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APS Award Recipient Runs Boston Marathon; Finishes Shortly Before Tragedy Strikes

By Michael Lucibella

Feryal Ozel of the University of Arizona was the recipient of this year’s Maria Goeppert Mayer Award, but she couldn’t attend the APS April Meeting in person to receive her certificate. She was fulfilling a long-time dream of hers, to run in the Boston Marathon. She described how the day turned from one of determination and triumph to an unimaginable tragedy. 

“It’s the Holy Grail for any distance runner,” Ozel said. “Something celebratory and historical… For that to be destroyed like this, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.”

Started 116 years ago, the Boston Marathon is the oldest organized marathon in the nation. It’s one of the most difficult, and, because of its legacy, the most popular. With so many people trying to register, Boston’s is the only marathon in the country that requires runners to qualify for it with minimum times. Ozel first made the grade three years ago and promptly registered for the following year’s race.

However before she could run, she received an invitation to speak at a high profile international conference on the day of the marathon.

“It wasn’t a colloquium, it basically had to be on the day of the Boston Marathon,” Ozel said, “I said I better not turn this talk invitation down, so I didn’t go [to the race].”

She was disappointed, so the next year she made sure to keep her schedule clear. However a rumor started circulating that the race requirements were about to get much more restrictive, and runners from across the country worried that their times wouldn’t be fast enough for future races. Most years, registration stayed open for eight weeks, but this time it filled up in only seven hours and Ozel missed her chance.

“I said, ‘OK, third time is the charm. I’m going to actually run it this year.’”

As race day neared, Ozel realized she was facing another conflict. She was set to receive the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award in Colorado on Sunday evening. Twelve hours later and 1900 miles away, the starting gun would sound at the Boston Marathon.

“I’m extremely grateful for the award, but I can’t do this for the third time when I really want to run this marathon,” Ozel said. “I came very close to saying ‘I can’t not get my award this April.’”

Ozel was already spending the year in the Boston area as a Radcliffe Institute fellow. She also had family and friends living nearby.

“It’s not the same if you fly out by yourself and there’s nobody on the course to meet you,” Ozel said. “My friends and family are here right now and they all wanted to come out and see it so I’m not going to blow this opportunity.”

The morning of the race started out like any other. The sky was clear and the temperature was in the low 50s.

“It was a good race,” Ozel said. “The weather was perfect. So many spectators on the course.”

Fellow runners had warned her that some of the “cheer tunnels” could be almost deafening. The streets were filled with onlookers, sometimes five people deep.

“It has a lot of energy, it has a lot of history,” Ozel said. “It’s a tough course because of the hills, but I really felt great running it.”

Ozel finished in three hours and 28 minutes, forty minutes before the attacks. She walked around the finish area for a short while to meet up with friends and family and to collect her finisher’s medal and belongings. Together, she and seven companions walked up the street to the Prudential Center, a large shopping complex a block from the finish line. Just as they were entering the front doors, two pressure cookers rigged with explosives detonated within sight of the finish line.

“I did hear the explosion but in that first split second… I don’t think any of us quite put it in place that this was a bomb going off,” she said. “Very quickly the panic started. Then it occurred to us what had happened.”

Everything stopped. Police ordered everyone to shelter inside the center. The cell phone system in the area crashed. Ozel and her family were supposed to meet another group of friends, but they were on the other side of the attack and had been evacuated in the opposite direction. News about the grave injuries that people suffered near the blast started to spread by word of mouth.

After two tense hours of waiting, the police came through and announced that the whole center was being cleared out. People started leaving from the far side of the building, into a city that was shut down. Trains and buses had stopped running, and traffic was being diverted away from downtown. Even though she had already run 26.2 miles, Ozel, her friends and her family had to walk nearly three more miles across the Harvard Bridge into Cambridge to find a cab and finally make it home.

“Once I realized we are ok and we’re going to have to basically do that walk…to get home, I think that’s when tears started to come down,” she said. “The shock of it really started sinking in at that point.”

Over the next few days, while the city of Boston searched for the attackers and tried to make sense of what had happened, runners across the country began organizing meets in support of Boston. Almost immediately, Ozel started receiving messages from her old training groups in Tucson, San Francisco and Chicago where people were organizing runs to show support. She said the running community is one that refuses to be intimidated.

“I wasn’t planning to run Boston next year,” Ozel said. “I really wanted to do it once, to be part of it, but I didn’t ever think that I was going to be one of these return Boston marathoners. And now I’m pretty sure that I’m going to come back and run it next year.”


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella