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Running from Empty: How One Woman Claimed Victory over the 2013 Boston Marathon

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

Take a moment and imagine that you are just a few dozen yards from achieving your life long dream. You can actually see it looming just ahead of you. It practically begs you to reach out and touch it. Every fiber of your being can almost sense the euphoric feelings you are about to experience. It is so, so close.

Then ... BOOM ... it's gone in an instant.

Everything you have worked years and years for is lost in the chaos of a single frightening moment. But, it’s not just your moment. It is one that will be remembered for generations by legions of people touched by grief.

This is exactly what happened to Jennifer McAlister. She was literally one tenth of one mile from completing her first marathon when two bombs exploded near the 2013 Boston Marathon's finish line. Since that tragic day five years ago, Jennifer's life has been filled with emotional healing, restoring hope, and experiencing God’s unbridled grace.

In her 2017 book, Press On: Stories of Endurance, Faith, and Trust as You Run the Race of Life, Jennifer chronicles the mere moments that separated her from life and death on that fateful day. But more importantly, she shares how God is not only the God of our eternity but also the God of our moments.

I recently sat down with Jennifer to discuss how to best see the power of God in our lives, what complete trust looks like, and why you should never give up despite your circumstances.

You were involved in one of the most tragic moments of the last decade in our nation. Please describe your connection to the Boston Marathon bombings?

Qualifying for the Boston Marathon had been a dream of mine for years, and I had tried and I tried, and I really wanted to get there in 2012. But, I didn’t qualify. But, I finally did qualify and found myself at the 2013 Boston Marathon.

Everything seemed normal as I was turning down Boylston Street, which is where the finish line is. I was at the 26.1 mile mark of 26.2 and I was looking at the finish line. I was overcome with so many emotions. One was I could not believe I was actually going to see a dream come true, that I was going to cross the Boston Marathon finish line, because it had seemed impossible for so long. Then, I was overcome with fatigue, because that’s a hard marathon. I was tired and I wanted to be done. Then, I was thinking about seeing my husband who was waiting for me at the finish line. He told me exactly where he was going to be the night before, where he was going to be waiting for me.

As I was running I heard an explosion and I saw smoke, but I didn’t think anything of it because that was such a perfect day, I couldn’t imagine anything sinister. People were so friendly all along the way, so I thought maybe it was Patriot’s Day fireworks. So I kept running, then the building in front of me blew. So, I stopped and looked over and there was a police officer not far from me. I saw fear in his eyes. He looked at me and was yelling at me to run, run, run, but he was pointing the other direction away from the finish line, away from where my husband was and my friends were supposed to be.

I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if my husband was dead. I didn’t know if I was next. And at the time, we didn’t know it was only going to be two bombs. We were under attack. So, I was just bracing for the next detonation, and as scary as that was, I was in the unique place where I was afraid of getting hit by a bomb or blown up by a bomb, but I wasn’t afraid of where I was going to go. I knew where I would go, and I knew if something happened to my husband, I knew where he was going too since we’re both Christians. I knew that even if we died. I knew where our ultimate finish line was.

Well, since I’m still talking to you, obviously, I was spared. My sense of urgency to share the Gospel is through the roof since that day because God very well could have taken me home, but He chose not to. And since He’s given me this chance and since He had me so close, there’s a reason why He kept me around. That’s one of the reasons I wrote Press On.

You certainly are a survivor and I sense that you feel like God has sent you on a mission. With that in mind, you have been quoted as saying, "If we really want to see the power of God, it has to be personal and we have to be at a place where we need it." Please explain what you mean by that.

We all want miracles in our life, but we never want to be in a place where we need a miracle. The reason I am so close to God and I trust Him so much is because I’ve been put in situations where I had no choice but to trust and to cling to Him, and He’s proved faithful every single time. What I thought were the most distressing moments and times in my life have, on the other side, been the biggest blessings in my life. I hate to say that I want to go through any of those times again, but the blessings on the other side are so amazing. I wouldn’t change any of that. When bad things happen or tragedy strikes, we have a choice to either become bitter or better. When we trust God even in the midst of the storm, we are going to become better and stronger. I love the verse in 2nd Corinthians that says God comforts us in our troubles, so that we in turn can help others in their troubles. I’ve certainly seen that in my life.

Why did you write this book? You could just as easily decided that this incident was too painful and heartbreaking and just move on from it.

A few reasons. One, people kept telling me, 'You should write a book. Jennifer, you should write a book.' Otherwise, I wouldn’t have even thought of that. But also, my work as a counselor at pregnancy crisis center and me sharing my story and seeing the impact it has had on people. When I couldn’t cross the finish line at the Boston Marathon, on one hand I was thanking God that He spared my life and He spared my husband’s life, and I thanked Him and I thanked Him, but I was asking Him...

'I don’t understand. Why would you get me so close where I can see the finish line, but I can’t cross the finish line? Why?' A thought that came to my mind, which didn’t come immediately because I was so stressed about what had happened, but this thought was very clear, and it was, Jennifer, you are going to cross the Boston Marathon finish line, which I did. I came back in 2014 and finished what I started the year before. My thought was, you’re going to cross the Boston Marathon finish line, but when you cross your eternal finish line, you’re going to have a lot more souls with you because of your story, because of your testimony. I couldn’t understand what that meant at the time. It’s now, five years later, and I understand what that means. I was asked to share the Gospel at a parenting class that the pregnancy center has, and there were about 14 people in there. They asked me to come and share my story, so I went in and told them about Boston and shared the Gospel. The entire class prayed to receive Jesus. So, I know that God is using this.

In the context of your book, Press On, what does trust now look like for you?

Trust is believing God is going to show up, believing God is my victory. Anything that happens to me, He’s already gone ahead of me, He’s beside me and He’s behind me. So no matter what situation I find myself in, I am in the center of His will. Even at 26.1 miles when I was standing there, I was in the center of His will, and that’s trust. That’s just not putting faith in myself, putting faith in Him.

Were you at a point in your life where you really needed to find the ability to trust God? If so, describe what that looked like?

I thought that I was a strong Christian at the time, and I loved God, but sometimes I questioned not God but myself. I think sometimes... Did I miss out? Did I not do something? Did I do everything I was supposed to? Things don’t always work out. Things very rarely work out. So by Him placing me in these situations where if He doesn’t show up, I’ve got nothing. He has to. I think, too, the marathons, other things in my life. I like dreaming big. I like putting myself in situations where, 'If you don’t show up, God, I can’t do this. But if you choose to loan me your strength, then I can.' And He’s been faithful every time. I even think, as I’m telling you about my story, I don’t know how I did that.

If I were to sum up your book in two words, it would be: perseverance and trust. Is either one of these more important than the other?

God calls us to persevere. He tells us that as we persevere, then our trust increases. I believe that. We have to be in the game. You’ve heard many times when you’re in the game, there’s going to be pain. But if you know what the goal is, then you’re OK with that. You’re stronger on the other side of your trials. You’re stronger if you persevere. So, they go hand-in-hand.

The enemy wants us to give up. He doesn’t want us to see victory. He wants us to walk in defeat, and God doesn’t. We have to do our part. And I found that the more I go through something hard, I am stronger on the other side. So when life’s problems come, it doesn’t throw me as much, because God has been training me for so long. And He’s always been faithful.

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