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Denver runner reclaims what she lost in Boston Marathon bombing (Local Tips & Reviews)

As soon as Diane Wozniak took her first steps of the 2013 Boston Marathon, she was reminded of the reasons she wanted it to be her last.

As the thousands of runners around her seemed to close in like a pack of hyenas, Wozniak had a panic attack for the first time during any race. She was a veteran — this was her third Boston marathon — and she loved the iconic, historic race, the only marathon that requires qualification times for amateurs to run. But that day, for some reason, was not a good day. She didn’t know why, other than her unpredictable struggles with anxiety and the fact that marathons are 26.2 miles, a darn long way that offers lots of opportunity for something to go wrong.

“Something seemed off,” Wozniak said.

She found reasons to keep going, like the Army soldier slogging along with a 30-pound rucksack, and searched for the next bit of inspiration, like a blind runner. When she reached the finish line, she was grateful for the hugs from her friends and the medal around her neck. Now she could run half-marathons and other races that were easier on her body. She thanked all the volunteers, grabbed some snacks and patted fellow runners on their sweaty backs, soaking in the experience like a kid trick-or-treating for the last time. Then it was time to go. 

Two blocks away from the finish, they heard a bang, the sound the trash truck makes as it dumps your refuse, she said. Wozniak and her friends found it weird, until the second bang, a minute later. By just a few minutes, they had dodged the worst of the Boston Marathon bombing. 

Wozniak, now 46, believes she felt the bad energy that day, the same kind of connection she felt with the special runners who got her to the end. She is practical enough, as a family law attorney with Sherman & Howard in Denver, to know how “woo woo” that sounds. But she has no other explanation for it: She felt the ugly evil that would kill three people and wound 280 others. 

Wozniak’s husband, Chris, believes Wozniak was somehow able to tell that something was going to go wrong. That sensitivity to others was a reason he fell in love with her. 

“She’s very interested in you when she’s talking to you,” Chris said. “She’s empathetic. She’s a feeler. That event hit her very hard, and it’s because she was feeling for the humanity of the tragedy.” 

We were all affected in one way or another by the Boston bombing, which turned a special, easy-going holiday, Patriot’s Day, and one of the world’s best races and cloaked it in horror. The running community took it personally. 

“You take this thing that is sacred to us,” said Kate Lewis, one of Wozniak’s running partners, “and you take the sacred of the most sacred, and you literally blow it up. It’s the reward for all the hard work you put in, and you turn it into a trauma.”

In this Monday April 15, 2013, file photograph, emergency workers aid injured people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following two explosions . (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

In the years that followed, Wozniak and Chris would travel to Boston on marathon day to support the runners. She wanted to let them know it was OK. But to her, the attack was like bombing Disneyland. 

“Races are our gathering places,” Wozniak said. “This peaceful place I go to for lots of different reasons was now … broken.” 

That Boston Marathon would not be her last after all. She is older now, but once again she worked herself into the elite shape you need to qualify. It will mean so much that this year, on the 10th anniversary, she will run it again.

Chelsea May’s friendship with Wozniak will probably survive until they die, and that’s because it survived their first marathon together. 

They were friends for four years and only 20 years old at the University of Oklahoma, May said, when the besties at first sight decided to run a marathon and raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society with its popular Team in Training program. Wozniak had no idea what it took to run a marathon, even though she ran cross-country in high school. 

“I was the party girl, and that started Wednesday and would go through Saturday night,” Wozniak said. “Chelsea would wake me up on Sunday for her long run, and I was so hung over. I hated her.” 

And yet, as much as she hated running, she kind of loved it, too, something that nearly all serious runners will relate to. “I unleashed a monster,” May said and laughed. 

They may not have met because of running, but like most of Wozniak’s closest relationships, their friendship now revolves around it. Running, for instance, is how she met Chris. They were in the same running group and connected for the first time during a Christmas lights run that ended with frozen yogurt. Chris now calls this their first date, but that’s hindsight, she said. 

“We didn’t have a first date,” Wozniak said and laughed. “All of a sudden his stuff was just at my house.” 

Diane Wozniak and her husband, Chris, pose during a trip to San Diego, California. Diane met Chris on a holiday lights run and bonded while he coached her and her friends through speed workouts before a race. (Provided by Diane Wozniak)

There wasn’t a need for one. Chris, an experienced runner and Ironman finisher, coached her group of friends through track workouts, a method runners use to get faster. When they were done, they’d grab a bite to eat. 

“There was an attraction there, and as much as she would tell you she’s more introverted, she was a very genuine and friendly and open person,” Chris said. “We had something in common, and she’s a really good runner. That was attractive, too.” 

Wozniak could be both the cheerleader and the drill sergeant, Chris said, a quality that drew people, including Lewis. Lewis asked Wozniak to pace her at the Leadville 100, and she was there at the perfect time, during Lewis’ lowest point in the race. She had just summited the grueling Hope Pass and was feeling every bit of the toughest climb. Wozniak wouldn’t let her sit down unless she ate a cola-flavored gel, which was exactly what she needed. 

“Thank goodness I had her,” Lewis said. “She was perfect in those moments.” 

