As the sun shone on a crisp spring New England morning, over 23,000 runners stretched their legs, fraternized with their friends and competitors and mentally prepared themselves for the biggest sporting event in New England. The Boston Marathon is the oldest marathon in the country and one of the world’s six great marathons. It has been held on Patriots Day, the third Monday of April, and a civic holiday in Massachusetts since 1897. The city of Boston becomes a city of spectators on “Marathon Monday” as it is sometimes called, and when the early Red Sox game at Fenway Park lets out, an estimated 500,000 people swell the streets to cheer for the runners.
The prestige of being one of those runners that the crowd has flocked to support coupled with the lauded history of the event makes the marathon an ambitious goal. Take into account the arduous times one needs to run to qualify and there emerges the perfect civic sporting event; a celebration of a city and a race that is watched by the world. That is why it was so devastating when two bombs went off at the finish line, killing three and injuring 264 people at the time of this writing.
For Jeff Breese, a Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor at Flores Wealth Management and Raymond James in Chandler, Ariz., this year’s marathon was a culmination of many things and a homecoming of sorts. Breese grew up in Attleboro, Mass., about 40 miles south of Boston. He attended Boston University, graduating in 1999. During his senior year of college, Breese ran the race as a “bandit,” someone who jumps in without a number at the beginning of the race. He did not finish, coming up short after reaching “Heartbreak Hill” because he “did not take the race seriously enough or prepare properly.” This year was to be his redemption race and he trained to complete it.
But it was not just proving to himself that he could finish what he started back in college; Breese was running with another purpose. He had recently lost a classmate from Boston University to cancer at the young age of 35. He, along with three classmates decided to put together a team and see if they could secure a spot on the Elite Athlete Team sponsored by John Hancock. Hancock, the U.S. unit of Toronto-based Manulife Financial is not just Breese’s former employer (where he worked for four-and-a-half years until leaving in 2009), but is also a mainstay corporate sponsor, in its 28 year of landmark sponsorship for the marathon. Immediately after the bombing, John Hancock donated one million dollars to the onefundboston.org, a charity set-up by Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.
The system to make the Elite Athlete Team is based on a lottery. Being part of team means that you don’t have to qualify, which Breese was happy about because although he stays in good shape, he was not sure if he could make time. Breese and his teammates were not picked in the first lottery system but he got an email around Christmas saying that they were picked in the second round. The three would run for their lost classmate, and they went on to collect nearly $17,000 dollars for the American Cancer Society.
Breese had made it 25.5 miles into the 26 mile and 385 yard race before he was stopped “by thousands of runners standing in the middle of Commonwealth Avenue.” Bombs had already gone off, but he did not hear anything. This could be attributed to the fact that he had his headphones in while he was running, and after running 25.5 miles, one can get a runner’s high that results in a kind of tunnel vision. Breese was initially perplexed as to why runners in front of him were stopped, standing around in the street. He was running for a deceased friend, for cancer research, and for himself and his cheering wife, who was in the crowd. He had made it so far, he could almost taste the culminating moment of all of this hard work: Crossing the finish line.
“Get out the way!” Breese is ashamed to say he yelled at the halted runners before finding out what had happened. “It was not even in my realm of possibility to think that something could have gone wrong. What I thought was that there were a lot of people standing around waiting to help competitors who could not muster the energy to finish the final leg of the race.”
The next thing Breese knew, one of his teammates who had been running well ahead of him was walking back towards him, telling him: “It’s over, it’s over, bombs at the finish line.” What Breese did not realize through his fatigue and shock was that bombs had actually been detonated. “I thought, oh, OK. Somebody must have called in a threat or they found what they thought was a bomb and they are evacuating and this is all just precautionary so that no one gets hurt.”
He was quickly told that bombs had actually gone off. Later, he learned that his wife and his brother were in the John Hancock bleacher seats less than one hundred feet from where the first bomb had gone off. “Through the wonders of modern technology,” Breese was able to confirm, by a chain of friends, that his wife and brother were safe. Breese was relieved, but started to think that the last place he wanted to be was standing in a crowd of a couple thousand people, buttressed by three- and four-story brownstones, with bombs going off. With the finish line still very much in sight, he cut off through some back roads that led him back to his friend’s apartment, where he met everyone.
What he found out, when the group was gathered and safe, was that three other classmates and the brother of the deceased classmate they were running for were standing at The Atlantic Fish Co., a landmark Boston restaurant that was directly next to where the second bomb went off. One of his friends was blown into a glass door and another was blown into another area of the restaurant. Safe but still in shock at his friend’s apartment, anecdotes began to be shared as the horror and severity of the situation set in. Breese realized that his wife and his friends who were standing at the finish line witnessed scenes of carnage, including people with limbs missing, right in front of them, and SWAT teams going by. “What they told me seemed like something out of a movie,” he said.
Breese is in the business of helping people prepare for the unexpected. “We consider ourselves wealth managers and although you may walk into our office thinking that you are picking someone to check your risk tolerance and build you a portfolio, what we pride ourselves on — and this is sometimes difficult to get people to latch onto — is preparing people for the things that they have no idea are going to happen.”
With his two young children back home in Arizona, it is hard not to imagine that after going through something like the Boston Marathon bombing he may have a little sharper perspective to share with his clients.
“You don’t know what you don’t know, and our job is to expose the risks that you have to your personal wealth, your well-being, your family and your legacy and although that is not always tangible, this incident will now become a concrete reminder for me as well as an example that I can go back and tell clients, ‘You have no idea what is going to happen when you wake up in the morning.’’’
Breese was also reminded by the fact that with over 200 people injured, and only three deaths, the skills of our doctors and the dexterity with which our first responders can access the wounded, disability coverage is a product more people need to seriously consider purchasing. “People really have no problem understanding that they need life insurance, but what people have a hard time grasping is that if you are seriously injured (like many of those in the marathon) that turns off that money machine and people need coverage for that,” Breese said.
“This whole incident has really cemented in my mind the importance of the disability conversation that I have with clients,” Breese said. “Before the marathon, I was aware of the importance of the disability insurance conversation, but I have never had an event where I could convey how crucial it is to explain why one should purchase a product like what I went through with the marathon.”
Breese will go back to work with an acute awareness of the importance of what he does for a living, and with a medal for finishing the marathon. Even though he was stopped painfully close to the finish line, Breese will finish his race with a fresh perspective on the fragility of life, a thankful heart and the knowledge that he ran with a purpose.