the course, I remember thinking that this is how the Patriots must feel when they run through the tunnel at Gillette Stadium. The energy from the crowd is infectious. Every step of every mile, thousands of people cheer you on even though they have no idea who you are. Sometime between the 10K and the half, some guy passed me wearing a hamburger suit. Just before the half there were a bunch of people jumping on mini trampolines. Fans updated us on the Sox game throughout, writing the current score on white boards and letting us know that the Sox beat the Rays 3-2. The atmosphere was just one of the coolest things.

I'd gone into Boston doing exactly what a marathon rookie is not supposed to do: run with a time goal. Two weeks before race day, I'd noticed my times had dropped significantly and I began to toy with the idea of breaking 4 hours, which means I'd have to average 9:08/mi.

On race day, when I reached the halfway point, I felt more tired than I would have liked. My half split was 1:59:57, meaning that I had to run the second half of the race, the harder half in terms of the hills and fatigue, faster than the first. I weighed my options. If I picked up speed, I risked crashing and burning later on in the race, especially with Heartbreak Hill at mile 21. If I let go of the four hours, I knew I could finish fine but I'd be furious at myself if I came in at 4:01, 4:02 or 4:03. I thought about my team. I'd written our psych-up phrase, "Go Fight Win," on my left hand to remind myself that my team was behind me. If they were here, I realized, I'd push and leave it all on the course. And that's what I did. My teammates were the reason I was able to cross the finish line before the bombs went off.

Training around Mount Holyoke prepared me to tackle the Newton Hills. The Newton Hills aren't themselves hard, but you run them for miles 17 through 21, and your legs are exhausted. I trained for that by running up Mount Skinner on mile 13 or 14 of my 20 mile-long runs. When I got to the top of Heartbreak, I gave my best friend (a BC student) a big hug, danced in a circle and shouted, "I'm going to make it!!!" She had no idea what I said, but I knew I could break four hours. I took off into Brookline.

 What my training did not prepare me for, however, were those last five miles. I expected the energy from the crowd to carry me, but after having absorbed it for the past three hours, I was dead to it. By mile 22, I was doing the survival shuffle. Things that had never hurt during training throbbed, and I felt blisters on my left foot getting rubbed raw. I kept hearing Tim McGraw's "How Bad Do You Want It?" in my head. Although I knew I was going to make it, it was going to be close, and I had no room to slow down.

When I finally turned right onto Hereford, I thought, "Are you kidding? It's uphill!" Then I made that left onto Boylston, and the blue arches over the finish line came into view. It sank in that I was about to finish the Boston Marathon. Me, the kid who didn't believe she was a "real" athlete, was about to complete the most famous marathon in the world. I felt the runners pick up speed around me. I begged my legs to go faster, to which they replied, "ABSOLUTELY NOT."

I don't remember crossing the finish line. I remember feeling my phone on my arm buzz and seeing a text message from my roommate. I was futzing with my phone, trying to take a picture of the blue arches just beyond the finish line. One of the volunteers tried to usher me along, saying, "You'll get to come back for that picture." I had a weird premonition that if I didn't snap that picture, I wouldn't get it. The next thing I remember is "boom."

"They must be shooting fireworks," I thought. "Wait, they only shoot off fireworks from the harbor. We're nowhere near the harbor." Then I turned around. A giant plume of smoke was emanating from a building. I watched as another blast went off and the fire from it penetrated through the smoke. I had no doubt it was a terrorist attack.

I called my parents immediately, franticly redialing when neither answered. When they did, they were so calm. I later learned they'd thought it was an electrical explosion. At that point I was numb. I got my medal, my blanket, and my Gatorade and went to pick up my bag from the buses. I'd gotten my bag and was zipping up my black Patagonia when a stampede came at me yelling "run!" From what, I had no idea, but I knew I'd rather die quickly in an explosion than get trampled.  I took off in front of the pack.

It's a weird thing to be running away from something but not know what you're running from or where you're running to. I scrambled over the barricades and finally stopped outside of a Burberry. At that point I started crying. I was so overwhelmed and exhausted and couldn't think anymore. Two women waited with me until my parents came. Then we walked out of Boston, trying to wrap our heads around what had happened, fielding calls from friends and family, and gathering bits of news from people on the street. Surreal was the only way to describe it.

How did that experience change you?

Around mile 13 I realized that I would walk off the course a different person. To push that hard for that long taught me how strong I was. When they say a marathon is really about the first 20 miles and the last 6.2, they aren't kidding.  That last 6.2 miles of Boston taught me to break through the mental barrier of pain and exhaustion. I learned that I have more than a second or third gear; I have more when everything else is gone. My family and friends helped me get to the start line, but that race was mine and mine alone. Training had paid off, and that's such an empowering feeling.  Unfortunately, the fact that I'd just run the Boston Marathon (in what I would later learn was 3:59:14) didn't have a chance to sink in.  

Accepting the fact that I'd run a great race was really hard. It's something that I still struggle with. I felt (and still feel to an extent) that I didn't deserve to finish; I was fast and finished because I was young. My NEPCF teammates and many other runners who'd trained as hard as I had didn't get that reward.

The race has definitely made me more anxious in public settings. I'm more alert than I was, and I startle at loud noises I can't see. I'm more suspicious of strangers. On several occasions I've found myself thinking, "Wouldn't this be an easy place for someone to bomb – lots of people, minimal security?"

Did you have any hesitation in returning for this year's race?

As a runner, absolutely not. That was one of the ironies – I have rarely felt so protected as I did on the course. Members of the National Guard were posted maybe every half-mile. I also tell myself that if something were to happen, at least I'm doing something that I love. That being said, I've told my friends and family that I don't want them anywhere near the finish line.

Above photo (top & cover) taken during MHC's Run 4 Boston event, held shortly after the bombings, featuring Pittman in the lead with her marathon bib and medal. Action photo of Pittman riding courtesy of RJB Sports Photography.