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A Boston Marathon bombing survivor who won't stop running


Dozens of people who will step up to the starting line at Monday's Boston Marathon are survivors of the bombing that took place 10 years ago today. Many who experienced trauma that day find healing not just in running, but in running Boston again. GBH's Mark Herz reports.

MARK HERZ, BYLINE: With days left to go before the marathon, 33-year-old bombing survivor Robert Wheeler is at the start of a 13-mile training run along the Charles River. He says running keeps his stress down.

ROBERT WHEELER: But on a more deeper emotional level, it just allows - the repetitive steps, repetitive motion, and while at the same time exerting yourself allows you just to filter through and process things.

HERZ: Wheeler was a 23-year-old first-time marathon competitor in 2013. He crossed the finish line. Then the blasts happened. Kneeling in broken glass, he took off his shirt to tourniquet a fellow survivor's leg. He's scarred by that day emotionally, and he's also suffered through some hearing loss and traumatic brain injury from proximity to the explosions. Athletes, as he puts it, have a fire inside them. And he says often, those with trauma have a little more.

WHEELER: You can use that fire to burn down the house, or you can use that fire to feed your soul and build yourself up. And getting out there for me, doing the run helps me accept things that really aren't acceptable.

SHAMAILA KHAN: When you're running, your emotions, your physical body are all aligned.

WHEELER: Shamaila Khan is a psychologist who specializes in trauma at Boston Medical Center. She treated many of the Boston Marathon bombing survivors for years.

KHAN: It's a good way of expressing and letting out your emotions without using words. So it's common for people to engage in physical activities to work through challenges that may be emotional in nature, psychological in nature.

HERZ: Khan says in general, running can increase levels of certain brain chemicals that boost a person's ability to handle stress and improve their mood. She says one of the hallmarks of trauma is avoiding emotions, even becoming emotionally numb. And she says it's likely that a decade of continuing to run, including even returning to the Boston finish line where the bombings happened, has helped some survivors. Audrey Reny was at the finish line that day.

AUDREY RENY: We've always loved to run. It's always been a positive in our life, so there was no reason to give it up.

HERZ: Reny was with her husband, Steve, and younger daughter Gillian, waiting to see her older daughter complete her race when the bombs went off. Gillian nearly lost her legs. But after a long recovery, she can join her parents for a run. The Renys started a nonprofit in conjunction with Brigham and Women's Hospital, where Gillian was treated. For Audrey Reny, the memories are still intense, but raising money for trauma research has helped.

RENY: For our family, it was a way for us to start to move forward into what now, 10 years later, is a decade of progress and hopefulness.

HERZ: On Monday, Audrey Reny's husband and older daughter, Danielle, will run the race together. Robert Wheeler says running another Boston Marathon will mean facing some of the things that still haunt him.

WHEELER: There's that last mile or two. It's always emotional. I'm always lost inside my own head, a million memories kind of rubbing against you. But at the same time, when you finish that, it's freeing.

HERZ: Wheeler says running the Boston Marathon contributes to a feeling of purpose for him and that he believes a man with purpose can do unbelievable things. For NPR News, I'm Mark Herz in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.