Apr 16, 2014, 6:54 PM EDT
Summer Sanders doesn’t usually wear hats when she races, but she fitted a blue Boston Strong cap over her head and set out to train before breakfast Tuesday.
“Everywhere I looked,” she said, “I saw Boston Strong.”
Sanders was running in Hawaii on the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Sanders, 41, will ride a Friday night redeye to Los Angeles, connect to Salt Lake City, drive to Park City and spend some minutes with her family. She’ll grab a carry-on bag, drive back to the airport and fly to Boston, arriving at 4:19 Saturday afternoon.
She’ll take part in her second straight Boston Marathon two days later.
“I’m not complaining because I’m coming from Hawaii,” she said. “No one’s going to listen to any complaints.”
Sanders began running after her Olympic swimming appearance in 1992 — when she won four medals in Barcelona, including two golds.
“The day I retired, I went on a run around Stanford loop with a girlfriend, and I was hooked,” said Sanders, a Stanford alum. “I could have a conversation while exercising, which was totally new to me.”
She increased the distance while working for the NBA in the late 1990s, going for recreational runs on trips to different league team cities. (You may remember her as a host of “Inside Stuff”)
She put the Boston Marathon on her bucket list and, spurred by her 40th birthday, chose 2013 as the year to line up at the world’s oldest annual 26.2-mile race.
Sanders arrived in Hopkinton, population 15,000, best known as the race’s starting town on Patriots’ Day. Emotion enveloped her.
“You realized the significance of where you were when you looked around, and there were no pacers,” Sanders said. “Everybody had already paced themselves to get there. You had to run a qualifying time [to enter], so time was out the window at that point.”
She cried at the beginning. And at mile 17, when she saw her mother and a cousin in the crowd. And over the last six miles, due to the cramping pain brought on by rolling hills. And later recounting the experience on the fall 2013 HBO Sports documentary, “Sport in America: Our Defining Stories.”
“I focused on every moment on the course,” Sanders said. She remembered children along the route offering gummy bears baggies, icy pops and Dixie cups of water.
Sanders could barely walk after she crossed the Boylston Street finish line in 3 hours, 33 minutes, 13 seconds. She visited a medical tent, found her mom holding an unmistakable neon green sign, and they walked into her hotel room — No. 911 on the ninth floor, she said — at the nearby Lenox on Exeter Street.
“That’s when we heard the first explosion,” Sanders said.
The first of two pressure-cooker bombs went off at 2:49 p.m. at the corner of Boylston and Exeter, across the street from The Lenox.
“I was already so emotional, every step of that day,” Sanders said. “I just lost it. I didn’t know what it was, but it didn’t sound good.”
The second explosion came 12 seconds later, on the opposite side of The Lenox, a little farther away on Boylston. But it felt stronger and sounded louder. She screamed and looked outside her window.
“I was freaking out,” Sanders said. “Everybody else around me had their wits about them and were calming me down.”
She said the hotel was quickly locked down, and she was told to turn off her cellphone. Are the bombers targeting hotels, she wondered. Sirens blared. A hotel evacuation began within an hour of the bombings.
“Scariest moments of my life, walking down nine flights of stairs,” Sanders said. “Every step, the words out of my mouth were, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.’ My mom was saying, ‘It’s not our time. It’s not our time. It’s not our time.'”
She exited into a sea of people, estimating half of them had a semblance of what had happened. Military trucks arrived with men in full gear.
“This strange moment of trying to grasp it all,” Sanders said. “I was in and out of just completely out of it to bawling.”
She reached her husband, three-time U.S. Olympic Alpine skier Erik Schlopy, and the rest of her family on the phone. Her 5-year-old son, Spider, heard some of the news and asked if she “had any scrapes or scratches.”
Schlopy told her to find an airport other than Boston’s Logan to fly out, for safety reasons. She went to Logan anyway, determined to land in Utah as soon as possible.
“Erik,” she said, “I just want to get home to you guys. That’s it.”
Sanders was home by 9 o’clock that night.
On her Hawaii trip, Sanders recently struck up a conversation with folks who told her they were from Hopkinton. They offered her their bathroom and some water for Monday.
“That’s the Boston Marathon right there,” Sanders said. “That’s what I felt last year. We were in thousands of people’s living rooms as we were running. It felt like a massive, giant hug from Boston.”
Sanders’ daughter, Skye, turns on 8 on Monday. Sanders will run 26.2 miles wearing a “Happy 8th Birthday Skye!” shirt, one her daughter helped make.
She’ll cross the finish in the shirt, quickly she hopes. Her flight home was recently pushed up to 3:50 p.m. She will forgo a post-race shower to make it to Park City in time for Skye’s birthday dinner, because her family will not be with her in Boston.
“I can’t think of a worse day for [my kids] than cheering their mom on for 3 1/2 hours,” she joked.
Sanders said she decided four days after last year’s marathon to return for this year’s race. She had put on all of her Boston gear, including not a hat but a visor, and went out for a run.
“I noticed this strong sense to represent and show ourselves and the world, and most important show the people the hurt us that we are not afraid,” Sanders said. “We are a strong community.
“Absolutely, I had to come back and run Boston.”
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