How one NYC Marathon runner is healing from the trauma of the Boston Bombings

In 2013, Julie Vona truly believed that she was going to run the last marathon of her career. Don’t get her wrong: She loved running. It allowed her to enjoy the outdoors of central Massachusetts, feel at peace with herself, stay healthy and maybe catch up with some of her girlfriends over a causal jog. But Vona was approaching 50 years of age. Training every morning before her day job as a special education teacher, plus an additional three-hour workout on the weekends was becoming exhausting. She was a mother of two—ages 8 and 10—who wanted to spend more time with her family.

Vona thought the Boston Marathon would be the perfect way to cap it all off in her home state. The weather on April 15 couldn’t have been more serene, she said. The temperature reached the mid-fifties and the sky reflected a playful blue.

“It was the most beautiful day,” Vona told Excelle Sports. “My two kids were on the course with my husband. It was everything I hoped it could be.”

She was excited because her body was feeling great and she was running some of her best splits. But as Vona approached her last mile and turned on to Boylston Street, something didn’t feel right. Looking back on it now, she wondered if it was “a brush from evil.”

“For some reason, at that point, it just felt different—it took a darker turn,” said Vona. “There was some kind of weird vibe.”

She quickly shook off the eerie feeling and finished the race anyway. Vona crossed the finish line with a new personal record, which qualified her for the race the following year. She posed for pictures and smiled. Vona was having the time of her life. But as she headed back toward her husband and kids to celebrate with them, she heard an explosion coming from behind her.

She saw debris flying through the air. People screaming. Running. Chaos. People helping others to jump over the barriers. No one knew what had happened. A man paused and looked at her: “I don’t know what that is, but you need to get out of here.”

Vona panicked and knew she had to find her family right away. Cell phone service had shut down and she couldn’t connect with them. Her husband and kids weren’t far from the finish line, but that walk felt so long. She was alarmed that some spectators didn’t have the slightest idea of what was going on.

“People would walk by with smiles on their faces saying congratulations and you were like, ‘Something just happened. Something just happened,’” she said.

Finally, she reunited with her family and immediately went to the garage to hop into the car and leave. The streets were still frantic with swarms of ambulances, police and SWAT teams. It was hard to process it all, said Vona.

“My kids couldn’t even talk, they were so shaken up by everything that they had seen,” she said. “And even myself … I couldn’t believe I put us in such jeopardy. I never wanted my kids to see that. My family fortunately was safe … but there were so many other people who lost so much … [On paper] it was my best marathon ever, but I couldn’t really take pride in it because it was such a horrible day.”

Julie Vona running the 2013 Boston Marathon. One of many photos that was used by the FBI to identify the bombers, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who are pictured in the background. (Photo: Bob Leonard)

[More from Excelle Sports: Meet the woman with brain cancer who ran seven marathons on seven continents in seven days]

When the Vonas arrived home, they all slept in the same bed that night. Family and friends were calling them, texting them, making sure everything was all right. Vona hardly slept that night. Both she and her husband were trying to figure out how to explain what happened to the kids.

“We told them that there are some horrible people,” she said. “But we [also] told them about the good people that were around that day. I told them about the man who helped me get over the barrier. People checking on each other. There are more good people than evil. You have to believe that.”

And you would think with that attitude, Vona would have gotten over the trauma fairly easily. But running was never quite the same after the Boston Bombings.

The following year, Vona was planning to run the Boston Marathon again as a sort of “do-over.” But her body understood how hard it is to replace memories. Three weeks before the event, her training came to an abrupt halt. She was diagnosed with walking pneumonia and she started getting lower back spasms, which she claims were “more painful than childbirth.” Vona was in so much pain, she couldn’t walk anymore.

“You’re not ready to go back, Julie,” her husband said. “You can’t do this.”

So she dropped out.

“Right after I said, ‘I couldn’t do it,’ my back was fine,” said Vona. “I was able to walk.”

She realized her pain was psychosomatic and decided it was best to give up running for a while. Yet, after some time away from the one thing that used to give her so much clarity, the one thing that used to grant her so much ease, Vona decided that she needed to get back on the road and run.

It was also a way to offer her children some closure.

“My children have been saying it for the past couple of years, saying, ‘Mom, you need to do another [marathon],’” said Vona. “My daughter never really talks about it, but I think she needs to see it too—that we are resilient and that we can go back.”

In 2017, Vona submitted her story to a contest sponsored by Powerbar for a chance to earn a spot at the New York City Marathon. And she won.

“So many people don’t get a chance to do a do-over,” she said. “I’m so fortunate that this [marathon on Sunday] is my do-over. It’s exciting. It’s still scary. But I think it’s the best thing I could be doing for myself and for my family. I think New York City will be my clean start.”

Vona added that she doesn’t know if she’ll ever run the Boston Marathon ever again, and she recognizes that she might even be triggered when she’s at the starting line on Sunday. But she has the mind-over-matter attitude that she hopes will carry her through the race.

“I know that this isn’t over,” she said. “I can go back and do it again. This might be it for my marathon career, but I’m taking this opportunity and I’m enjoying this one.”

[More from Excelle Sports: How one runner went from brain tumor victim to NYC Marathon competitor in less than a year]

Julie Vona was selected as a part of Powerbar’s Clean Start Team, a group of 17 runners who were granted entry into the NYC Marathon for their bravery in overcoming setbacks.

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