I’ve always been a planner. That’s how I am,” says Ella Pittman, a senior at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A member of the school’s equestrian team, she is also a long-distance runner who decided at age 12 to qualify for the Boston Marathon before her 21st birthday. “I didn’t even like running yet,” she remembers.
It took six years for Ella to embrace the challenge in earnest. An invitation from a fellow member of the college equestrian team to do a long-distance run prompted her to start. Four years later—and two weeks shy of her 21st birthday—she was ready for her first marathon, the 117th running of the famed event in Boston last April 15. She was competing as part of the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation team and had set for herself the goal of completing the 26.2-mile course in less than four hours.
It was a plan that likely saved her life.
After conquering the toughest stretch of the course—Heartbreak Hill, about 20 miles from the start—Ella crossed the finish line in 3:59.14. But there was precious little time to reflect on her accomplishment. Within minutes, two explosions killed three spectators, injured 264 and forever changed the lives of countless others.
“I remember the bombs vividly,” Ella says. “I saw the fire from the second one. I don’t remember crossing the finish line.”
What she does recall is looking over her shoulder while pulling on her jacket and seeing a wave of panicked people stampeding toward her. She heard a voice shout “Run!”
“It didn’t matter that I had just finished a marathon,” Ella says. “I ran. I didn’t want to be crushed. I heard volunteers yelling to keep going and don’t look back.”
She felt the cell phone taped to her arm vibrate as a flood of friends and classmates texted “Are you all right?” Yes, she was unharmed. But the scene around her was surreal, macabre. As a volunteer handed her a medal for finishing the race, her thoughts swirled: “I’m getting a medal while people are bleeding in the streets.”
Fifteen minutes later, she found her parents, Kate Pittman and Hilary Ziven. Neither was aware of the tragedy just blocks away. “They were so calm,” Ella recalls. “They thought there had been an electrical fire. I’m so lucky. Lucky to still have them. To have my legs.”
More difficult for Ella was reclaiming her inner peace. Post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt gnawed at her.
She sought solace where she always has: in the company of horses. A few weeks after the marathon, the Mount Holyoke Lyons participated in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association National Championships in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Though she did not qualify to ride, Ella immersed herself in the routine of the show. “It was important for me to be where people were not constantly talking about the bombings, where it was OK to just be in the moment and cheer for my team.”
Then she spent a satisfying part of the summer riding a favorite equitation horse, General Washington, aka “George,” a Canadian warmblood owned by Cricket Stone Morris of Gladys, Virginia. Ella has known George since she was 14. “He was green. I was green. We fixed our problems together,” she says. This summer they enjoyed cross-country and trail-riding adventures as well as long, lazy swims. “It was good to gallop and not be afraid for a while,” she says. “I could just ride and talk to him.”
Now Ella is back in class at Mount Holyoke, where she’s on track to graduate next May with a double major in history and biology. Since September she has been applying to postgraduate veterinary programs with the goal of pursuing clinical work in equine sports medicine. She’s also a member of the equestrian team, and she hasn’t stopped long-distance running. The two pursuits, she says, “overlap for me. You learn you can’t blow all your energy up front. You have to hold back, pace yourself and keep re-evaluating where you are.”
Come next April 21, that’s likely to be the 118th running of the Boston Marathon, where Ella plans to complete the course with her teammates who, after the bombings, were unable to cross the finish line this year.