Dave Swanson’s first experience at running the Boston Marathon was memorable – just not for the right reasons.
“It was great for a couple hours, but then everything changed,” the 1982 Glenwood Community High School graduate said Sunday as he reflected on the terrifying aftermath of the April 15 bomb blasts that marred the world’s most-celebrated marathon.
Three people were killed and more than 180 injured when two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line of the 26-mile course. The marathon is the marquis event of the city’s annual Patriots Day celebration and typically attracts more than 500,000 spectators.
Swanson, the son of Harold and Lora Swanson of Glenwood, now lives in Iowa City where he’s an anesthesiologist at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics. He had crossed the finish line on Boylston Street nearly two hours before the bombs exploded 13 seconds apart at 2:50 p.m.
Swanson, his wife, Dr. Cathy Swanson, and their 13-year-old daughter, Anna, were about a block away from the finish line, in the food court of the Prudential Center Mall, when the bombs exploded.
“We weren’t together at the time. My wife was getting ice cream and my daughter was in a bathroom,” Swanson said. “I didn’t hear the explosions, but my wife told me later that she did. I’m sitting there and the next thing I know, there’s a wave of people running through the food court.
“Tables and chairs were getting knocked over. People were pushing and shoving – not a very pretty scene. It was chaos and panic.”
As the storm of people rushed out of the food court, the Swanson family remained separated, with none of the three knowing what brought on the commotion. Cell phone service suddenly became unavailable just as rumors surfaced of a “shooter” in the mall. Anna was pushed back into the bathroom and forced to hide from the alleged shooter in a handicapped stall with a group of women who feared for their lives.
“It was pretty traumatic for my daughter,” Swanson said. “The people in the bathroom thought they were at the end, crying and praying.
“It was a very scary half-hour, as I didn’t know what was going on. Finally, I was able to reach my wife through a text. She had texted with our daughter and eventually we were able to get back together.”
It was not until the Swansons were crossing Boylston Street to get back to their hotel that they learned of the bomb blasts. The area surrounding the explosions was immediately placed off limits to all pedestrian and vehicle traffic, even members of the medical profession.
“A police officer told us a bomb had exploded and we weren’t able to enter the area or go back to our hotel,” Swanson said. “We didn’t know what the situation was, but it was a scary scene because of all the emergency vehicles and military vehicles going by.”
For the next couple hours, the Swansons waited things out in a nearby recreation center on the campus of Northeastern University. Eventually, they were able to make their way back to their hotel utilizing an alternative route.
They didn’t learn the magnitude of the explosions until turning on the television in their hotel room.
“We were stunned,” Swanson said. “How can somebody do something like that?”
The Swansons had planned their trip so they wouldn’t return to Iowa until Wednesday, giving them a full day after the marathon to do some sightseeing in the history-rich city. Still feeling the shock of Monday’s traumatic events, they initially thought about just sticking around their hotel on Tuesday.
“We didn’t feel like getting out at first,” Swanson said. “Our daughter was having a really tough time of it.
Eventually, we did get out in the afternoon and it was a really impressive show of strength. It was actually a beautiful day and I was pretty impressed with the Bostonians. They had a really great attitude (about the situation).”
Swanson said taking a tour on one of the amphibious “duck” boats helped the entire family feel better about being in Boston.
“The guide was very good, very positive and was even telling jokes, which helped improve the mood of everyone” he said.
After returning home with his family last Wednesday, Swanson followed the ongoing news reports about the bombings. He was relieved when he learned the two brothers believed to be responsible for the terrorism, Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, had succumbed to an unprecedented manhunt by law enforcement officers.
“It sure makes you feel better about things,” Swanson said.
Officially, Swanson finished his first Boston Marathon in a time of 2:59.25, recording the 13th best time of the 119 Iowa runners that took part in the run. The time and ranking in the marathon, Swanson said, are irrelevant.
“It doesn’t really seem like it matters,” he said. “It’s not what I’ll remember about it (marathon).”
Swanson said he and his wife were also in Atlanta in 1996 after a bomb exploded during the Summer Olympic Games, and his initial thinking after last week’s experience was that he didn’t care to return to Boston for a future marathon.
“My first thought was, ‘Why do we do things in the big cities? They’re not safe.’ Since then, after seeing the response and the Bostonian resolve, it’s kind of got me thinking about going back,” Swanson said. “They’ve already talked about making improvements for next year.”
Swanson has now completed three marathons. He’s been a long-distance runner since his high school days in Glenwood.
“Coach (Leonard) Griffith thought I could run, so that’s how I got started,” Swanson said.
Swanson continued running long distances in college at the University of Northern Iowa and even spent one season as a Panther teammate of Jim Whitcomb, a 1979 Glenwood graduate who later became a coach and teacher at GCHS.