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In OKC, a run to finish what she started

By John D. Sutter, CNN
April 30, 2013 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
Victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing are remembered at the site of the blast, which abuts the starting line for the city's memorial marathon. Victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing are remembered at the site of the blast, which abuts the starting line for the city's memorial marathon.
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OKC runners remember two bombings
OKC runners remember two bombings
OKC runners remember two bombings
OKC runners remember two bombings
OKC runners remember two bombings
OKC runners remember two bombings
OKC runners remember two bombings
OKC runners remember two bombings
OKC runners remember two bombings
OKC runners remember two bombings
OKC runners remember two bombings
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Sutter went with a Boston Marathon runner to another marathon, in Oklahoma City
  • He also went to explore how his home city had gotten past 1995 Oklahoma City bombing tragedy
  • During marathon, he learned other stories of runners whose lives touched by that bombing
  • Sutter: A librarian he met embodied the yen to help others that can be a reaction to tragedy

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a human rights and social change columnist at CNN Opinion. E-mail him at CTL@CNN.com or follow him on Twitter (@jdsutter), Facebook or Google+.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (CNN) -- Sara Hunt, a 25-year-old with a big smile and an enormous sense of cheery determination, never seems to do anything halfway.

She loves softball, so she plays on four teams.

She felt out of shape last year, so she decided to run the Boston Marathon.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

When that race was hit with two explosions that killed three people and injured scores more, Hunt didn't want to wait until next year to complete her first marathon. She traveled to Oklahoma City over the weekend to run in one that memorializes the 1995 bombing that killed 168 people there.

She wanted to finish what she started.

I was struck by Hunt's courage: to want to run a marathon again after only 13 days of rest; to do so knowing that the closer she got to the finish line the more she would have to confront her memories of the bombing in Boston; to immerse herself in another city that knows tragedy all too well.

I was so impressed by her story -- by her desire to learn from the survivors in Oklahoma City -- that I traveled there to watch her run.

It was a homecoming of sorts for me. I grew up in the Oklahoma City area and heard the explosion that changed so many lives in my hometown.

Perhaps that is the reason I felt a personal connection to the people who were injured and killed at the marathon in Boston. And it's probably why I was so interested in a group of people online who were pledging to "Run for Boston" in the wake of that tragedy. Instead of being afraid, they laced up their shoes and hit the pavement. There's something powerful and symbolic in that action, and I decided to join them, pledging to run a marathon by the 1-year anniversary of the Boston bombing and creating an iReport page on CNN where you can sign up to do the same. So far, more than 300 people have.

I also used this trip as a way to explore in more detail how my home city has been able to move past the tragedy. OKC is known for all sorts of things now -- an NBA team with a humble superstar; a river that hosts world-class regattas; a weight-loss-crazy mayor; a new (and way-too-enormous) skyscraper that went up amid a recession, thanks to a boon in the natural gas industry. But when I lived here, when that bomb went off, tragedy defined the place.

For years, when I told people I was from OKC, the next question usually was, "Were you there during the bombing?" I rarely get asked that these days.

Hunt seemed to be on a similar journey of discovery, but for different reasons. In Boston, she had completed nearly 26 miles of the 26.2-mile route when the blasts ended the race.

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Of course, there were much greater tragedies that occurred that day. Spectators lost limbs. An 8-year-old boy was among the dead. But the attack shook Hunt. Now, sudden noises, like balloons popping, make her jump, sometimes to the point that she covers her head for protection. The sounds take her back to the moment she heard the blast and saw the smoke rising above Boston, when runners turned around in panic and rushed the other way. She was terrified, unsure what had happened.

"It was like being in a movie," she told me. "Seeing the trucks and bomb squads ... I'm from a small town. We don't even have police where I live."

For an hour and a half after the bombing, the young woman from Putnam, Connecticut, was unable to reach her mom, who had been standing at the finish line, near the explosions. Her mother was unharmed, but that was a frantic hour, spent begging strangers to let her use their cell phones.

