A Seat in the Bleachers: Neither heat nor disaster can break Crouch’s spirit

It was an all too familiar sight: A runner dazed and fallen in a heap on the asphalt at the finish l

It was an all too familiar sight:

A runner dazed and fallen in a heap on the asphalt at the finish line, a first responder rushing to help . . .

This wasn’t the Boston Mar­athon, but Saturday’s Freihofer’s Run for Women.

And it wasn’t bombs, but a deliriously oppressive heat index that ignored the time of day (9:45 a.m.) and calendar (June 1).

“Our medical control told me to go up there and be ready to scoop people up,” Albany Fire Department Lt. Tom Conway said with a grin.

So Engine 5’s designated finish-line guy was right there when elite runner Sarah Crouch crumbled to the pavement after finishing 14th overall.

The other echo to Boston was how quickly Crouch bounced back.

The bombs on Marathon Monday, April 15, ripped the heart out of the city of Boston, the country and the running community, but it hasn’t taken long for people to reclaim what is theirs.

The evidence was clear and empirical at Freihofer’s, which drew over 5,000 runners for the first time in the 35-year-year history of the race.

But it was also clear in a symbolic sense, in the form of runners like Crouch and Diane Nukuri Johnson, a two-time Olympian for Burundi who was eighth at Boston and finished two seconds and two spots behind Crouch on Saturday.

“That’s one of the great things about Freihofer’s is this is the most people they’ve ever had, and that — in the wake of what happened in Boston — shows that runners are resilient, we’re not afraid and we’re going to run,” Crouch said.

“It was definitely traumatic. It was heart-breaking,” Johnson said. “Just to do a marathon is emotionally and physically exhausting. And when you just got done, this happens . . . I hope it’s something we never have to worry about and can just put it behind us.

“I took a break and visited family, and you just realize what’s most important is the people around you, family and friends. Life is too short.”

Johnson was eating lunch in the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel a block from the finish line when she and other runners heard the muffled sound of the two bombs.

They went up to the third floor for a window view of the smoke and chaos.

Crouch, a Division II national champion in the 10,000 meters for Western Washington University in 2011, didn’t run the Marathon, but stayed in town to root for colleagues after having competed in the event’s 5k the day before.

She left the spectator area at the finish line about a half-hour before the bombs went off, and was in her hotel nearby when her coach asked via text message if she was OK.

Crouch had taken multiple photos and video during the race, which she would later turn over to the FBI.

“. . . This horrific display of hatred, it has stolen the innocence of my beloved sport,” she posted on Facebook after she and husband Michael returned to their home in North Carolina.

“It has forever tainted what is supposed to be a celebration of the indomitable will of the human spirit and has replaced it with fear. It doesn’t seem right that I should wake up this morning to birds chirping and the first buds of spring, but you know what I’m going to do today? I’m going to run. And every step I take will be in defiance of the people who are trying to take my freedom from me. I suggest you do the same.”

It’s that spirit that got Crouch, bright-eyed and bubbly, to the Freihofer’s interview tent not long after she blacked out.

Crouch’s ordeal captured what it means to be a runner.

No matter how prepared the field was for the humid, 82-degree conditions, the times were going to be slow, and the toll would be great.

Crouch said she had no mem­ory of the last quarter-mile of the race. The only reason she knows she passed out immediately after crossing the line is because somebody told her.

“I was aware of about 2.9 of a 3.1-mile race,” she said with a rueful laugh.

Conway scooped her off the road and carried her to the nearby med­ical tent, where EMT’s applied ice packs and revived her.

It will be impossible for us to forget iconic images from the Boston bombings, like that of the runner blown off his feet and the three Boston police officers fanning out in front of him.

After the finish of the Freihofer’s Run, Crouch remembers “just barely, being on someone’s shoulder.”

That’s three or four minutes of her life that will just have to go missing.

Other pieces will linger forever.

“I think the best part of today was, after the national anthem, I remember turning around and just seeing thousands of women behind me and kind of feeling that pride and girl power, at the risk of sounding superficial,” Crouch said, chuckling.

“Really, that touched my heart.”

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