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Kayla Gaulke of River Falls acknowledges her family members as she runs by the 17-mile mark during the 117th Boston Marathon Monday, April 15. <i>Submitted photos</i>1 / 2
Kayla Gaulke, center, is flanked by her grandmother Loma Gaulke and mother Wendy Zillgitt, left, and boyfriend Jerod Huppert and grandmother Joyce Zillgitt, right, after completing the 117th Boston Marathon Monday, April 15. The photo was taken minutes before two bombs exploded near the finish line two blocks away.2 / 2

Just hours after completing her first Boston Marathon; after two explosions tore through the crowd near the finish line; after the initial fear and anxiety and confusion of the situation had subsided, at least a little, Kayla Gaulke of River Falls started thinking: "What if?"

Gaulke ran last Monday's marathon in 3 hours, 44.04 seconds.

Roughly 25 minutes later, as she was relishing the achievement of beating her goal time of 3:45 and taking photos with her boyfriend and family members about two blocks away, the first of two bombs that left three people dead and over 180 injured exploded.

"I thought it might have been a cannon from the U.S.S. Constitution," she said, referring to the historic Navy frigate berthed permanently in Boston Harbor. "Then we heard the second boom and I still thought it was just part of the celebration. Then we saw all these ambulances and some lady said, 'Oh my God! Look at CNN! Then another lady started taking everyone off the street. We still didn't know what was going on."

The 25 year-old Gaulke, her mother Wendy Zillgitt, grandmother Joyce Zillgitt, step-grandmother Loma Gaulke, and boyfriend Jerod Huppert, had planned on returning to the finish line to cheer on the rest of the runners when the bombs went off.

Among the many calls that started popping up on her phone was one from her father, Rocky Branch Elementary School teacher and Wildcat boys' basketball coach, Greg Gaulke back in River Falls.

"We all started taking out our phones and seeing these text messages and Facebook posts asking, Are you OK?" Kayla Gaulke said. "They were moving everybody away from the area, and we just followed the mass of people. Then my dad called and asked me if we were OK and he started telling me what he saw on the news, and I just started bawling. He was telling me people died and lost arms and legs. I've never been in shock before, but I was then."

Gaulke's first thought was to get back to her hotel room. But with all public transportation suspended by the bombings, she and her family had no choice but to walk to their hotel located in Cambridge, across the Charles River from Boston.

"It was about two miles in a straight line but we ended up walking four or five miles to get back because we had to get to the bridge to cross the river," she said.

The group stopped at a different hotel on their walk to let her 80 year-old grandmother rest and to try and find out more information. On the TV in the lobby they saw the scrawl at the bottom of the screen that read, "...two dead, many injured..."

"I broke down again and my mom broke down again," she said. "You go from feeling confident and strong, thinking:'Hey! I just ran a marathon!' to feeling helpless."

Finally, more than three hours after the bombings, Gaulke and her family made it back to their hotel rooms.

"There was security at the hotel, and they checked all our room cards to make sure we were staying there," she said. "I got back to my room and started calling people, still trying to comprehend things.

"Then you start thinking about the what-ifs," she said. "What if I had run slower? Maybe my family would have been in that area waiting for me to finish. Or what if I had run faster? Then we all would have already been back at the finish line cheering on the other runners."

Gaulke was back home in River Falls, safe and sound, this past weekend, when the what-ifs started again as word of the killing of one of the alleged bombers and the capture of the other was plastered over the news.

"There were details about the suspects that sent shivers up my spine," she said. "The suspects were found on the MIT campus in Cambridge and shot an officer. My family and I were staying at the Marriott hotel in Cambridge right next to the MIT campus.

"After the explosions, my family and I were making our way back to Cambridge on foot because everything else was closed down so we had to walk across the Mass Ave. bridge that led us back to Cambridge. Now I was thinking we could have been walking right next to the suspects, or on the same bridge as them while we were walking back."

Gaulke said she had run through the MIT campus the Saturday and Sunday before the marathon. She and her mom had stopped at the same 7/11 convenience store the suspects tried to rob before last Thursday's shootout with police.

"Hearing those details really freaked me out, knowing we were that close to them," she said. "I keep telling myself that we definitely were being watched over with all these close calls that we had. God truly was with me and my family."

Gaulke said she was having the time of her life at her first Boston Marathon before the bombings.

"I was just taking everything in, thinking, I'm here! I'm doing it!," she said.

She said she had never run a race with so many spectators.

"There were entire families giving out water and orange slices and licorice. And I was high-fiving all these little kids and it just made their day. It's Patriots' Day, it's a holiday. Everybody is in a great mood."

Gaulke said seeing her family cheering her on around mile 17 gave her a big boost of confidence. Then she tackled the infamous Heartbreak Hill at around the 20 mile mark and shared fist-bumps with spectators at the top.

"I was at the point where I was thinking, holy crap! I'm feeling good!" she said. "I'm going to finish! How great is this?"

Gaulke made the last turn onto Boylston Street and zoned in on the finish line.

"It was amazing," she said. "The crowd was 10 people deep on each side of the street. I crossed the finish line and did a couple more fist pumps with people, and then things got backed up. Everybody is getting water and Gatorade and those little tin foil blankets. It's shoulder-to shoulder."

Gaulke worked her way through the crowd, picked up her race bag with her personal belongings, and headed for the designated family meeting area.

When I saw my family I started crying and my mom started crying; I was so happy," she said. "We were about two blocks west of the finish line taking pictures when the bombs went off. After that, it's a blur."

Gaulke said she's never felt such a wide range of extreme emotions all in one day.

"I went from feeling so confident and alive to feeling so helpless," she said. "I don't want to say afraid, because whoever did this wants us to feel afraid. Yeah, I finished, but it seems so minor now in the grand scheme of things. I did make my goal, and I'm alive and my family is alive, and I'm thankful for that. But my heart goes out to all the others."

Gaulke said she is grateful for the support she and her family have received from the River Falls community since the bombings, but admitted the experience has changed her.

"The support has definitely helped," she said. "Talking to everybody and seeing so many people text and call and say, 'we're praying for you, we're thinking of you,' has been wonderful. In a small community like this, you can feel when people come together. But it was weird coming back to reality. Coming back to a quiet little community after what happened in Boston. It's surreal. I feel like a different person. I feel like I've gotten older."

As soon as she learned she had qualified, Gaulke, who has been a runner since middle school, started a journal chronicling her experiences leading up to her first Boston Marathon. She shared her final entry, written earlier this week:

In the meantime, I know that the runners and spectators will not stop. They will press on and come together stronger than before. There is already talk about how the 118th Boston Marathon will be bigger and better than ever before. I plan on being there. I won't let these events hold me back.

So cherish today and maybe, just maybe, go on a run or walk for those who couldn't finish, those who may not be able to walk again, those who are injured or lost their loved ones. I know there will be more tears shed and emotions to deal with, for me and for all others who were affected. In the meantime I will turn to what I always turn to. Running. Running for hope. Running for resilience. Running for strength. Running to improve myself. Running to improve others. Running forever for Boston.

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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