So, Hunt came to Oklahoma City with a dual mission: She wanted to finish the race she had started, but she also wanted to look for clues about how to move through a tragedy, how to process it so it will cease to haunt her.

"It's another community that's gone through something like (the Boston bombing)," she said. "It's nice to talk to people who know what you've seen and gone through."

As it turned out, many of the clues she received came from strangers -- those she met on the course, and those who influenced its very existence.

'Runners are like the wind'

The thought that Oklahoma City could be bombed again had occurred to her.

But Hunt didn't want to let that interfere.

When she arrived downtown, before 5 a.m., a three-quarter moon hanging in the sky, the only change she made to her routine was to bring a cell phone.

She hadn't done that on a run before. But she wanted one in Oklahoma.

Just in case.

It was a chilly 50 degrees that morning. Runners gathered early for a sunrise service beneath an American Elm that locals call the "survivor tree." It nearly shriveled up and died after the bombing. Eighteen years later, it still has some scars and gnarly branches, but it's also tall and green and full of life.

Hunt listened as a preacher told the runners who had gathered in the dark for a blessing before the race that they didn't need to think about the path ahead. A higher power would carry them onward.

He encouraged them to think of each breath as "a sublime gift" from above.

Hunt didn't meet him, but standing elsewhere beneath the tree was Tom Kight, a 74-year-old Oklahoma City man dressed in a red pullover, in honor of Boston's Red Sox. (He couldn't find the socks, which many runners in Oklahoma City wore as a tribute to the victims in Boston.) He comes to this spot every year to remember his stepdaughter, Frankie Ann Merrell, who was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.

The service beneath the tree is a highlight of Kight's year. He loves the sunrise, the anticipation. The powerful symbolism of running for progress.

"Runners are like the wind," he said. "There's nothing that stops them."

Kight, who has knee problems that prevent him from running, has made it his personal mission to ensure that the names of all 168 Oklahoma City bombing victims appear on the jerseys of runners in the race.

It's important to him that the victims' names live on. Seeing the names gives new life to those who died here. And it brings him incredible comfort.

"We're not going to forget the people in Boston," he said. "You can rest assured."

'We will finish this race'

If the bombing wasn't already on Hunt's mind, it would have been impossible to escape it in the early morning hours in Oklahoma City.

Helicopters circled like buzzards. Police were everywhere. A moment of silence was held for the victims -- 168 seconds for Oklahoma City; three for Boston.

And then there was the location.

The race starts where the Alfred P. Murrah building once stood -- until the bombing on April 19, 1995. The memorial to that site -- a field with one empty chair for each victim and two large metal gates, marked 9:01 and 9:03, bookending that moment in time -- butts right up against the starting line.

The race begins on the 9:03 side, a symbol of moving forward.

But it's also a reminder that tragedy can strike anywhere, anytime.

Crowds were thick as more than 25,000 runners geared up to start. Some ran in quick circles to get loose. Others leaned on each other for warmth. One man swooshed his hips around in a hula-hooping motion. (Aren't these people about to get enough exercise?) A man barked over a loudspeaker in a voice that seemed more fit for a football stadium: "We stand as one, showing the world that good always overcomes evil ..." the voice said. "We will finish this race."

Even at the start, Hunt was unwaveringly sure she could do just that.

"I have good endurance," she told me beforehand. "I don't give up on things."

She wore a "Boston Strong" sign on her stomach and her race number from the April 15 Boston Marathon on her back. Two Boston bracelets dangled on her wrist.

Her get-up attracted the attention of another Boston runner, who decided to run the start of the race by her side. It turned out both had been turned around by the blast in Boston at nearly the same time. Both offered words of encouragement, Hunt told me. Together, they vowed to cross the finish, for themselves and for Boston.

'I couldn't move'

It wasn't long before Hunt's new running mate had left her behind. She didn't take offense at that -- this was her race and she intended to run it on her own terms.

The cheers of the crowd fueled her.

