For months, Demi Clark wasn’t sure she wanted to return this year to the Boston Marathon finish line.
The finish line on Boylston Street was a place of terror a year ago this week – a place where the first of two homemade bombs detonated, sending metal scraps and nails flying through the air.
Clark, who lived in Fort Mill at the time, was within seconds of completing her 4-hour, 6-minute run. Her husband, Brian, and two young daughters were nearby, waving from the VIP stands. She was near the finish line when the first bomb exploded.
The loud explosion blew out Clark’s left ear drum. Afterward, she described the devastation: “It was just glass and shrapnel and blood and limbs and people with bodies up against the fence that were blown forward up against the barriers. And smoke and dust and just burning smell. Just horrific.”
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Clark and her family all walked away with no other physical injuries from either that bomb or the one that detonated 10 seconds later just 200 yards away. She and her family were far more fortunate than the three people killed and the nearly 300 people injured in the April 15 attack, Clark said.
But, the Clark family – like many others at the marathon that day – have wounds that aren’t visible.
“Physically we were fine, it was really just more mentally and psychologically,” Clark told The Herald this month.
Having previously helped lead an integrative health coaching program for U.S. soldiers, Clark had friends who were either deployed or stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. Some of those soldiers were among the first people to reach out to her after the marathon, she said.
They were straightforward, telling her: “You will have post traumatic stress –– we’re going to name it for you and just let you know,” she said.
When she returned home to Fort Mill last year from Boston, Clark became instantly recognizable throughout the community. As one of the runners closest to the bomb site, she appeared on CNN and ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
In the grocery store, at restaurants and around Fort Mill, people would say, “Hey, you’re that girl that was in Boston.” She had a standard answer, she said, that gave assurance she was OK.
In some ways, Clark believed she was okay. She and Brian focused on their daughters, Willa, then age 6, and Maizie, then age 9. Helping the girls cope was their main priority, she said, and their parental duties were a distraction from finding their own healing.
But, when the family moved to Charleston last summer, a few months after the marathon, Clark said, “that’s when it all starting setting in.”
There, she became “safely anonymous,” she said. Neighbors didn’t immediately recognize her from TV interviews about the bombing. She started a new job.
Still, in the months after the marathon, some days she didn’t feel like being social, or perky, or even leaving the house. Clark had “polarized responses” after the marathon, particularly when people complained about small things like traffic congestion.
With the help and support of family and friends in the military, Clark realized that she had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Her coping mechanism – her “solace,” she said – was running, the activity that took her Boston last year.
Now, a year later, she’ll return for the April 22 race, which is held each year on Patriot’s Day, the third Monday of April. She’s running to raise awareness and money for a group called The Mission Continues, a veterans organization created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that helps military personnel transition back to civilian life by placing them in “service fellowships.”
Veteran issues aren’t new to Clark.
Many members of her family, including her brother and father, are war veterans. Her grandmother was one of the first women to serve in the Marines. Her brother, Spencer Kympton, helped found The Mission Continues and is now the president.
What is new for Clark is a deeper understanding of PTSD. The Boston Marathon bombings and her proximity to the terror and chaos have given her what she calls a “tiny snapshot” into the experience of a combat veteran.
She’s gained a fuller understanding of the uncomfortable feeling that some have when talking about the disorder.
‘One day at a time’
Her candidness about her struggles with PTSD and her willingness to speak publicly have made her a quasi-spokesperson about the issues. “And that’s fine with me,” she said.
If her experience and healing can inspire or help someone else, Clark said, she’s willing to share her story.
“Every single person in the world has had something they’ve had to come back from,” she said. “Everyone has struggled with something.”
Like many other people with PTSD or those who have experienced life-changing events or sustained grave injuries, Clark’s motto is “one day at a time.”
Witnessing the loss of life or limbs at the marathon made Clark more grateful for what she and her family hadn’t lost, she said. She often felt angry that other people took life for granted and griped about everyday stress.
She felt pressure to be “OK” or act a certain way after the “Boston Strong” mantra became popular. Encouraging people to be “Boston Strong” and move forward, she said, is good. But being “individual strong” is important too.
Like others with PTSD after the marathon, Clark said she didn’t always have the will to be “Boston Strong” everyday.
“It is very hard to live up to,” she said.
Instead, Clark focused on being individual strong, with the help of her family and friends.
She watched and guided her daughters as they bounced back from the trauma. The girls, now age 7 and 10, have vastly different personalities, Clark said.
The youngest, Willa, is the “life of the party,” and the Clarks’ oldest child, Maizie, is more introverted and serious, she said.
Before bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured last year in Boston, Maizie drew a “wanted” poster of the man suspected of planning and executing the marathon bombings. It was a picture of a “bad guy” and the reward was $5,000.
She told her mom, “This is him in my head.” And drawing the “bad guy,” she said, “just made me feel better.”
The girls “coped differently,” but each needed some “re-training” on how emergency first responders work. The bombings left an impression on Clark’s daughters that if a police officer was present, something dangerous or bad must be happening nearby.
Clark recalled when the family went to see a movie and Willa was confused and upset after seeing an officer making his rounds.
“She was so unsettled,” she said. Sometimes she and her husband have to have timeouts to explain to their daughters why emergency vehicles or officers may be present.
A year later, the girls are doing much better, Clark said. And her husband has been great, often saying, “If the kids are good, I’m good,” she said.
Together, the Clarks are “very forward focused.”
This week, Demi Clark will round out her 20-week training schedule for the 26.2 mile Boston Marathon. She’s been on “a heavy mileage plan,” running six days a week in Charleston.
Clark is featured in a documentary titled “5 Runners,” by The Boston Globe newspaper. The 30-minute film features the five marathon runners who were crossing the finish line when the first bomb exploded last year.
The New England Sports Network will air “5 Runners” one week before this year’s marathon, on Monday at 9:30 p.m. The Boston Globe will feature the documentary on its website, bostonglobe.com.
Clark is also a featured writer on an NPR blog called “Running Toward Boylston,” which features eight marathon runners returning to the race this year. Clark’s contributions can be read at npr8.tumblr.com.
Brian Clark will join his wife in Boston again this year but Willa and Maizie have decided not to go.
Clark went “back and forth” with her decision on whether to return to Boston this year, she said. Ultimately, it was Maizie who helped her find an answer.
She asked her mom why she enjoyed running. Clark answered: “It makes me feel better.”
With a little thought, Maizie said, “I don’t think you’ll feel better if you don’t go. I think you’ll regret it.”
Her daughter was right, Clark said, adding that no matter what her official marathon finish time is this year, she knows “it will be a triumphant run.”