Cairns Unsure How He’ll Respond at Marathon

By Stan Friedman

SWANZEY, NH (March 21, 2014)—Editor’s note: The 2014 Boston Marathon will be run April 21. With the race one month away, Covenant News Service is publishing stories of Covenanters whose reasons for running are connected to the deadly bombing last April 15. Today’s stories focus on Julie Miller of Alexandria, Minnesota, who had finished the race and was just a couple blocks away when the blasts occurred. Dave Cairns, executive director of Pilgrim Pines Conference Center, was only two-tenths of a mile from reaching the finish line.

Dave Cairns is fairly certain he’ll have the physical strength to complete the Boston Marathon a month from today. “The emotional side—that’s the unknown,” he says.

A lifelong runner, the director of Pilgrim Pines Conference Center was just two-tenths of a mile from the finish line last year when the bomb blasts went off, killing three people and injuring more than 260 others.

Within days, he was running again, but says, “For two weeks I couldn’t lift my eyes because they were up when the bombs went off.” He had heard the explosions and seen the smoke rising from where his wife and children were supposed to meet him.

He didn’t know at the time that they were actually several blocks away.

Cairns spent the next hour and half looking for them. Days after the blast he said, “Those were the scariest moments of my life.”

When he finally found them, Cairns says, “I was inconsolable.” He adds, “I had run 26 miles. I just had shorts and a shirt, no ID. I was so physically and emotionally drained. I was sobbing. I could hardly talk because I was shivering so hard from the cold.”

Cairns says his wife, Becky, looked at him, “She just saw something in me she had never seen before, I was just so inconsolable. She started wondering if she would ever have her husband back.”

By the end of that summer, he had raced again and was doing better emotionally.

But he is still trying to process what happened. The first few months after the bombing were the hardest.

Cairns traveled back to Boston twice last summer. The first time was with Becky and their sons Drew, 14, and Trent, 12, and nine-year-old daughter Annis.

They had planned to make the marathon week an extended vacation, but the tragedy ended that trip.

“It was important to go back as a family,” Cairns says. He showed them where he was when the bombs exploded, and the neighborhood streets where he had searched for his family.

There also were difficult moments for Cairns, such as when he heard a siren blowing in the distance. “I was saying no, no, no—the sound brought me back. My daughter asked me, ‘Why are you saying no?’”

As he walked by the site of the finish line in the business district, the normalcy was almost overwhelming. “I was frustrated seeing people sitting on the curb eating their lunch,” he says. “I thought, ‘Do you realize what happened here? How can you be so casual?’”

Cairns and his wife returned to Boston again in July. It was a trip they already had planned before the bombing. They drove the race route because he wanted her to experience the course with him. “I told her about the emotions I experienced at different parts of the trip,” he says. “It was a really painful experience because we knew what was going to happen.” They stopped halfway for coffee to prepare for what was coming.

“People say you have to go back so you can show the terrorists that they didn’t win,” he says.

The incident has impacted his own sense of identity, which also has driven in part his desire to run the marathon again. “For a couple of months, I was trying to figure out where I fit in the story,” Cairns says. “I didn’t cross the line so I’m not a finisher. I’m not a survivor. I’m not a victim, but I was impacted emotionally and spiritually.”

Two days after the bombing he sent his kids to school. That morning as he was alone in the house, he recalled the words Covenant minister Lon Allison had spoken at an event in 1990.

Allison had encouraged the gathering to wake up each morning and say, “Good morning, Lord. It’s good to be a child of God.”

“I flipped that around,” Cairns says. “I say, ‘I am a child of God, which makes this a good day.’ That’s how that horrible experience has brought a new clarity to me as a child of God.”

Yet Cairns is not casual about the pain others continue to suffer and why they or their loved ones weren’t protected. He understands why they would be angry and has no answer for why his family was spared and not others.

“I feel nothing for the bombers,” he says. “I don’t feel the need for retribution, I don’t feel anger, I don’t feel forgiveness. There’s nothing they can do to the one bomber that will ever change my life. I don’t dwell on it. I’ve felt absolutely nothing. I don’t know why.”

Click here to read previous stories about Boaz Johnson, professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University, and Kyle Small, associate dean and associate professor of church leadership at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

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About the Author

Cathy is the managing editor of the Covenant Companion. She lives in Chicago and hates driving so much that she bikes to work even when it’s 20 degrees and snowing. She blogs with seven other Covenant women at theoloqui.net and recently acquired an English mastiff puppy named Helmut.

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