Institute News Spring 2017 Issue 41

Graduate Student Runs Boston Marathon in Memory of Bombing Victim

Rachel Romeo, a graduate student in John Gabrieli's lab, ran the 2017 Boston Marathon in memory of bombing victim Martin Richard.
Rachel Romeo, a graduate student in John Gabrieli's lab, ran the 2017 Boston Marathon in memory of bombing victim Martin Richard.

Rachel Romeo is hard to miss. A graduate student in John Gabrieli’s lab studying language development in children, Romeo spends most of her time in the Martinos Imaging Center scanning the brains of young kids. These days, however, she can be found hobbling around the McGovern Institute on crutches and sporting a rainbow-colored hairdo — relics of her experience running the 2017 Boston Marathon in memory of a young boy named Martin Richard.

Romeo ran the 2017 Boston Marathon in memory of Martin Richard, an 8-year-old boy who died during the 2013 marathon bombing, and who had been a research participant in one of Romeo’s studies. Photo: Martin Richard Foundation

Romeo ran the 2017 Boston Marathon in memory of Martin Richard, an 8-year-old boy who died during the 2013 marathon bombing, and who had been a research participant in one of Romeo’s studies. Photo: Martin Richard Foundation

In 2012, Martin and his classmates participated in one of Romeo’s studies on reading and language development. One year later, the 8-year-old boy was among three people killed when two bombs exploded near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon.

“I immediately felt an immense connection to him,” Romeo says. “I have kept a piece of paper with his handwritten name on the bulletin board above my desk. It reminds me that we never know when life will end, so we had better be proud of what we’ve done, said and accomplished every single day.”

The boy’s family later established the Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation Inc., a charity that invests in education, athletics and community-building. Romeo decided to raise money for the foundation by running the 2017 Boston Marathon with Team MR8, the official running team of the Martin Richard Foundation. Running a marathon is difficult even for elite runners, but for Romeo, a self-described “non-athlete,” it would be the challenge of a lifetime.

Staying the Course

In December 2016, Romeo bought a new pair of running shoes and began training for the marathon. While working full-time on her PhD thesis in the Gabrieli lab, she gradually increased her mileage by running long stretches of the marathon route on the weekends. In a fundraising twist, she dyed her hair a different color every month — electric blue, hot pink, emerald green — based on requests from her supporters. Despite injuries, snowstorms and other setbacks, Romeo reached her training goals and, by April, when she lined up for the Boston Marathon with bright rainbow-colored hair, she had only one goal left: to finish the race.

Romeo with the Richard family at the finish line of the 2017 Boston Marathon. Photo: Rachel Romeo

Romeo with the Richard family at the finish line of the 2017 Boston Marathon. Photo: Rachel Romeo

Six miles into the historic 26.2-mile race, however, Romeo slipped on a water bottle and fractured her foot. She had a choice: continue or seek medical assistance. Despite the pain, she kept running.

“Every step hurt,” Romeo says, “but I just looked at the picture of Martin I was carrying in my hand and I knew that I couldn’t give up.”

Romeo finished the race, raising more than $11,000 for the Martin Richard Foundation in the process. Although she will be on crutches for several weeks while her foot recovers, Romeo continues to pursue her research with the same tenacity that she showed on the marathon course, dividing her time between her PhD dissertation and studying for her license in speech language pathology. She also plans to return to running as soon as possible. “I do think I’ve caught the marathon bug,” she says. “I hope to run another in the not too distant future.”

Article and photos printed with permission from the Richard family.

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