With a few days left in his marathon training, 33-year-old Robert Wheeler hits the pavement for a post-work, 13-mile jog along the Charles River.
Wheeler, whose black hair is shaved almost bald, at times addresses others as “sir,” a polite formality hinting at the Marine he almost became before a medical discharge disqualified him from passing boot camp.
As he runs, the balls of his feet touch the ground first; he’s upright and efficient in his form, with a balletic, almost floating quality.
For years now, running has helped Wheeler keep his stress down. And when Monday rolls around, Wheeler will be one of the dozens of survivors from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing returning to the starting line.
‘I’m kneeling in glass’
Wheeler was a 23-year-old first-time competitor who had just crossed the marathon finish line in 2013 when the first bomb went off.
Suddenly, he transformed into a first responder, turning his shirt into a tourniquet for another man’s leg.
“I’m kneeling in glass and I feel that in my legs. And so I’m bleeding from my legs combined with other people’s blood. And I’m lying to the guy. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know what I’m doing. Don’t worry, you’re gonna be fine,’” Wheeler said.
At the same time, he was silently asking God to tell him what to do.
The man he helped survived. Wheeler left the bombings with psychological scars from the trauma of that day. He says he suffered a traumatic brain injury and some hearing loss from being near the blasts.
But that didn’t stop him from running, something that he found more solace in after the attacks. This will be his ninth Boston Marathon. Trauma experts say it can help runners process difficult emotions, and it’s an activity many bombing survivors have stuck to in the decade since the attacks. Survivors say running itself, and also returning to the course, has helped them heal.
Athletes, Wheeler said, tend to have “a fire” inside of them.
“And often enough, those with trauma have a little more,” he added. “Because unfortunately, trauma either tears you down, completely breaks you, or it can be a tool: you can use that fire to burn down the house, or you can use that fire to feed your soul and build yourself up and build that house within.”
Wheeler said there have been times when the fire inside him felt like it was getting out of control — and that’s where running comes in.
“[It] helps you accept things that really aren’t acceptable,” he said.
Running, he said, helps him work through his trauma.
How running can help coping with trauma
“When you’re running, your emotions [and] your physical body are all aligned,” said Dr. Shamaila Khan, a clinical psychologist at Boston Medical Center who specializes in treating trauma.
“It’s common for people to engage in physical activities, to work through challenges that may be emotional in nature, psychological in nature,” she said.
Khan says in general, running can increase levels of certain brain chemicals that boost a person’s ability to handle stress and improve their mood. The benefits of running — and exercise, in general — can reduce anxiety and create feelings of calm, and it may also help prevent cognitive decline and support learning.
Khan herself is intimately connected to the bombings. She was a mental health first responder on the day of the bombings. And she was the director of health services for the Massachusetts Resiliency Center, which opened in 2014 and served bombing survivors and their families until it closed in 2018.
She said one of the features of trauma is a tendency for those dealing with it to avoid emotions, to become “emotionally numb.”
“For some, returning to a space where it took place can evoke a lot of intense emotional and psychological reactions, physiological reactions, so avoiding it may seem like an intuitive way to not be further harmed,” Khan said. “Returning to the place where this event occurred or to a site as such, in one way can be intensely emotional, but it’s also a step towards healing.”
For Wheeler, returning to run the Boston Marathon brings a sense of triumph.
“There’s so many times during the run that you want to quit and you’re so tired, so exhausted, you feel you can’t take one more step,” he said. “Then there you are, another 10 miles later, you couldn’t believe you just passed that distance.”
One of Wheeler’s closest friends is his former Marine Corps recruiter, Shem Edrees. Photos taken immediately after the bombing show a shirtless Wheeler using a navy blue Marine Corps T-shirt — given to him by Edrees — to slow the bleeding of the man he attended to at the 2013 finish line.
“He’s not letting [trauma] hold him back,” Edrees said. “That’s where running comes in for being therapeutic. You know, he’s not going to let the actions of a few people hinder something that he loved in his life.”
Edrees also said he’s seen how Wheeler has embraced a life of service. When Wheeler’s not working at his contracting business, he’s traveled to volunteer with children affected by the war in Ukraine and teach English in Mongolia.
“I wanted to heal, and so I went out and did my best to become a healer,” Wheeler said. “I wanted to be loved, so I went out in the world and I try to do my best to love. I wanted to belong, so I went out and tried to make others feel like they belong. And I wanted hope, so I do my best to give others hope, and I get that in return.”
A family runs for trauma research
Audrey Epstein Reny and her husband were at the finish line in 2013 with their younger daughter, Gillian, to see their older daughter finish the race. A piece of shrapnel tore open one of Gillian’s legs, and her other leg was injured, too.
Doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital saved both of her legs, and after a long road to recovery, Gillian can join her parents for a run now. Afterward, the family wanted to honor the people who helped them.
“And we learned that trauma research and innovation is underfunded, that it’s an under-recognized medical discipline,” Reny said.
As she points out, accidents are the leading cause of death for those under 44, and injuries are the top reason people visit the emergency room every year.
When the family couldn’t find an existing organization supporting medical trauma research and training, they started their own in conjunction with Brigham and Women’s: the Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Center for Trauma Innovation. The center aims to “[transform] trauma care” by supporting medical research on topics from traumatic injury prevention to bone regeneration, conducting outreach, funding a fellowship to educate and train doctors on trauma, and awarding a grant for innovative trauma research every year.
"I would say that moment was when we reclaimed the finish line and turned it into something positive from something that had been so awful."Audrey Epstein Reny, co-founder of BWH’s Stepping Strong Center
Reny said in 2014, the year after the bombings, she and her husband ran the Boston Marathon with friends, family and some of Gillian’s caregivers to raise money for the new center.
“We crossed the finish line, all eight of us together,” she said. “I would say that moment was when we reclaimed the finish line and turned it into something positive from something that had been so awful.
“For our family, it was a way for us to start to move forward into what now, 10 years later, is a decade of progress and hopefulness. And knowing that that tragedy has turned into something positive and meaningful that wouldn't have existed if that hadn’t happened,” Reny said. “So although I would erase that day in a heartbeat, I feel really honored, humbled and proud of all the good that has come out of it.”
They will have 154 people running on the Stepping Strong team on Monday. The center has raised millions in the years since, and the Renys say the Boston Marathon charity runners are the main way Stepping Strong brings in funds.
The Renys said their long runs together are a time to talk and connect. And Audrey says her solo runs are a time for reflection, to “solve a lot of the world’s problems.”
Their other daughter, Danielle, plans to run the marathon Monday with her father, Steve.
The intersection of memory, trauma and running
Khan said another aspect of treating trauma survivors is a focus on resilience. One way traumas can be treated, she says, is to very gradually expose people to things associated with their trauma in a safe, controlled and supportive manner.
For survivors of the bombing who are returning to the same course, she says that’s quite an accomplishment.
Khan said she’ll be at the finish line on Monday, cheering on survivors, many of whom are now her personal friends.
As for Wheeler, he expects this year will feel “heavy.”
“I’m gonna face some of those things that haunt me a little bit,” Wheeler said.
“Every year running Boston since, there’s that last mile or two, it’s always emotional. I’m always lost inside my own head. And a million memories kind of rubbing against you,” he said. “But at the same time, when you finish that, it’s freeing.”