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Jaywalking: Healing run

Five minutes may not seem like a lot of time, but for Greenfield’s Jack McKenzie, it may have been the difference between life and death.

One year ago, McKenzie was running in his 22nd Boston Marathon. He thought it was going to be his swan song. At the age of 59, he thought it was time to retire from marathon running. He crossed the finish line 2 hours, 44 minutes after he began the 26.2-mile run. Five minutes later, at the 2:49 mark of the race, disaster struck when a pair of bombs exploded at the finish line. McKenzie was still in the vicinity of the finish line. Like most people that cross the line at the Boston Marathon, McKenzie was euphoric. He had just received a medal around his neck and was quietly celebrating the accomplishment, which he said never gets old no matter how many times you do it.

But all of the good feelings were quickly shattered, replaced by the sounds and sights of the first explosion.

“You can’t imagine how loud it was,” McKenzie said. “I was going through a ton of emotions. They put that medal around your neck and you have a feeling of ecstacy. That was all taken away.”

Instead, those emotions were replaced at first by confusion and then by fear. He said there was a woman next to him at the time of the first explosion that thought it was some sort of a celebratory explosion.

“A woman next to me laughed and shouted, ‘The British are coming, the British are coming,’” McKenzie recalled. “I said to her, ‘Are you crazy?’ I knew they wouldn’t shoot off cannons or anything like that. And right after I said that to her the second bomb went off.”

He said the look on the woman’s face showed she realized something was wrong, a fact McKenzie had already picked up on.

“I didn’t know what was happening, but when that second bomb went off, I knew something bad was happening,” he said.

McKenzie said he can still remember how great the volunteers were following the explosions. He began making his way away from the scene of the bombings, wanting to head toward Boston Common and get away from tall buildings. At the same time, he was also filled with worry about his family, which had been at Mile 25 to cheer him on and was making its way toward the finish line to congratulate him. McKenzie did not have his cell phone on him, and it may not have mattered anyhow, since most of the cell service in the area had gone dead. As he vacated the scene, he also began looking for someone with a working cell phone so he could try to contact his family.

Finally, he met a girl who had a working phone and he placed multiple calls to his family, although their phones were among the many that were apparently not working. Coincidentally, as he began to give the girl his phone number, she recognized it as a Greenfield-area number and as it turned out, she was there with Andrew Kunhardt, a Greenfield-area man McKenzie knew. He said it was nice to see a familiar face among the chaos. Finally, he got in contact with his family and they were reunited some time later, all safe and unharmed.

While there was no physical scarring from the explosion, McKenzie did suffer emotional damage, namely the fact that he developed a fear of backpacks and fireworks. McKenzie said that last July he had to watch the fireworks from a far corner of Lunt Field in Greenfield.

“I didn’t want to be around large crowds when loud noises were going off,” he said.

McKenzie is also a hiker, which means spending plenty of time wearing a backpack, but he found himself fearful of them, since the two bombs were carried in backpacks. He has since recovered from both of those fears, but after what happened last year, McKenzie decided to put off retirement from marathon running for one more year.

He wanted back into the Boston Marathon this year. The only problem was that he did not qualify to run. Because the Boston Marathon is so popular, runners must either meet elite qualifying times or raise thousands of dollars for charity. Qualifying can be done either by using last year’s time from the Boston Marathon, or by completing another marathon. McKenzie’s time from Boston last year was nine minutes off the qualifying mark. He tried to qualify again last summer by running a marathon in Canada, but fell about seven minutes short. As it turned out, it mattered little, anyhow. After the bombing, so many people wanted to run this year’s race that the initial registration opened only to those individuals who beat the qualifying time by 20 minutes. About two weeks after that, it was opened to anyone who beat the qualifying time by 10 minutes. At that point, the race filled up.

McKenzie was out of luck — or so he thought. All of his luck changed one morning while listening to Rock 102’s morning show duo of Bax & O’Brien.

If you happen to listen to the morning show, you might question how Bax & O’Brien could contribute to McKenzie’s recovery, being known more for spewing jokes than therapeutic advice. But one morning back in November, McKenzie was listening to the show when Bax & O’Brien were discussing the morning news. One item that was brought up was an essay contest being put on by the Boston Athletic Association. People were asked to write a 250-word essay about how they were “personally and profoundly impacted” by last year’s bombing. McKenzie checked it out online and decided to submit an entry about the development of his two fears. He said the hardest part was keeping it to just 250 words. Nearly 1,200 entries were submitted and officials trimmed the entries down to 467 runners who earned a race bib.

McKenzie ended his essay with the sentence “It would be an honor to run for all who suffered,” and that is exactly what he will do on Monday when he lines up with the rest of the field on East Main Street in Hopkinton for the start of the race. And when he crosses the finish line on Boylston Street in Boston, he will have completed his 23rd and final Boston Marathon.

Those final steps to the finish line may not only be the final steps of the race, but for McKenzie and thousands more, they will be a few more steps towards recovery.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com.

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