Although her hopes of crossing the finish line in her 19th Boston Marathon and 50th overall were dashed when two terrorist bombs went off April 15, Pine Bluff runner Julie Bridgforth will go back and run it again next year.
“Yes, I’m already qualified,” she said Friday. “I qualified, thank goodness, at Houston. A lot of times I qualify at Boston but now it’s gotten very difficult to get in because for some reason there’s been a huge surge in the number of people that want to run it.
“I think I will get in,” she said. “That will be my 20th Boston and I think that’s probably going to be it. That will be a good one to go out on because it will be the best one they ever had. That might be a good swan song for it. We’re going back. We’ve already made our reservations.
“I think many people are going to run. It proves that this wonderful, wonderful institution is not going to be brought down,” she said. “It’s going to go on even bigger and better. You’re going to rise above it and you’re not going to let these terrorists get their way.”
Julie and her husband, Bill Bridgforth, sat down Friday and talked about the Boston Marathon, which ended for her less than a mile from the finish line after she passed the 25-mile mark of the 26.2 mile course.
“There’s a huge Citgo sign and you know when you get to that Citgo sign, you have one mile to go,” Julie Bridgforth said. “Now they also paint it on the street.
“Now, I had passed that point and I’m not sure how far past that but I’m going to say another couple of tenths (of a mile),” she said. “So you’re on Commonwealth Avenue and it’s very beautiful, brownstones, the trees were blooming, everything’s very happy and all of a sudden there was just a wall of people and everyone in the race had stopped and that’s extremely unusual. I’ve run 50 marathons and nothing like that had ever happened. There was no progressing. It was just a wall of runners and there were people who were upset, people who said ‘this isn’t right, we need to finish.’
Because of her work at Jefferson Regional Medical Center, Julie Bridgforth said she thought at first that someone in the crowd had suffered a heart attack, or been hit by a car and emergency personnel were trying to get an ambulance or helicopter to the scene. She then realized that wasn’t the case.
“So I thought this is something very terrible. I never heard the blast because at that point, 20 deep waiting and the brownstones are several stories high so I never heard anything,”she said.
While Julie Bridgforth was waiting to find out what was going on, her husband was near the finish line waiting on her to arrive.
“Every year, I go to meet her at mile 22,” he said. “I used to run with her. I ran Boston one time. I had gone out to mile 22 on the subway and waited for her to come and I do it for a number of reasons.
“One, of course, is to see her and to give her some encouragement and also, I like to watch the marathon,” he said. “Tens of thousands of people, and also to calculate her time, when I think she will finish so I can be at the hotel. Our hotel is at the finish line so when she came to mile 22 I greeted her and she seemed fine. I had calculated her time to finish the marathon at about four hours and 20 to 25 minutes.
“As soon as she ran by, I stayed for a minute or two then I went back to catch the subway and I came back to Boston,” he said. “I got off at the Hines station where I always do, which is about a half-mile from the finish line and then I walked around and came toward the hotel because there are thousands of people at the finish line and I couldn’t get anywhere near it, but I could go to my room because I could see the finish line from my room.”
Bill Bridgforth said he first heard the mention of explosions as he was getting off the subway.
“As I was walking up the stairs, the cell phone of the person beside me went off and he answered it and he said ‘what, explosions at the finish line?’ and I said ‘excuse me sir, what did you say?’ ” Bill Bridgforth said. “The man responded that ‘my friend said there had been two explosions at the finish line’ and I thought [‘Oh, Lord’ but I recalculated in my mind the times because they said it happened at 4:09 and I had her at about four-tenths of a mile away from the finish line which in fact she was.”
Meanwhile, back on the course, Julie Bridgforth and the other runners were hearing the words bombs and explosions for the first time from spectators.
“There were young mothers with their children at the finish line and their husbands and they were frantic,” she said. “One girl next to me had her phone and she called her husband and she was screaming and screaming and he and her children were OK. After that, nobody’s phone worked.
“I asked her if I could use her phone and by then they had shut the cell service off,” she said.
Bill was also trying to use his cell phone and said it worked for short periods of time.
“I got over 90 texts and calls within 20 minutes,” he said.
Unable to contact Bill, Julie said she and other runners “didn’t know what to do.
“I stood there for probably 15 or 20 minutes and I tried to comfort people because I knew they had children there,” she said. “Finally we began to talk among ourselves and we realized the race is not going to finish. It was a crime scene and we just needed to get out of there and go somewhere. Someone had made a break in the fence and I scooted out and by then the police were at all the intersections telling you ‘you can’t go here,’ ‘you can’t go here’ and I said ‘where should we go? Is there maybe going to be a staging area where people can meet their families?’ and they said ‘no, we really haven’t been able to do anything like that.’ ”
Julie Bridgforth said she started walking down Commonwealth Avenue and was joined by a young couple, whom she described as college students.
“I was sort of dazed at that point and didn’t know what to think, so they walked with me for a long way and he was very sweet,” she said, breaking into tears while recounting the man’s offer to give her his coat.
“It was so cold and I had on shorts and a little tank and he said ‘please, let me give you my coat’ and I said no. It was a nice coat and I probably could have mailed it back to him but anyway I said I was OK.
“They walked with me for a long way and then there was a girl that had some mylar blankets,” she said. “You know, those aluminum blankets, and I wrapped those around me. The police were so kind but they just couldn’t give you any advice. They were busy.”
After walking for a while, Julie Bridgforth found a cafe that was open, and went inside.
After getting coffee to warm up, she was able to borrow a phone from another couple next to her and send a text message to Bill, telling him she was safe and where she was.
“The text said ‘are you OK? I’m fine. I’m at the Club Cafe,’ ” Bill said. “I texted back ‘stay there. Do not leave.’ ”
Three hours after the race was stopped, the couple was able to reunite, only to face another problem. The police had shut down their hotel and other surrounding buildings in their search for suspects.
“When I left that morning, I always take my driver’s license, my room key and a $20 bill,” Bill Bridgforth said. “For some reason that day, I put my VISA card in my running shorts pocket and so we had access to funds and we had my driver’s license. She was still freezing but the gentleman at the restaurant helped us.”
After learning that there were two nearby hotels, Bill and Julie called one and were told they might have a room but they needed to get there quickly.
“When we went to the hotel, the room was gone,” Julie Bridgforth said. “There was this little family, husband, wife, 8-year-old boy and one of their mothers. And the dad had run the marathon. Had the jacket, and they heard us trying to get a room and they had a family conference and came back and said ‘we have two rooms and we can all stay in one and you can have one of them’ and that’s just an example of the kindness that everybody had.
“And you know, the responders, it was an incredible American sight,” Bill Bridgforth said. “People from every nation and every nationality and every part of the United States all came together and Pine Bluff is one of them. The response that we got. Julie was able to get her phone Tuesday night when we got back into the hotel to get our clothes and between the two of us, we had over 200 texts and emails from friends all over the country but mostly Pine Bluff responded and I call Pine Bluff people great responders because they were concerned not only about us and we’re the fortunate ones.
“The great concern we have is for the real heroes,” he said. “The ones that were there at the site and rushed into harm’s way to help other people. It’s what the Boston Marathon is. It’s everything great.”
Finally, Julie Bridgforth said she isn’t bothered by the fact that she didn’t finish the race or get a medal.
“All that pales to what’s happened and I’m going to count it as a marathon and I’m going to count that I finished,” she said. “I didn’t finish and I didn’t get a medal but it doesn’t matter.”