Chrissie Boatman started crying four blocks from the finish line.
The tears didn’t stop her from running.
But the farther she ran, the more she cried. And by the time she was in the shadow of the finish line at the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, she was face-scrunched-up bawling. She alternated between putting her hands over her mouth in disbelief and raising them above her head in triumph.
It took her five years to get to that finish line.
“I went across it this time,” she said, laughing.
That was no small accomplishment for Boatman. On a day when a record 26,200 runners waited out a nearly two-hour delay caused by early-morning thunderstorms, then battled high temperatures and brutal winds, everyone had a reason for being at the Memorial Marathon and sticking it out. But no one was motivated quite like Boatman.
She nearly died on the course in 2009.
Sunday, the Tecumseh resident returned to the Memorial Marathon for the first time since then. She came back to run the entire marathon and finish what she started.
“It was great,” she said after crossing the line. “Honestly, I felt so strong. I never even hit the wall.”
Five years ago, she hit it so hard that she almost didn’t survive.
* * *
Chrissie Boatman was like a lot of women seven years ago. She’d had kids, three in all. She’d hit a milestone birthday, turning 30. And she’d put on a few more pounds than she wanted. She decided it was time to get healthy.
So, she started Weight Watchers and joined a running club at the Y near her house in Mesa, Ariz. She wore sweatpants and baggy shirts and was a self-described horrible runner at first.
But running once a week eventually evolved into training for a 5K. Then came a 10K and a 10-miler and a half-marathon. Those races went so well that Boatman figured the next step was a marathon.
Her friends at the club thought she was a little crazy.
“You just started running a year ago,” they would tell her.
“Oh,” Boatman would say, “this is what you’re supposed to do.”
A native of Oklahoma, Boatman decided her first marathon would be back home. She would run the Memorial Marathon. She wanted to be prepared, so leading up to the race in April 2009, she followed a solid training plan and put in a lot of miles. She knew that she was ready to go by the time the race rolled around.
But on the morning of the race, Boatman walked from her car to the start line and realized that something might be wrong. Even though she was relatively new to distance running, this day felt different. Before other races, she’d been cold and shivering waiting to start. Before that Memorial Marathon, there was no chill in the air. It was actually warm. The sun wasn’t even up.
It was a bad sign.
That year turned out to be as warm, windy and humid a day as the Memorial Marathon has ever had. Runners dropped out by the dozens, even well-trained ones. They found the conditions too hazardous to navigate.
But Boatman figured she’d handled the Arizona heat, so she could handle this.
And she did for about 16 miles. But around that point, the Oklahoma humidity and wind caught up to her. She struggled to run, so she drank more water; she later learned that drinking water instead of sports drinks threw off her already out-of-balance electrolytes even more. She slowed down more, even stopping to walk occasionally.
Then, around Mile 20 or 21, she looked at her watch and had no idea what the numbers meant. She was swerving. She was shuffling. She was struggling.
As Boatman approached the aid station at Mile 23, medical workers came out to meet her. Someone ahead of her had told them that it looked like she might be in trouble.
“Hey,” one of the workers said, “are your OK?”
The worker reached out and touched her.
She collapsed into the worker’s arms.
Moments later, the workers had her submerged in a baby pool full of ice water. Boatman was crying and pleading to continue. If she could just sit down for a minute, she’d be fine, she argued. But she couldn’t hold herself up, open her eyes or even remember her husband’s phone number.
Her body temperature: 106.
Every heat stroke is serious, but this one was bordering on catastrophic. A body temperature of 106 degrees can cause a coma or brain damage. Left untreated, that level of heat stroke can become fatal.
Boatman could’ve died at Mile 23.
She was eventually taken to the medical tent at the finish line on Broadway where she was under the care of Tom Coniglione, the doctor who is the marathon’s medical director. He knew how dire her situation was, but he and his team are trained to deal with heat stroke like hers.
“You listen to me,” Coniglione told Boatman. “We’re gonna get you through this.”
Four hours later, Boatman walked out of the medical tent. She was the last runner to leave, and the finish line corral, normally bustling with runners wearing newly acquired medals and volunteers handing out everything from T-shirts to bananas, was totally deserted. A ghost town.
Boatman looked north up Broadway, and there was the finish line.
So close, yet so far.
“It was the saddest finish line,” she said just after noon Sunday.
“This,” she said, “was the happiest finish line.”
* * *
With the finish line behind her, Chrissie Boatman’s tears turned into smiles. She smiled as she was handed a thick, silky green ribbon with a marathon finisher’s medal attached. She smiled as she accepted a white marathon shirt with the word “FINISHER” on it.
But before she reached the refueling area where she could’ve gotten bananas or burgers, she veered into the medical tent and asked for Coniglione, the doctor who’d nursed her back to health in 2009 and who’d become a friend in the years since.
The 37-year-old mother of three in her bright red and orange running dress found the 73-year-old doctor in running shoes, and for a couple minutes, they hugged without letting go. They laughed. They cried.
“We’ve been waiting on her for a long time,” Coniglione said after finally separating from Boatman.
Even though Boatman felt good physically during the marathon, she had some mental hurdles. The weather delay caused doubts to creep into her mind. Will this mess up my nutrition? What about my hydration? What if I have another problem?
Then when the race started, she found conditions very similar to the day she collapsed. But since moving back home last August, she has been training in Oklahoma’s heat and wind. That’s one of the reasons that she felt like this would be a good year to return to the Memorial Marathon.
Still, as she approached the spot where she went down five years ago, a male runner had collapsed and was getting medical attention. There were some tears then and again when she reached the aid station at Mile 23. She has run a couple other marathons since 2009 and overcome the Mile 23 demon, but still, neither of them were quite like this. This was the spot.
“But as soon as I passed it and had my little cry,” Boatman said, “I was just strong.”
She finished in less than four hours — 3:55.07, to be exact — but time wasn’t important to her. Finishing was.
She sat inside the medical tent for a long while after crossing the finish line, but unlike five years ago, this trip was by choice. She wanted to meet some of the workers who helped her back then. She wanted to thank Coniglione and his team.
She wanted to celebrate her triumph with the people who saved her life.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.