About an hour into the race, Hunt ran by Terri Talley, 45, who was dumping pitcher after pitcher of a yellow sports drink into tiny paper cups. Others passed the cups to the runners. Down the road, volunteers used rakes to scrape the empty cups into piles, as if they were cleaning up leaves from an autumn yard. "Celebration" was playing on an outdoor sound system when I walked up. A woman cheered through a megaphone. Others danced with pom-poms.

She doesn't tell any of the runners about it, but Talley, a peppy woman with blond highlights in her hair and small rhinestones on the temples of her glasses, worked on the third floor of the building that was bombed in 1995.

She was buried in the rubble and nearly died.

"I couldn't move," she said. "As hard as I tried to move, I couldn't move."

Talley was coming in and out of consciousness when rescue workers found her trapped in a vertical wall of rubble and debris. All they could see, she said, was her butt, which caught their attention in part because she was wearing a suit with a loud houndstooth pattern. She jokes that it's her backside that saved her.

"I always say, 'Thank you, Mom and Dad for giving me a nice size booty,'" she told me, laughing. That's something she's only been able to do with distance.

Three rescuers stayed through a second bomb scare, she said, to pull her from the rubble when others had left the disaster site, fearing for their lives.

"When they pulled me out, I was blue and I was losing oxygen. I probably would have died if they had left me" during the second scare, she said.

She still keeps in touch with one rescuer and her ambulance driver.

Talley said she'll never put the tragedy behind her. Eighteen of her 33 coworkers at a credit union were killed that day, she said. For years, she had nightmares. Blooming trees and flowers can cause her to slide into depression.

"Everything about the month of April makes you really, really think about that. Even though it's been 18 years, it seems like not so long ago."

On Sunday, the sun was out and flowers were in bloom. But Talley was in high spirits. Seeing all these strangers running for her friends who died, and in support of her ongoing recovery, is an intense and meaningful experience.

Her advice for runners like Hunt who experienced something in Boston that may change them for a long time, if not permanently?

Keep doing marathons -- or get deeply involved in another community activity.

"Always be around a marathon," she said. "Whether you can run it or not, there's such energy from a marathon."

'I'm not in New England anymore'

Hunt's energy reserves seemed nearly exhausted around the halfway mark. It's not that she was out of fuel, but she could feel a new tightness in her legs; she figured it was residual from the marathon she ran less than two weeks before.

I caught up with her briefly between miles 17 and 18.

She had spoken with her mom on the phone a mile or so before. That was a good pick-me-up, she said. Her mom is one reason she was running in the first place.

Hunt had never run a marathon before Boston, and was able to enter that time-regulated race because she was raising money -- about $3,000 -- for cancer research and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Her mom was diagnosed with a rare, cancerous tumor on her face about two years ago, she said. The treatment was "hard to watch," she said, because it involved radiation that burned her mother's face.

Hunt also had scares with cancerous cells in her cervix a few years ago.

She had only taken up running about a year before Boston. It started with a one-mile run -- she wanted to test herself. With characteristic gusto, she ended up running more than a dozen races over the course of the year.

Hearing her story makes me believe I'll be able to complete a marathon by next year. She makes it sound so easy. You just have to commit. And then go.

She trained largely by herself, and lost more than 50 pounds in the process.

As I trotted along beside her for five or 10 minutes, I noticed she was sweating, and she told me she hadn't expected it to be this hot or hilly in Oklahoma. Temperatures topped 80 degrees that afternoon. When I found her, she was walking down a hill in a neighborhood, conserving energy and taking it slow because of the heat.

"I'm not in New England anymore," she said.

Throughout the morning, she kept hearing sirens, too.

At one point an ambulance drove by, and she covered her ears. Those noises put her back in Boston, and the panic that followed the bombs.

'You gotta pay it forward'

Early in the morning, the pack of runners looked like a pulsing river of humanity, thousands of heads bobbing down the same stream, churning in a sort of collective, perpetual energy. From afar, it looked like no individual had to expend any effort.

Anyone could do this, I thought. It's like "Finding Nemo." Just keep running.

