Running in the Boston Marathon was a bucket list item for Delano’s Wendy Biel. She was 1.2 miles from finishing her dream race when the unthinkable happened.
By Matt Kane
DELANO, MN Running in the Boston Marathon was a lifelong goal of Delano’s Wendy Biel and nothing was going to stop her from competing in the 117th edition of the Patriot’s Day race. Not even a broken foot.
During her training for Boston, Biel fractured the heel bone in her left foot. For a runner who is about to run 26.2 miles, that’s a major injury to overcome. But this was the Boston Marathon, and Wendy wasn’t about to withdraw.
“This was on the bucket list and I was fortunate enough to make it, said the 48-year-old mother of three adult boys and grandmother of one. ”To qualify for Boston is amazing but to get in is kind of a lottery. When you get that notice that says you are in, it is pretty exciting.”
Wendy and husband Tony arrived in Boston on the Saturday before the race. They toured the city and the marathon grounds, attended the marathon expo, where Wendy was given a yellow Boston Marathon backpack containing the necessities for the runners, and, then, on Monday morning, it was time for Wendy to run.
At around 10:40 a.m., after removing the walking boot from her left foot, Wendy toed the starting line and set off to cross off “Boston Marathon” from her bucket list. The foot was bothersome but she kept going. She ran as far as she could 25 miles. That’s where the race ended.
The abrupt ending to Wendy’s dream race came after two bombs exploded near the finish line, which was 1.2 miles ahead, killing three and injuring at least 180 more.
The bombs exploded 12 seconds apart on Boylston Street, near the same finish line Biel was headed to, and where Tony and her mother, Joan Rogers, were planning to meet her.
Thankfully, none of the three made it to the finish line. Tony was on a bicycle, and Joan was around the corner from the finish line near the entrance to the Westin Copley Place Hotel, where the three were staying.
“I was riding on my way back and I was a mile from the finish line when I got a call that there had been explosions at the finish line,” Tony explained. The call came from his coworkers at Digital Staffing, who were at their office inside the Prudential Tower, which sits less than a half mile from the finish line. “They said, ‘Don’t come to the finish line,’ and I said that I was just going to go find Wendy.”
Tony didn’t find Wendy immediately, but he did get in contact with her.
“I called her and actually got her right away before all the cell signals went out. I said, ‘Where are you,’ and she said she was almost at mile 23. I told her there were some explosions and I told her to stay where she was and that I would meet her. She kept going and we met at mile 25. That is right where they ended the race.”
“I heard from Tony and my first instinct was, ‘Where’s my mom;’ ‘I’m safe;’ and ‘Tony’s safe.’ And now ‘How are we going to meet up,’” Wendy said.
Everybody was safe.
Wendy, who was one of 539 Minnesota runners in the Boston Marathon, didn’t know what was going on, only that something unusual was happening.
“Right before he called, everybody was handling themselves completely differently from usual. Police and military were all on their phones and people were moving, and sirens and police cars were cutting through the route,” Wendy said.
The Biels followed orders and exited the marathon course. They made their way toward the Westin. Wendy remembers that slow walk.
“What was amazing was the instant camaraderie from complete strangers,” she explained. “People congratulated me for running a race I didn’t finish. People coming from the Red Sox game.
“All the stuff you see on TV where the town is pulling together is real.”
The Red Sox completed their annual Patriot’s Day game just hours before the marathon bombings.
Wendy was impressed with the city’s reaction to the incident.
“It was unbelievably quick how they evacuated everybody and closed down a six-block area,” she said. “It wasn’t panic. It was pretty calm and relaxed. A huge police and military presence right away.”
The Biels were unable to get to the Westin, as it was turned into command central for the police operations, so, in searching out a spot to rest and reenergize their cell phones, Wendy and Tony snuck into the Boston Marriott Copley Place.
The couple went up to the 27th floor, where they sat in the hallway while their phones charged. It was there the Biels finally saw what had happened. A hotel guest invited them into her room, where the television was on.
“That was the first time we got in front of a TV and saw it all,” said Tony. “Then it started catching up to us.”
The Biels stayed in the stranger’s hotel room for an hour-and-a-half, making phone calls and watching the footage. They were finally able to return to their room at the Westin at around 6 p.m., three hours after they met up at mile-marker 25.
“I don’t think we really knew the extent of the situation,” Wendy said. “It was on the news 24-7 here and it is just shock and disbelief.”
That disbelief remains win the Biels.
“It’s weird walking through it (for this interview),” said Tony. “It’s still kind of surreal that we were that close and that it happened.”
“You just don’t get it,” Wendy said. “It chokes you up.”
The Biels, who have been married 22 years, spoke for this story via cell phone Thursday morning from their rental car as they returned to Boston after a two-day escape to Cape Cod. Wendy’s mother, Joan, who lives in Lake Elmo, flew home Tuesday morning. The Biel couple flew home to Minnesota Friday evening.
Her left foot
Wendy was at mile 25 on Commonwealth Avenue, just 1.2 miles from the finish line, when her dream-race ended. She was only that far because of her ailing foot. Two healthy feet would have put her much closer to the finish line when the bombs went off.
Wendy ran in Wave 3, Corral 2. Wave 3, which contained close to 9,000 runners, began at 10:40 a.m. Biel’s average pace in a marathon is four hours to 4-hours-10-minute. The first bomb exploded with 4:09.43 on the clock at the finish line.
A graph on the website Slate.com shows that the bombs exploded at a point in the race when a great number of runners and spectators were near the finish line.
Wendy wasn’t there because her foot slowed her down.
“She was on a really good pace until about halfway,” said Tony of Wendy’s performance.
