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Originally published Sunday, April 21, 2013 at 3:41 PM

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Guest: Running the Boston Marathon was not a race, it was a state of mind

Running marathons teaches you no matter how good or bad you feel, that will change, writes guest columnist Amy Roe.

Special to The Times

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I enjoyed the article. Though, my marathon days have passed following back problems, I... MORE
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AFTER crossing the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, I leaned against a school bus, exhausted but elated, and pulled track pants over my shivering body.

To train for the race I ran 442 miles over 12 weeks, but none of that prepared me for what happened next.

A boom echoed throughout downtown. Another one followed. Looking down Boylston Street, I saw a plume of smoke rising above the buildings.

One thing you learn from running marathons is that no matter how good or bad you feel, that will change.

At mile 21, the crest of the famed Heartbreak Hill, Boston College students had erected a giant inflatable arch that declared, “The heartbreak is over.”

Now, past the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon, I sensed the heartbreak was only beginning.

In 2004, when I trained for my first marathon, I did it merely to say I had done one. My world felt chaotic; I didn’t know where I should live or what kind of work I should do, but running restored order. With a training plan, I had something to accomplish every day for the next six months.

That fall I ran my first marathon, Portland. On race day I realized that running isn’t really a solo sport. At times the breathing and footfalls of hundreds of runners were indistinguishable from my own. A marathon was something you had to do on your own, but we were all in it together.

Afterward, I was curious to see what it would take to run Boston, so I looked up the qualifying time for a woman my age: 3 hours 40 minutes, which seemed not just impossible but ridiculous. (The qualifying times have since gotten stricter.)

The Boston Marathon was the first race I ever saw live and in person. Late on Marathon Monday in 1996 I stood near the finish line and watched the stragglers come in. In the days leading up to the race, I had witnessed excitement of runners from all over the world coming into the city and how Bostonians embraced and celebrated them.

Boston was a dot on the far horizon, but I kept doing marathons anyway. When life got weird, running felt normal. Lost your job? Go for a run. Filed for unemployment? Run through that, too.

Dad in the hospital? There’s got to be a trail nearby.

After the bombs went off in Boston, I walked back to our hotel near Fenway Park. Dazed marathoners streamed along the sidewalks. The race had been called off before they could finish.

I fell in with a silver-haired veteran of the Boston Marathon, and we shook our heads in disbelief.

“The Boston Marathon?” I wondered aloud.

“Is nothing sacred?” he replied.

That night at a restaurant, I met a young woman who was half a mile from the finish line when she was forced to turn back. It was her first Boston Marathon. She couldn’t stop crying.

I asked one of her friends how I could help.

He said, half in jest, “Do you have an extra finisher’s medal?”

Before the bombs, sirens and heartbreak, I had glanced at my watch, which told me I would finish in 3 hours, 41 minutes and 27 seconds, which meant I had qualified for the 2014 Boston Marathon.

At the time it was cause for celebration, but in the days following the race I began to have doubts.

One thing you learn from running marathons is that no matter how good or bad you feel, that will change.

I heard some suggest that given the scope of tragedy in Boston, a marathon, with its focus on hours, minutes and seconds, is meaningless.

For many other runners and me, qualifying for Boston was a reason to press on, even when it looked as though we would never make it to the start.

Now that I’ve run it, I see the Boston Marathon not as a race, but as a state of mind — one that compels you to keep moving forward, even when there’s no longer a finish line.

Amy Roe is editor of Real Change, the Seattle nonprofit newspaper sold by homeless and poor people. She has been working on a book about the Boston Marathon.

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