Bombing turned triumph to terror for Ballston Spa runner
BALLSTON SPA Courtney Kelleigh sprinted as the second bomb exploded Monday at the Boston Marathon.
As other runners peeled away from the course, spectators fled and officials yelled for people to leave the scene, Kelleigh ran.
In pain, exhausted and mentally numb at the end of her 26.2-mile journey, the Ballston Spa woman held fast to her desire to finish the race.
“I heard it,” she said of the second bomb. “I knew that I shouldn’t keep going, but I wasn’t going to stop.”
She ran for her father, Hugh, 49, who lies paralyzed and unable to speak in a nursing home because he suffers from multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.
She can’t wait to show him the medal she got for finishing the race, and for Kelleigh, 22, that is a reason to feel happy about Monday. Even the race’s tragic ending can’t dampen her happiness at achieving what was just a dream a few years ago.
“I felt so privileged to be among this pack of impeccable people,” she said.
It’s the second marathon she ran for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, after a 2011 run in Orlando, Fla., for which she trained for just two weeks. For Boston, she trained two hours a day and raised $4,500 for autoimmune disorders.
Kelleigh finished in 4 hours and 25 minutes, about 15 minutes after the first bomb exploded near the finish line at 2:50 p.m. She was one of the last people to finish before officials shut the race down.
She never heard the first bomb. When the second one detonated several seconds later, she was within earshot and running toward that area.
“At first, I thought it was fireworks,” she said. “I heard a loud explosion and screaming.”
Since it was near the end of the race, she was running with all she had.
“You’re just sprinting as fast as you possibly can,” she said. “Nothing can stop you.”
Conscious thoughts are pretty much gone for runners at that point.
“You’re not processing anything. You’re not actually in a mindset in any way. It’s all physical,” Kelleigh recounted Tuesday afternoon after arriving back in the Capital Region a day later than planned.
Unsure what to do in the chaos after finishing the race, she took a heat-reflective mylar blanket from a race volunteer and huddled with another runner against the wall of a nearby building, hoping their families would find them.
But as the minutes passed and they didn’t, Kelleigh went in search of her mother. With no cellphone, no food and only the sweaty clothes she had on, she wandered the streets.
She remembers thinking about the Titanic when she heard a bagpipe playing. She remembers crying. She remembers being covered in sweat, which turned to ice on her clothes.
“I was just totally alone and cold,” she said.
Her mother, Desiree, knew when she heard the bombs that her daughter would finish the race regardless. As she searched, desperately, among the throngs of people, love showed through the horror and the shock.
“Everybody was so kind,” she said. “I had a man and a woman who just followed me around the entire city” so she wouldn’t be alone as she looked for her daughter.
She lent her cellphone to others who needed one, though cell service was then cut.
Mother and daughter finally found each other after 21⁄2 hours, in the family meeting area. By that time, Courtney was freezing, and in danger of developing hypothermia. She didn’t even want to drink water because it seemed too cold.
“Nothing could really make me warm,” she said, not even a hot bath that night. “I still don’t feel warm.”
They walked south, away from the crowds, in case there were any more attacks in the populated area.
Courtney was ready for a rest, but the place where her mother led her — a grocery store — had no chairs.
The owner offered to let the Kelleighs come to the back and sit in his office until Courtney’s aunt came to get them.
They went back to her aunt’s home in Hopkinton, Mass., to spend the night. Their clothes and other belongings were all in the car, parked in a garage that was considered part of the crime scene, because they planned to leave right after the race.
They were finally allowed to get the car and leave Tuesday afternoon.
A day later, Kelleigh was still not sure how she felt about the whole ordeal.
As an emergency medical technician and a recent pre-med graduate who is applying to medical schools, “I’ve been in emergency medical situations,” she said.
But she can’t quite reconcile the high of participating in the elite marathon with the tragedy of three people killed and more than 170 injured, including several who lost limbs.
“The fans were so incredible. And why would you hurt them? They don’t deserve anything. They were just supporting us,” she said.
Her parents own Good Times Lakeview Restaurant in Ballston Lake. They met at the Boston Marathon, a fact Courtney found out only Sunday. Both were students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. After the race, they got Chinese food.
Hugh Kelleigh’s family all lives in the city. So Boston, and the marathon, are in Courtney Kelleigh’s blood.
Despite the tragedy, she hasn’t given up on running, as she told her mother when they finally found each other Monday.
“The first thing I told her when I saw her was, ‘I could do this again.’ ”