Wendy’s halfway time was 2:22.04, meaning she was behind her usual pace, and, thus, not at the finish line as she may have been with two good feet.
“If it wasn’t for my stress fracture, my family would have been at the finish line and I would have crossed very close to the explosion time,” Wendy said slowly, realizing the underlying meaning of her words. “I spent the last 10 days whining about my heel and I spent the last two days thankful for the stress fracture because it kept my family out of harms way.”
Tony knows the potential situation his wife was referring to.
“The craziest thing is she was bummed out and we felt bad because of the stress fracture. But if not for that slowing her down, she would have been right on pace to be right at the finish line,” he said. “Things happen for a reason. We are very fortunate and lucky that the pieces worked out that way. I feel bad for the people who it didn’t work out for that way.
“I truly believe everything happens for a reason,” said Tony. “Her foot was a blessing.”
A hint of survival guilt was present in the Biels as they spoke.
“I feel terrible for the people affected by it,” said Tony.
A bucket-list event
After enduring the pain of that bum left foot for 25 miles and coming just minutes away from finishing the world’s most popular race, all of a sudden finishing was no longer a priority nor an option. Wendy is OK with that.
“No, not at all, because I know I would have finished,” she answered when asked if she was disappointed she didn’t get to cross the finish line at the Boston Marathon. “I was determined enough through the discomfort that I knew I was going to finish.”
She realizes the big picture.
“In my head, I won way more than a marathon,” Wendy said. “I didn’t come here hoping to make a certain time so I was just going to be thrilled to finish. In my mind I got more than I ever hoped.”
Don’t get her wrong, Wendy would love to officially finish the Boston Marathon, some day.
“If I have the opportunity to come back, I would certainly come back, and I will be as excited and proud as I was this year,” said Wendy, the owner of Simply Office, a bookkeeping service for small businesses.
For now, Wendy considers her bucket-list item of running in the Boston Marathon crossed off.
Tough road to Boston
Wendy qualified for Boston last October when she finished the Whistlestop Marathon in Ashland, WI, in 2 hours-51 minutes.
Wendy began training in January on the treadmill, and, in February developed pain in her left foot, so she stopped training. She resumed training two weeks before Boston but the pain returned and was greater. The doctor told Wendy the pain was caused by a stress fracture in the foot, but that she could run in Boston if she could stand that pain.
“They said you won’t harm it by running on it, and if mentally you can make it, go for it. It’s just dealing with the pain and discomfort,” Wendy said.
The flights to and from Boston were already booked, and the hotel room was reserved. The Biels were going to Boston, and Wendy was going to run in the Boston Marathon.
Having the chance to cross the Boston Marathon off her bucket list certainly influenced Wendy’s decision to run the race with a broken foot, and, so, too, did the memory of her late father, Gene Altenburg. He ran the Boston Marathon in 1978 and passed away that November.
“It was a walk down memory lane,” said Wendy.
Gene worked for Prudential, whose name was on the building Tony’s coworkers called from. His marathon time 35 years ago was 3 hours-31 minutes.
Boston was Wendy’s ninth marathon. She is already signed up for number 10 the Women Rock Minnesota race Aug. 31 in St. Paul. Also this summer, Biel will run the Lake Minnetonka Half Marathon in May with her three sons, Adam, 26, Dillon, 21, and Burleigh, 19.
The home stretch
Wendy says she is content with her personal marathon performance, despite being forced off the course 1.2 miles short of the finish line. But, just in case she’s not content, her family and friends set up a Boston Marathon finish line of their own for Wendy Friday evening 1,400 miles west of Boston, at her Delano home.
Just as it was to be in Boston April 15 on Boylston Street, the road to the finish line in Delano in this case Woods Creek Drive was lined with family members, friends, neighbors and complete strangers anticipating Wendy’s arrival home from Boston and, ultimately, her marathon finish.
The finish line homecoming was the idea of Wendy and Tony’s oldest son, Adam.
“The night of the attack I was thinking about all the time and effort my mom put into prepare for the race. Her father ran it and I know she was proud to be doing it as well. Not even a broken foot could keep her from participating and wanting to finish,” said Adam via e-mail. He was unable to attend Friday’s event. “So, that being said when someone else’s terrible plans ruined my moms opportunity to complete her goal and dream, I decided I wanted to do something about it. That’s how I came up with giving her a finish line and letter her experience the joy of finishing Delano’s version of the Boston marathon. I wanted to something more than just a welcome home banner or flowers but wanted to organize a full event and celebration.
“With the help of people from the community and immense generosity something amazing has come together. So many people have been offering their input and support for my mom that I truly think she’ll see not only how much support and love there is for her but see how much she means to so many people.”
Wendy greeted supporters first at the West Point Church on Highway 12, where a banner read, “Wendy, here’s your last 1.2 miles,” and then at Flippin’ Bills, where a Loretto fire truck was waiting to escort her the rest of the way. At the intersection of County Line Road and Woods Creek Drive, Wendy stepped out of her car, and, with her walking boot on that left foot, walked behind the fire truck the crowd gathering behind her as she passed the final portion of the 1.2 miles. Ten yards from the finish-line banner, Wendy took her 3-year-old granddaughter Isabella in her arms and completed her Boston marathon under a scattering of random fireworks.
For the next half hour, Wendy hugged just about everybody in attendance, shedding tears with many.
The reception left Wendy with little to say.
“The 1.2, I was fine with before. To have such awesome friends and family leaves me more speechless than the medal, itself.”
A small sign in Wendy’s yard declared “1.2 miles has never seemed so far, but your finish is finally here.”