Nell Posmer , the sister of Neil Weerakoon, the only Sri Lankan to have participated in the Boston Marathon says that the running community has become closer than ever in the aftermath of the two explosions, as she recalls the chaos of that day in a Skype interview with Smriti Daniel Half a mile out [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

It turned into a run for their lives


Nell Posmer , the sister of Neil Weerakoon, the only Sri Lankan to have participated in the Boston Marathon says that the running community has become closer than ever in the aftermath of the two explosions, as she recalls the chaos of that day in a Skype interview with Smriti Daniel

Half a mile out from the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Nell Posmer was taking pictures. Framed by her camera lens, her younger brother Neil ‘Night Train’ Weerakoon, the only Sri Lankan in the race that day, was about to set another personal record. The 2:53:11 timing was an improvement on his last by only a matter of minutes but when you’re running the Boston Marathon, one of the oldest and arguably most prestigious in the world, you learn to count every second.

Police and runners react to an explosion during the Boston Marathon finish area in Boston, Massachusetts, April 15. Two simultaneous explosions ripped through the crowd at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, killing three people and injuring dozens on a day when tens of thousands of people packed the streets to watch the world famous race. REUTERS

When Neil finished his race, he didn’t turn to the “bleachers” (tiered stands). Regulars at the marathon, the family had passes but had chosen instead to meet two blocks away. The Four Seasons Hotel was just far enough from the melee to provide a respite. It was a casual decision that may have just saved their lives. “I’m so glad we decided to do that,” says Nell.

When we begin our Skype conversation, it’s past midnight in Sri Lanka but Nell has just returned from dropping her five-year-old off at school. They went in early this Thursday. The little girl hasn’t been able to stop talking about the bomb, and Nell wanted to have a word with her teachers so they were prepared for questions. On her drive back, Nell heard of developments on the news and hopes that the running community will recover from the tragedy which has claimed three lives, wounded another 176 more and devastated the country.

The event, held annually on Patriots Day, all but shuts down the city of Boston. This year over 24,000 runners were set to run the 26.2 mile course. “We had perfect weather,” says Neil, who works for a sheet metal company in Chicago. The gorgeous day was a blessing – he remembers last year’s blistering sun had heat-stricken runners seeking medical attention. The 2013 marathon was Neil’s third consecutive one. An extraordinary accomplishment considering that Neil is closing in on his forties, and that his previous running experience was largely limited to St. Paul’s College (now Wariyapola Sri Sumangala College) in Kandy, where he was a short distance runner who took home prizes in the under 19 and under 21 categories, but failed to place at the national level. When he arrived in America in 2009 – 2010, he hadn’t run seriously in years.

Early on, Nell, a runner herself, sent Neil out for a spin with her husband Ken. With no idea of how to pace himself, Neil was soon completely exhausted but Ken was insisting they complete the 5 km run. “I had no idea how to run 5 km. I was dying,” Neil remembers. However, here was the motivation he needed – he practised so hard and pushed himself so far that soon he was overtaking Ken. Then the couple introduced him to their friends in the Downers Grove running community – once again Neil found himself trailing behind the fastest runners. Weeks later, he was leaving them in the dust. They dubbed him ‘Night Train’ – here was the dark skinned guy who never seemed to need a break. “He improved so very quickly and now he’s one of the fastest guys in the Chicago land area,” says Nell, obviously proud.

Nell Posmer with husband Ken: Part of a community that won’t give up

And now here was Neil, running the Boston Marathon. To qualify he’d had to run a previously pre-approved marathon within a set period of time 18 months before the one in Boston – the stringent rules only makes the event more prestigious in his eyes. Nell remembers the crowd surging around: “Everybody was enthusiastic. Everybody was so happy. It was noisy to begin with.” Which was why when they heard the first blast, Nell thought it was just the cheering squads getting out of hand. “We heard a booming sound – I remember thinking that there was just way too much excitement.” They had stepped into a restaurant to buy some food for the kids when a man stumbled in. “He was saying, ‘It was a bomb! There was a bomb.” Then they heard the second explosion.

Out on the street it was pure chaos. Nell couldn’t seem to flag down a taxi – they were either occupied or hell bent on fleeing the scene. “We just got trapped inůMy five-year-old daughter was panicking at that time. She knew exactly what was going on.” Nell herself was very concerned. She realised she was completely disoriented. Used to driving in a car, she didn’t know which direction their hotel was in. “I had no idea where to go – no clue where to run.” Luckily, they found help when a family heading in the same direction were able to guide them. They walked the four and half miles on foot, carrying the children. “Most of the time I think the police and the ambulance and the fire trucks were the only vehicles we saw in that area. Everybody was fleeing.”

Watching the devastation on T.V later, Nell says she can’t stop thinking about the day. “I imagine what it might have been like to lose my own kid when I think about the little boy who passed away. I feel like I’m reliving it. As a parent I can’t help it. My heart goes out to those folks who got hurt.” The tragedy has only brought the community of runners closer together.

On the run: Neil Weerakoon, the only Lankan at the Boston Marathon

“Runners are like one big family. We support each other, and this situation is really upsetting the whole running community here,” says Nell. It’s a community her family has made their own – Nell and Ken run Blue Diamond Athletic Displays (the name taken from the name Nell’s parents gave her – Nilmini meaning blue diamond) which sells medal displays. Nell is also a painter and was chosen by the Rock and Roll Marathon Series to be their official Chicago artist – she was commissioned to create a 6ft by 4ft painting for them.

So she knows what she’s talking about when she says that this tragedy will only fuel the community to do more. “I don’t think this is going to stop runners in any way. They’re a different sort of animal. They’re putting themselves through pain when they’re running for 20 miles straight. It’s an endurance sport, so they’ll keep going.” It’s certainly only added to her own determination to run the Boston Marathon in 2014 and Neil wouldn’t dream of skipping it either. “It drives my mom crazy, back in Sri Lanka but it’s what we all love to do,” says Nell, explaining that her eldest daughter is already hooked – she was recently placed 4th in a kids event. Neil’s already looking forward to his next marathon which he’s training for with Kate DeProsperis – one of only two women to represent Illinois at the U.S Olympic Marathon Trials.

Before we sign off, Nell wants to tell me about the Illinois marathon. She and Neil couldn’t run even if they wanted to – registrations were closed today because of an overwhelming number of applicants. For her it’s a testament to the unbowed spirit and courage of her fellow athletes. “Now you can understand how they think,” says Nell. Neil adds: “they won’t give up.”

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