Over the past four years, Norwood, Massachusetts, natives Matt Brown and Lucas Carr have exemplified what makes the Boston Marathon such a unique display of perseverance and the human spirit. The moniker "Boston Strong" came about in the aftermath of the 2013 marathon bombings as the city united to help those affected by the attack. Brown, a paraplegic, and Carr, a Boston firefighter and retired Army Ranger, did it together.
Carr, 39, has pushed Brown, 22, in his wheelchair through the marathon each of the last two years and in three of the last four; they missed the 2013 race because Brown had pneumonia. Unfortunately, Brown recently fell ill again with a bad infection that kept him hospitalized for the last week. There was still hope as of Sunday morning that Brown's four-day-long fever would break, but by the afternoon Brown was ruled out of Monday's race. However, just as they have for the last four years, Brown, Carr, and Brown's family will hold a reception after the marathon, both to raise awareness for spinal cord injury research and to give runners a place to celebrate their accomplishments.
"With me not being able to be there and participate in what I think is easily one of the best days in sports and the best day in Boston all year, it's sad and disappointing," Brown said. "But we still raised and will raise money for a great cause like so many of the other runners do. As important as running the Boston Marathon is, so is the fundraising you do to help those that need it more than me and more than Luke. I think that Boston and the area always shines through in that regard and will again this year. I still feel we're a part of that and that's why this day means so much. We're all in this together and I'll be rooting them on whether it's from the hospital or home."
Brown and Carr met in January of 2010 when Brown, then 16, suffered a spinal cord injury while playing hockey for Norwood High School. The injury left him paralyzed from the neck down. When Carr, then 33, heard about Brown's injury, he immediately reached out to his family to see if he could help. Carr played hockey at Norwood High School and major junior hockey in Canada, and wanted to be there for a fellow hockey player and Norwood native. At first, Carr worked to get Brown's story out and to help Brown remain active in the hockey community. He and Brown would go on to run the 2012 Boston Marathon together, fundraising for Brown's medical care and other spinal cord injury charities.
"As a hockey player, your dream is to play in the pros and eventually hoist the Stanley Cup and have your name engraved in it," Carr said. "But on a continuing process, as a runner now going forward, pushing another individual who's been affected by an injury that's changed his life, everything else has changed with that. We have continually gotten better. Every year our times are improving and in turn his life and attitude on everything improves.
"The goal is that we're striving towards that ultimate goal where one year Matt is running beside me rather than me pushing him. I truly believe that can happen. So this is why we do this. It's not just about the goal of finishing and improving our times. It's about the bigger picture and improving his quality of life. This isn't just a bucket list thing anymore, it's tradition and it's part of a bigger mission."
For Brown, the Boston Marathon experience is a way for him to, at least once a year, recapture the pride he felt as a hockey player.
"I know I'm not running it but this is the closest I can get to running it right now," Brown said from his hospital bed Friday. "It's such a special day and it's also a chance for me to get back into that competitive spirit and that athlete mentality. Honestly, for me, it's like jumping back into a game every year, but here and nowhere else, you get a standing ovation for four hours. It's incredible hearing the people yell your name and say 'Keep it up!' and 'Don't stop!' and that's why we never quit and finish the race."
After a successful debut as a team in 2012, Brown's illness in 2013 turned out to be a blessing in disguise for him and his family. However, Carr still ran and endured a horrific experience alongside his fellow marathoners when two bombs exploded 12 seconds apart at the finish line, killing three and injuring at least 264 runners and spectators.
"Not having to push Matt not only saved him from harm by not being there but it actually allowed me to help others who were by the first explosion," Carr said. "I was about 150 feet from the first explosion. I knew right away what it was. When you serve and have witnessed and heard that sound, you will always know what that sound is. Some people thought they were shooting off cannons; some people thought it was a transformer or sewer cap, but it wasn't anything like that and I knew right away so I ran towards it to help. So five to ten seconds after the explosion, the smoke started to clear and there were bodies everywhere and it was just pandemonium."
"When you get on that C-17 [military transport airplane] to come home, you're like 'OK I'm going home, going to do a training cycle real quick, going to go on leave, going to do some more training and then go back over there and fight some more bad guys' and that's the cycle a soldier has," he added. "There's never a part of that cycle where the violence happens while you're home or when you're home for good. That doesn't factor in."
Rather than discourage or slow Carr and Brown down, the bombing only motivated them return in 2014.
"I felt the determination in Matt and saw it in his eyes that he was so proud to be part of this again," said Carr. "That put me in autopilot and we had our best race yet The opportunity we had that day to be part of that race was something out of this world. You could've shot me in the arm or leg, you could've hit me with a baseball bat, but there was nothing outside of killing me that was going to stop me that day. Nothing was going to stop us that day or going forward on marathon day. That was our chance to answer the bell and we did it."
"'Boston Strong' was and is real," said Brown. "I will never forget how loud that 2014 race was. I always have headphones on listening to music until we enter Boston during the race but this time I didn't have headphones on the entire race. I'm getting chills and welling up just describing this to you. It was just an incredibly emotional day. I was so happy to be a part of it and so happy to see how much this city loves one another. The way they cheered on the entire 30,000 people the whole way, is something I will never forget."
For Brown, Carr, and all those who ran the Marathon, that 2014 race was a way to remind the world that the runners of Boston cannot be stopped. Brown and Carr might not be running together in 2016, but they will still be a part of the race. And after that, well, there's always next year.