But around the halfway point, the runners, including Hunt, had thinned out into individual dribs and drabs. It became clear that some might not make it. There were people whose feet barely looked to be leaving the ground. Others were so drenched in sweat they almost looked as though they just popped out of a lake. It was sometimes frantic and painful to watch.

It suddenly made sense why there were medic tents nearby.

Apparently some people's nipples bleed by the time they reach the finish.

Running a marathon really is no joke.

Another person I saw near mile 17 was Gary Woodbridge, 47. He said he was so tired that he had left his earphones in his ears even though his phone had lost power.

Taking out the earphones would be too much effort, he said, smiling.

Woodbridge ran with a name on his bib: Ronota Newberry-Woodbridge.

That's the wife he lost in the Oklahoma City bombing.

"She always wanted to run a marathon and I finally lost enough weight where I thought I could try," he told me before the race. "I'm not getting any younger."

Memories of her, and their runs together, occupied his thoughts.

"I'm still moving," he said. "I feel every step."

Woodbridge waited 11 days to learn his wife was dead. He spent much of that time at First Christian Church, another site on the marathon route, which became a support center for families who were in that limbo. The thing that has helped him move forward from her death is talking to other people, he said. "Your grief is going to be very unique. It's going to be very unique to you," he said. "But there are people who have been through what you've been through."

Reaching out to help others was also important for him. He has volunteered to talk to kids who have lost loved ones. And he went to New York after the 9/11 attacks.

"I was shown so much love" after the Oklahoma City bombing, he said. "You gotta pay it forward."

As I walked back to the car from that spot in the course, I saw a man on one knee in front of a lamppost, one hand on the pole and head bowed.

I assumed he was vomiting. That wouldn't have seemed out of place.

But then I realized there was a banner at the top of the pole -- one of 168 signs with a name of an Oklahoma City victim on it. I gave him some space and then asked, after he'd rejoined the runners, if Antonio "Tony" C. Reyes, the name on the banner, was someone he'd known personally. A friend? A family member?

No, he said. "That's someone I run for every year."

He ran in honor of a stranger.

'Well, run with me'

Hunt found a bigger challenge at the 20-mile mark.

Before the race, she had insisted on not knowing the course route.

"If it's a hill, it's a hill," she said. "I'll have to run it.

So no one had told her that the last several miles of the Oklahoma City marathon course go gradually uphill toward the finish line.

Discouraged by the heat and the elevation changes, Hunt started walking again. The pain of the race was setting in. Maybe her legs weren't invincible after all.

But a woman from Tennessee came to her rescue.

She approached her and asked about the Boston number on her back. Hunt told her the story: the training, the bombing, the disappointment. And the fear. How it was too soon for even a serious marathoner to be running a race again.

How she was really just a beginner.

"She was like, 'well, run with me,'" Hunt recalled.

"It definitely helped."

So did the cheers from anonymous fans.

Soon, Hunt was approaching the mile-marker in the race where the bomb went off in Boston, when she saw the cloud of smoke rising from the city and the runners frantically turning the other direction and running in panic, fearing for their lives.

Instead of being afraid, she felt motivated.

"Once I hit the point where I stopped in Boston, I was like, 'No more walking. I'm running this. This race, this is for Boston. I'm finishing.'"

'On top of the world'

I saw Hunt on the home stretch, headed for the core of downtown Oklahoma City, with a smile plastered across her face. Fans stood on both sides of Broadway Avenue, ringing cowbells, shouting "woo!!" and "you got it!!" and "let's go!!!" All of that stuff would seem annoyingly over-energized on any normal Sunday morning. But here it was infectious. I found myself joining in, cheering hardest for the people who were walking or jogging the slowest, those who looked like they would barely make it. I saw one man stop to vomit and then continue toward the finish. I mean, wow.

No one seemed concerned about bombs or terror.

"We all run for a reason here!" an announcer said. "We run to remember!"

Hunt said she left the traumatic memories mostly behind on that last stretch.

