Chantal Desgagne runs her first Boston Marathon

A spectator last year, the native French speaker from Vineyard Haven won a coveted spot in the field by entering an essay contest.

Marylee Schroeder (left) and Chantal Desgagne were all smiles after completing the Boston Marathon on Monday. Ms. Desgagne finished the race in 4:28:04. Ms. Schroeder finished in 3:46:01. — Photo courtesy of Chantal Desgag

Chantal Desgagne of Vineyard Haven was a spectator at last year’s Boston Marathon. She watched the race at the finish line, taking pictures of the exhausted, elated runners, and resolving to be one of them in 2014. “The Boston Marathon is a big deal to me,” she said in a Béarnaise-thick French accent. “I always watched the race before on TV, but this was my first time seeing it in person. I was very excited to be there.”

Like everyone around her, Ms. Desgagne was unaware that two men with backpacks were about to unleash unthinkable carnage. Fortunately, she and her friend decided to leave the finish line shortly before the bombs went off.

“We left the finish line about 20 minutes before. We were a few blocks away when the explosions went off,” she told The Times in a telephone conversation Friday. “We had no idea what was happening. We watched a TV in a store window. A friend who I was supposed to meet called me and said she heard there might be a bomb at the [Boston Public] library. No one knew what was going on.”

Ms. Desgagne eventually took refuge at South Station and watched events unfold on TV.

“My brother texted me and said to call my mom because she was worried. I never even told her I was going to Boston,” Ms. Desgagne said. “Somehow she just knew.”

Ms. Desgagne never met up with her friends in the ensuing chaos. She wasn’t able to leave a locked down Boston until 5 am the next morning. “It was supposed to be a fun day, but it turned out to be a nightmare,” she said.

BAA essay
In a propitious twist of fate, Ms. Desgagne’s firsthand experience of last year’s tragedy ultimately enabled her to qualify for this year’s marathon. Last November, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) announced that potential contestants could be awarded the coveted bib by writing in a 250-word essay about how they were “personally and profoundly impacted” by the attacks on April 15.

“My friend Kim O’ Callaghan sent me the link to enter an essay contest the BAA was having,” she said. “My English isn’t very good, it’s my second language, but I figured ‘why not?’” she said.

Ms. Desgagne was born in Quebec City, Canada, and moved to the Island about 20 years ago.

In the end 1,199 would-be runners submitted essays. The special bibs were awarded to 467 of them. Ms. Desgagne was shocked when she learned that she was one of them.

“I wrote about that day and how lucky I felt and how I felt for all the people who were at the finish line,” she said. “It makes you see life a little differently after seeing something like that. I’m not the best writer, but they must have seen something they liked. I had pretty much forgot about it. I was signing up for the Nashville Marathon on a Sunday night and the next morning I got an email that I was in the Boston Marathon. I couldn’t believe it. I feel very blessed.”

Island ally
Ms. Desgagne is a relative newcomer to marathon racing. Her first organized race was the seven-mile Falmouth Road Race.

“After I ran that, I knew I could run a marathon,” she said.

Last year she ran in the Plymouth and Washington, D.C., marathons, as well as the New Bedford half-marathon and the Vineyard 20-miler, which she said was by far the most difficult trek of the year. “That was hell,” she said, recalling the harsh winter conditions under which the race was run.

“Marylee told me to do it, so I did it,” she said, referring to fellow Island marathoner Marylee Schroeder of West Tisbury, who has been mentoring her over the past several months. “I do whatever Marylee tells me to do. She really took me under her wing. I have learned so much from her.”

Some mornings they made repeated treks up the long hill on Skiff Lane. “That place is loaded with wild turkeys, sometimes they come after at you,” Ms. Desgagne said, laughing.

“The hills of Vineyard Haven are the hardest for me. East Chop is one of my favorites,” she said. “I love running on the Island. It’s such a beautiful place. We’re very lucky to live here.”

Ms. Schroeder also invited Ms. Desgagne to take part in her long-standing tradition of picking up her number in Boston the Saturday before the race. Before leaving the Island, Ms. Desgagne went to the Dumptique at the West Tisbury transfer station for warm up clothes that she will leave at the starting line, and will subsequently be given to charity.

“I feel totally prepared for this race,” she said. “I’ve trained more for this than any marathon I’ve done. I’d like to break four hours, but I’m just going to enjoy the experience.”

On Monday, Ms. Desgagne finished the race in 4:25:46. Ms. Schroeder finished in 3:44:47.

[This story was updated on April 22 at 9:30 am to reflect updated finishing times.]

Heartfelt essay in any language

“Bonjour! I happened to be at finish line and had just moved to another location 2 streets down from the finish line. I was looking for my friend that had finished the marathon in 3:26 minutes. Then the big blast. A few minutes before was happiness in people’s faces. I am a runner myself and did not know how to take it all. My mom called me from Quebec, my home town. I never told her I was in Boston but she some how know inside of her. I told her was okay but I was terribly afraid. I was also very relieved that my friends were okay. I had to get up early in am to get a ferry to go back to my husband on Martha’s Vineyard. I never been so afraid to die in my life. I still don’t understand why it had to happen. Lots of my friends will be running and will like to be part of a special event. Excuse my English since french is my first language. I ran the Washington, D.C., marathon and raised funds for Semper Fi. It had more meaning to me now then ever. I also lost a friend to brain cancer. Will like to run for her and show how Boston is a great city. My hearts goes to all people injured. Merci Beaucoup, Chantal Desgagne crossing my fingers to get in!!!!!”