The 127th running of the Boston Marathon, on Monday, April 17, will be one of the most emotional sporting events of the year — coming 10 years after the terrorist bombings in 2013.
For Elizabeth Hartwig, a first grade teacher at Blessed Savior West in Milwaukee, the event is sure to stir up memories. She is one of 10 runners from around the country who have been chosen to run on the charity team of bombing survivor Rebekah Gregory — Rebekah’s Angels.
Hartwig finished the 2013 marathon about an hour before the bombs went off, went back to her hotel near the finish line to shower and was returning to Boylston Street to watch her brother complete his 26.2-mile journey. David Pollard ended up being listed as the second to last male finisher before the timing for the event was shut down.
She heard what sounded like a Dumpster being dropped or a cannon going off — it was Patriots’ Day — but didn’t think anything of it at the time. Hartwig got a call from Pollard telling her bombs had gone off and he didn’t know where their parents were. She kind of froze up on a side street, unsure of what to do, but it only took a few minutes for the family to reunite.
Police officers were hurrying people out of the area, including the street she was walking back on.
“They had no interest in keeping things calm and orderly,” Hartwig said. “I remember that being a little alarming. They weren’t trying to keep the crowd calm.”
The place she was intending to watch the finish of the race was in front of a running store where one of the two bombs went off.
“It’s one of those things I always think about,” Hartwig said. “If I had gotten out of the shower five minutes earlier, I would have been standing right there.”
When the family got back to the hotel, they were locked down for 18 hours, hearing sirens constantly and seeing military tanks roll by. The police checked them into the hotel, and they had a police escort the next day to the airport, where they were interviewed by Homeland Security.
When she got back to Milwaukee the day after the race, it was so surreal to her how everything was normal.
“That’s one of the reasons I felt like I had to go back in 2014,” Hartwig said. “I just felt like I had left such a piece of me there. Only people (who) were there understood.”
Two days after the race, she was back in her classroom teaching second graders.
Hartwig went back and ran the Boston Marathon again in 2014.
“Seeing the city’s resilience and strength was beyond inspiring and helped me remember that despite all of the horrible things that happen in our world, there is so much good,” Hartwig said. “God is at work in all of it. God cannot stop the evils of the world and there were moments of asking ‘why does God let things like this happen,’ but the strength I have witnessed in response to this tragedy has only strengthened my faith.”
While she was training for 2014, Hartwig adopted the Boston Strong slogan and developed a resolve that nothing was going to stop her.
“There was a little bit of hesitation,” Hartwig said. “As we got there, we started to realize there was probably nowhere safer in the world than Boylston Street (where the finish line is) that day. They had bomb-sniffing dogs and metal detectors and security checkpoints. They did a really good job of keeping it safe and secure.”
As she stepped to the starting line, she could see snipers on the rooftops.
“It was a different kind of feel,” Hartwig said. “You realize things are not the same anymore.”
After 2014, Hartwig took a break from running to start a family and deal with some of the emotions that came up after the 2013 experience.
“I had to go back (in 2014). I had to be there,” she said. “After that, I knew I wanted to start my family, but also my marathon medals went into a box. It just seemed really selfish and trivial to put them on display. I mean, people died, people lost limbs and people were emotionally and physically scarred from that experience. It was not something I wanted to celebrate, and it was hard to think about it doing again and talking about.”
She now has two boys — ages 6 and 3, the older one a student at St. Mary (Menomonee Falls), where she attended grade school.
In the months following the attack, Hartwig started following the story of Rebekah Gregory and became inspired by her courage and faith.
Rebekah Gregory was standing 3 feet away from where one of the bombs went off, and her 5-year-old son was sitting on her feet. Gregory took the full brunt of the explosion on the back of her legs while her son walked away unscathed — physically.
Since then, Gregory has had 76 surgeries and had one of her legs amputated. Because theirs was such a highly publicized case, Gregory and her son received specialized treatment for PTSD. She realized she wouldn’t have been able to afford that care if their case hadn’t received so much attention.
The mission of Rebekah’s Angels is to provide that kind of care for people suffering that kind of trauma, whether they can afford it or not.
Last summer, Hartwig emailed Rebekah’s Angels and laid out her story and said she would love to be part of their race team for the 2023 event.
They loved Hartwig’s story but had to make sure they would have charity bibs available for the race. When that was confirmed in October, Hartwig started training in earnest.
“The mission of her charity is very important to me, but also that connection to Boston and being there that day,” Hartwig said. “I just laid it all out there and asked her if she would consider me for a spot on her team.”
Hartwig’s love for running was nurtured in several ways, including watching her father, Dennis Pollard, run the Boston Marathon when she was a child, and the patience and belief of a track and cross country coach at DSHA named Fr. Jerry Herda, now the pastor at St. Matthias Parish (Milwaukee).
“He saw something in me that I could be good at this,” Hartwig said. “One of the things he did as a coach that kept me loving it my whole life is he kind of infused that prayer and meditation and reflection all into the sport for me. It’s just been my way to reflect and pray and talk to God ever since.”
She said when she was a kid, she would sneak a peek at her father’s running medals and be enamored with them.
“There’s always been this love of specifically this marathon,” Hartwig said. “When you’re there and you’re standing at that finish line, it’s like this pinnacle of human accomplishment and so much triumph and so much fanfare and awe.”
Despite the horrors of that Monday afternoon almost 10 years ago, Hartwig said in the time since — despite having her faith briefly shaken — she has seen the good that has also come from that day.
“There’s bad things that happen in this world,” Hartwig said. “That’s the point — we aren’t destined for this world. Our goal is to get to heaven because those things don’t happen there. While we’re here, we do good things, and we support each other and we have faith so that we can get to a place where those evil things don’t happen. That one act of hate, there have been all these acts of kindness and love and so much strength, and so many good things have come. That’s taken a long time to get to.”
To help out
As of late last week, Elizabeth Hartwig has raised a little more than $3,000 of her $10,000 fundraising goal.
There will be a Family Zumba Fitness Fundraiser for Hartwig and Rebekah’s Angels from 1 to 3 p.m. March 25 at St. Mary (Menomonee Falls) in the gymnasium.
Donations are being accepted at Good Miles Running Co. in Brookfield and Greenfield.
You can also donate online at https://www.givengain.com/ap/elizabeth-hartwig-raising-funds-for-rebekahs-angels-foundation/#timeline.