by Dante Zappala 

The pirouette I pulled off at the top of Heartbreak Hill was impressive on a few fronts. After 21 miles of straight-ahead pounding, I was surprised that I could actually move in a different direction. I managed to find my family among the masses and to say real words, words that I think were, “I love you.” I successfully snagged the bottle of flat Coke my mother was holding for me.

And the hamstring spasms that move induced were equally impressive. The last four miles were a blur of people and winces as the cramps snuck up and pinched me from behind at unpredictable intervals. Between those moments of excruciating pain, the present was consumed by a diminishing belief that I would make it to Boylston Street.

The last miles of a marathon are unholy. They take us beyond the intentions of our physical capabilities. The mental training will always feel inadequate as the body is increasingly powerful in its will to shut down. A few miles should be chump change at this point, given that so many were running to get here. But never does a mile feel so long when it’s the 23rd or 24th. Never does counting hurt so much.

The turn to the finish finally came, and the wave of runners that surrounded me the entire way literally disappeared. To each side of me, in front of me and what I sensed behind was nothing but empty space.

I had tried to imagine this moment, of course, countless times over in the solitude of the long training runs I most often did alone. But the reality of it was clearly beyond the limits of my imagination.

As I crossed the line, I shifted my gaze to the right in search of one of those symbols that has become synonymous these past years with Boston: the Cowboy Hat.

Carlos Arredondo may be best known for that hat and his actions after the bombing at the finish line in 2013. I have known Carlos for over 10 years, since the tragedy of war brought us together. His son and my brother were killed in Iraq in 2004. Independently, we both felt two things deeply. We were awed by our loved ones’ commitment and bravery. And we were outraged that they had been sent to a war based on lies.

That caused our paths to cross in the effort to stop the war and prevent these kinds of senseless losses from continuing. When the Marines came to tell him his son died, Carlos set their van and himself on fire in a rage of despair. By the mercy of God, he survived.

He travelled the country with a memorial to his son Alex. He put a real flag-draped casket on the back of a pickup with Alex’s boots mounted to it. He would stop and talk to anyone and everyone. He gave them copies of the last letter Alex wrote to him, the one where Alex described how proud he was to be a Marine and how honored he was to fight for his country.

People didn’t know what to make of this statement. But it only took moments with Carlos to be absorbed by the nakedness of his emotions.

We’d travel together and speak at events, all in the hopes that these stories of ours might shift the landscape away from vengeance to one of thought, compassion and reason. His was a most powerful voice.

And then, Brian died.

Carlos’ younger son committed suicide amidst this despair.

Beset by these tragedies, Carlos didn’t shut down. Instead, he broadened his efforts to assist people struggling with depression and addiction. He has worked tirelessly to advocate for veterans with PTSD.

I got to see Carlos the day before the race. He was out for the Blessing of the Bikes at Doyle’s. His wife, Melida, sold T-shirts in support of their Arredondo Family Foundation. He told me he’d be at the finish line the entire day and I should look for him.

He was easy enough to spot in the grandstand with the hat on. I stretched up to hug him and my legs completely seized. But Carlos was able to lean over and embrace me, taking my weight with him. I relaxed. And then I cried.

A few weeks before the race, I got on a scale and then ran 10 miles. I then immediately weighed myself again. I wanted to know how much fluid I lost so I could establish a good hydration plan during the marathon.

This “sweat test” revealed that I lost 1 ½ pounds. Therefore, during the course of my 4 months of training, 1000 miles, I lost the equivalent of my body weight.

At the finish, in Carlos’ arms, I was weightless again, the last few bits of me dripping out in tears as the cold rain soaked us all.

I started heading towards the gear station. I was cooling off fast. Hypothermia was setting in. I couldn’t stop shaking. But I couldn’t stop either. I needed to change.

It was another mile to get to Boston Commons and the dry clothes that awaited me there; away from the crowds, away from anyone I knew or anyone who could help me.

In the 27th mile, the one I didn’t know was coming, I was unable to run. Completely exposed, utterly alone and vulnerable, I walked. I carried what was left of myself and began the process of starting again.