When she crossed the finish line, after having that experience robbed from her in Boston, and knowing that so many people had so much more taken from them on that day, she threw her arms into the air. Tears came to her eyes, but she quickly wiped them away. She's too tough for that. "When I saw (the finish) I couldn't stop running," she said. "Even though I was dying, I wanted to keep going."

She added: "I'm on top of the world right now."

The thing that kept her moving was the aid of complete strangers.

'A step in her healing'

Earlier in the week, before the marathon, I met with Ernestine Clark, 69, who was in a library near the Murrah Building when it was bombed. I'd read about her story online and was amazed by the steps she'd taken to create something positive out of a horrifying experience.

I wanted to learn something from her about paying it forward. I thought it might help with my Run for Boston project, which essentially is trying to bring strangers together to support the people of that community.

And I also thought it might help Hunt.

Clark greeted me at her door with a smile on Saturday morning, wearing pearl earrings and red glasses. We talked for a while in her living room and then she told me she wanted to show me something in her backyard, which is well gardened and is filled with the soothing clang of wind chimes.

It was an elm, taller than her house.

She told me it grew from a tiny sapling from the survivor tree at the bombing site.

She put a metal sign at the base of the tree, explaining its origins -- that this tree grew out of tragedy and was now probably the best and sturdiest plant in the yard. When she dies and the house goes to someone else, she said, she wants the new buyer to know about the tree. That way, if he or she cuts it down, they'll know they're going straight to hell, she told me, laughing wildly.

Clark told me about the nightmares she had after the bombing. They lasted for three years. Many nights she dreamed she knew of an imminent bomb attack, but that she was unable to evacuate or warn people in time. She worked in the Oklahoma City library at the time of the bombing. It shattered the window and blew her out of a room and into a hallway. She told me how she staggered around downtown in a daze. All the buildings seemed like they were bending toward her.

"At times, I felt I was crazy," she told me. "I would look into the mirror and I would just not know who that person was. It took me down to the quick."

In an experience that parallels Hunt's, Clark once jumped under a table at dinner when the restaurant's air conditioner popped on suddenly. Shattering a drinking glass once brought her to tears. It reminded her of the glass that was broken in the bombing, that stuck in the sides of the survivor tree, and that made its way between the pages of many of the library's books.

When she couldn't sleep, Clark made a pact with another survivor to go sit in the dark at the bombing memorial downtown, where the OKC marathon begins.

They would sit in the dark in silence holding hands.

Just for comfort. Just to be there.

She also wrote. She bought her first computer after the bombing and she told that machine about what she had seen in 1995 before she could tell another person.

Clark isn't able to walk well enough to go to the marathon these days, but she was instrumental in planning and shaping the memorial that it commemorates. She's been a quiet but adamant representative for victims of the tragedy and their families.

I told Clark a little bit about Hunt, the runner from Connecticut. How she wanted to finish what she'd started. How she was looking for answers in this city. Clark said the Oklahoma City marathon "will be a step in her healing."

"There will be many, many more," she said.

And then she said something kind of amazing.

She offered to help a stranger.

It's something she's done many times. She received letters from all over the country after the Oklahoma City bombing. Talking to strangers shortly after the blast was easier than speaking to her own family members, she said. They brought her comfort. They helped her get to the point where she could join society again.

She's done a great deal to pay that back. She visited Cameroon to meet with people who live in a village that was decimated by a volcanic eruption in the 1980s. She befriended her translator there and eventually helped him earn a scholarship to attend graduate school at her alma mater, Oklahoma State University.

She wrote letters to people in Columbine. After the Boston Marathon bombing, she encouraged church members to make a sign showing support for the victims. They sent it to another church of the same denomination in Boston.

"The day of the Boston Marathon, that just put me in a deep hole," she said. "I cried all day. (Tragedies like that) can throw you back there.

"The difference is, after 18 years, I can pull myself out of it."

When I mentioned Hunt, she didn't hesitate to say that if the young woman from the Boston area ever needs to talk to someone, she should get her number from me and give her a call.

After all, what are strangers for?

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The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

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