Running gave Wozniak close friends, her husband and her sanity: It helped with her anxiety, figure out her tough cases and gave her a way to process life. 

“It helps to center yourself,” May explained. “Some go out to bars or go to dinner. We go run.” 

Wozniak and her group of friends heard the second explosion then the disturbing quiet that muffled the party-like atmosphere of thousands of people cheering runners celebrating the greatest accomplishment of their lives. They still didn’t know what had happened, but they did know one thing: They needed to get out of there.

They hustled as fast as their drained legs could manage and found a sports bar another couple blocks from the finish. The TVs had no answers.

It always takes the world a bit to get its bearings after a horrific event, like a boxer who just took too much of a left hook. Wozniak called Chris, who’d already read a text that his wife had finished and thought she was calling her to give him the good news. 

Wozniak asked him if he knew what was going on. He had no clue. 

Then, all at once, Wozniak saw a wisp of smoke, heard sirens and saw the TVs switch over to a special report. Chris, calm as ever, swallowed his own pain, anger and worry — he’d run Boston once himself — and told them to walk instead of use the subway and to get back to their hotel as fast as possible. 

At least Chris knew she was OK. Nothing exposes the fragile connections of our world like an attack. Phone lines jammed as everyone wanted to know if their loved ones were OK, seemingly all at once. It was hours before Wozniak would touch base with close friends including May. 

“When I heard her voice,” May said, “I just broke down.” 

Even today, Wozniak tears up at the unfairness of the day. During races in the past, more spectators and beaming runners would fill the sports bar, the drinks would flow like a spring, and they’d party with their posse, sort of like those days in college, before enjoying a glorious night’s sleep. 

Instead, she spent a sleepless night alone in a dark room, listening to reports about people dying or losing limbs. The next morning, she carried a heavy heart along with the gratitude of not having seen the carnage up close, being lucky enough to finish — a large group was stopped before the end — and being able to go home. 

“I’d never been so happy to be on a 6 a.m. flight,” Wozniak said. 

Wozniak may have hated those early-morning long runs fueled by hangovers, but that first marathon with May, in 1998, was the first Rock and Roll Marathon in the series’ long history, in San Diego. She loved it so much that she moved to the city for a while. She ran a marathon the next year, knocking nearly an hour off her time and qualifying for Boston. 

She first ran Boston in 2007 and ran it again in 2009 and, of course, 2013. She was ready to retire from marathons before the bombing, but she ran her fastest one the next year, the only time she’d gone under 3:20, a Boston qualifier by at least 20 minutes. 

She was not going to let the bastards win. 

“It lit a fire under me,” she said. 

She didn’t run another marathon for several years, but she did things like run half marathons in Leadville on a trail and 5Ks fast enough to finish on podiums out of hundreds in her age group, and the Mount Evans Ascent, a race up one of Colorado’s most famous 14ers. She also instilled a love for running in other beginners, coaching them in the Team in Training program, where she got her start in Oklahoma. 

“I get older and my times reflect that,” May said. “She doesn’t seem to do that.”

Hanging on to her fitness meant she could meet Boston’s strict standards yet again, but only with a lot of work: Boston made it more difficult since 2013 because so many wanted to experience the magic and now seemed to know how fleeting it could be, even years after the bombing. 

The pandemic complicated things, but it made her qualifying race, in 2021 at the California International Marathon, more special. Gratitude overflowed from the thousands of runners who now understood the privilege it was to pack together and run like wolves, and Wozniak the whisperer felt their spirit: All that juju carried her to the end, where she qualified by 10 minutes. 

“It just fueled my race,” she said. “I was so pumped to be there.” 

She expects to feel that same spirit when she runs Boston on April 17. She didn’t save her return for the 10th anniversary, but she believes it will be more meaningful. 

“Being back in that community,” Wozniak said. “Being there will really showcase what it means to be alive, to keep going, to show up and celebrate.” 

In fact, this will not be her last marathon, and perhaps not her last Boston. She will run them, she says, until she can’t. Some lingering will make this year’s race difficult, but not impossible, to finish. That’s OK, she said. 

She knows pain. 

Diane Wozniak poses at the finish of the 2013 Boston Marathon, the day before the race. (Provided by Diane Wozniak)

The Boston Marathon is just as known for its special gear as Heartbreak Hill. So many runners get the new jacket at the expo that the lines are a half-hour long, just like concert-goers who happily spend $50 for a T-shirt. Wozniak debated getting her third jacket in 2013 — they aren’t cheap, and how many do you really need — but put it off until she decided to get one as she ran the race. She obviously didn’t get that chance and regretted it. 

In 2019, Wozniak she found a 2013 jacket online. A woman named Amanda who sent it to her enclosed a note: Her husband was at the finish that day, working for Marathon Sports, and waded through the blood to help those hurt by the explosions. The PTSD he suffered, even years later, forced them to move to Utah, far away from the reminders. Amanda held onto the jacket as a reminder of that day but could never wear it. 

She was glad, she wrote, that it was going to someone who ran in 2013 and not just looking for a novelty item. 

“I want the jacket to have a new home and a new life,” Amanda wrote, “with someone who loves running as much as I do.” 

Wozniak plans to wear it in Boston. 

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