BRISTOL - From the final turn at Hereford and Boylston Streets on the route of the Boston Marathon runners can see the finish line, said Bristol native and New Britain Police Chief James Wardwell.
He should know. Competing in his 21st Boston Marathon in 2013, Wardwell crossed that finish line about an hour before the bombings that killed three and injured hundreds in Copley Square.
Monday, as he competes in his 25th Boston marathon, he will again engage in what has become a ritual as he rounds the last corner.
“That finish line is forever changed,” the 55-year-old experienced marathon runner said. “I don’t think I can run down Boylston Street again without saying a prayer for those poor people. You can’t let evil beat us. I’ve run toward a lot of finish lines, but there’s no finish line like the Boston Marathon finish line.”
Wardwell ran his first Boston Marathon in 1990 at the age of 28. The year before, he had run in an East Lyme, Connecticut, marathon - his first - in the hopes of securing a time that would guarantee a qualifying spot in Boston.
“It was my first marathon,” the Bristol native said of the East Lyme event. “I had to finish in under three hours to qualify for Boston. I finished in three hours and one minute. I didn’t know how to run the race. It’s not like running two half-marathons.”
Undeterred and with a better idea of how to pace himself for the long haul, Wardwell signed up for a Newport, Rhode Island, marathon set to take place four weeks later. “I had about 15 minutes sleep the night before because I already understood how much it was going to hurt,” he admitted with a laugh.
He completed the race in two hours and 57 minutes, qualifying him for Boston, a dream he had embraced since his days with the St. Paul High School Track and Cross Country team in Bristol.
“He was a great, hardworking athlete,” said his high school coach Dr. Steve Wysowski. “He was always a role model. Jim was obviously a great leader even then. He’d never balk at a difficult workout. If I told the team to do a mile long hill, he’d do it and get everybody in line to do it as well.”
Wardwell ran the long distances in high school, two and three mile races, as part of a championship team. He stood out because of his leadership qualities and work ethic, Wysowski said. “I still remember when he ran his first Boston Marathon (in 1990),” his former coach said. “Looking back, I’m not surprised he’s running his 25th Boston Marathon. He’s a very dedicated and focused individual.”
Wardwell has run more than 80 marathons since 1990. But the 26 miles into Boston each April still holds a special place in his heart. He’s only missed four Boston Marathons in the past 29 years.
One year, in 1994, he was at the state police academy after being newly hired as a New Britain police officer. In 1997, he was told by police department command staff that he was chosen to attend specialized training in how to investigate crimes against children.
“They called me into the office and told me the dates,” recalled Wardwell who went on to win an international award for his work recovering evidence of the sexual molestation of three children from a CD that had been erased by the perpetrator.
“I knew I was signed up for the Boston Marathon, but I kept my mouth shut,” he said. “I didn’t run, and I think the training wound up changing my career.”
In 2011 he had run the race, taken the bus with the Hartford Track Club back to Connecticut, and studied for classes in the Masters Degree program he was in before deciding to go to bed. Seconds after his head hit the pillow, he was called to the scene of a murder. He investigated the entire night into the morning before he went home and slept.
He missed the marathon in 2012 after spending the entire night before also investigating a murder. Because it was an inordinately warm day, he was able to take a heat deferment to retain his spot in the 2013 marathon.
He had crossed the finish line of the 2013 race in three hours, 14 minutes and one second, and went to the hotel room rented by the Hartford Track Club to shower. He was making his way back to Copley Square in search of his annual post-race tradition, a Sam Adams beer, when he heard what sounded like two explosions.
“It didn’t sound right,” he said. “I heard it reverberate, I knew something wasn’t right. I think 80 percent of people didn’t realize what was going on.”
Cell phone lines immediately jammed, making it impossible to reach his brother Gerry who works for a Boston area news outlet. “I left the message, hey news guy, something’s wrong, tell me what’s going on,” Wardwell recalled. “He didn’t get the call until two days later.”
It wasn’t until he went back to the hotel room and turned on the television that he learned that the bombings had occurred at about the finish line as thousands were racing and watching.
“What those brothers did that day was nothing but evil and hatred,” he said. Police quickly determined that the bombings near the finish line at Copley Square had been carried out by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and his younger brother Dzhokhar, Chechen nationals who had become radicalized.
In the days after the race, Wardwell questioned whether he’d ever run the Boston Marathon again. By week’s end, however, he had already made the decision that he would be back for 2014. “We can’t let them beat us,” he said. “2014 had record crowds.”
The only other year he missed was 2017 when he had to be in Houston, Texas, as part of his responsibilities as the President of the American Association of Police Polygraphists.
He’s been training hard in recent months with one hour runs before work and two to three hour runs on weekends. He travels through many parts of the city as he trains, through Walnut Hill Park, past the police department on Chestnut Street, through Putnam Street and the North Oak neighborhood.
“I don’t ever run for the best times, I never take it easy though, I understand I am 55 years old,” he said. “I will run as best I can on any given day, on any given course. What I care about is that I do my best on any given day.”
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@centralctcommunications.com.